Caribbean Cruise – San Juan, Puerto Rico

Our next port of call, on Boxing Day, was San Juan, the capital city of Puerto Rico.  Our ship was one of several cruise ships in port that day so the place was bustling with tourists.  It was quite funny to see these absolutely massive boats moored up next to a replica of one of Columbus’ ships.  Incidentally, it felt like I was being haunted by the malevolent spirit of Christopher Columbus for the entire vacation.  References to him abounded everywhere we went.  For so many reasons, it would be great if history could reframe his “discovery” of the Americas by placing it in a more appropriate and accurate context.  But I digress …

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We were disgorged from the ship in the old city which was convenient as that was the area of San Juan we most wanted to see.  We immediately headed up to Castillo de San Cristóbal, hoping that it might be open despite the government shutdown.  For once, we were in luck, thanks to the wonderful employees of the National Parks System who were willing to work without pay in order to keep historic sites open to the public.  One of three forts on Puerto Rico, this particular fort is the largest that the Spanish built in the New World.  It was in continuous use from Spanish colonial times all the way through to World War Two so has a long and varied history.

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Mr Pict likes military history more than I do so he and his father took more time reading the information boards while the kids and I enjoyed exploring the fascinating architecture, poking around in all the nooks and crannies, and taking in the amazing views across the city.  I had read that Puerto Rico has more iguanas than humans so the younger two boys had their fingers crossed for an iguana encounter.  Thankfully we did indeed meet an iguana who was not too skittish and allowed us to get up close.  Our 9 year old decided its name was Tim.  No idea why.

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After we left the fort, we had a wander through the streets of old San Juan.  I loved all of the architectural details, the diversity of building styles, and the bold colours.  We strolled some streets that retained their blue cobblestones from Spanish colonial times.  I was really quite taken with San Juan and – since the cruise could only ever give us a brief taster of each location – I found myself being left thirsty for more.  Of all the places we visited on our vacation, I am most eager to return to Puerto Rico and take in more of not just San Juan but the whole island.

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Ambling in Annapolis

For reasons too tedious to explain but involving leave entitlement, ceaseless winter storms, and rolling rescheduling, Mr Pict and I found ourselves spending a weekend driving to and from Washington DC.  My in-laws had flown in from England and met us there in order to then take our four children on a Spring break vacation.  Mr Pict and I, therefore, found ourselves unexpectedly child-free in Washington DC.

We spent the evening catching up with friends over dinner and wine.  Before I earned that grown up treat, however, I had to trail my husband around some Civil War sites he had never visited.  As I have previously explained, my husband spent his early teens living in the suburbs of DC.  How he managed to live there for years plus have us return from the UK to visit his parents several times without ever visiting these sites is beyond me.  However, as a Civil War nerd, it is on his bucket list to visit just about every obscure Civil War site in the nation so I was happy to indulge him and his bucket list collecting.

First up was Fort Stevens.  I don’t know why I made any sort of assumptions but I had expected the site to be a little more grand or at least cared for than it clearly was.  Instead, what I found were some mounds of earth on a patch of scrappy grass in the middle of a residential neighbourhood, a couple of canons surrounded by litter and broken glass, and the noise of a construction site that abutted the remains of the fort.  Fort Stevens’ significance rests in the fact that it was the site of the only Civil War battle to take place within the limits of the nation’s capital and it was the only time when a serving President came under enemy fire.  The history is that, in July 1864, Jubal Early’s Confederate troops decided to march on the capital following a battle in nearby Frederick.  They encountered Fort Stevens – one of a series of forts protecting the city – and there was a brief battle that repelled the Confederate soldiers.  Lincoln and his wife visited the fort and witnessed the battle, hence his coming under fire.  A rock with a bronze plaque marks the spot where Lincoln stood on the earthworks.

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I was underwhelmed by Fort Stevens but the next stop on the itinerary was a little more my cup of tea in that it was a cemetery.  Battleground Cemetery contains the graves of the 40 soldiers who died in the defence of Fort Stevens and others who fought there – the last to be interred being buried there as recently as 1936.  Again there was a Lincoln connection since Abe attended the burial cemetery and dedicated the land, which makes it one of America’s smallest national cemeteries.  It was indeed a modest cemetery.  There were a few regimental memorials within its walls but the graves themselves were very small and simple and arranged in a circle.  It was well-maintained and a tiny pocket of peace and quiet despite being within a major city.

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The following day we decided to stop off in Annapolis as we wended our way back to the Philly suburbs.  Being a bitterly cold Sunday in March, there was not an awful lot for us to do but wander around and absorb the charm of Annapolis’ historic district.  To give our pit stop a little more focus, we decided to visit the Maryland State House.  Occupied since the 1770s, it is the oldest state capitol in continuous use and once served as the nation’s capitol.

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I started out my visit there by stopping by the statue of Thurgood Marshall.  It depicts Marshall as a young lawyer at the start of his career and behind him are pillars reading “Equal Justice Under Law”.  The sculpture also contains three other related statues: one of Donald Gaines Murray, whose case was one of Marshall’s early victories in the fight to desegregate schools, and two children who symbolise Brown V the Board of Education.  It used to be the case that a statue of Roger Taney stood on the grounds but his statue was removed last year.  I personally was glad to see Marshall celebrated at the State House and to see Taney’s absence.

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Once inside, we explored the various rooms on a self-guided tour. We had the whole place virtually to ourselves so it was very relaxing and informal.  We had a peek into the current Senate and House chambers.  Mr Pict enjoyed seeing the voting buttons on each desk whereas I was enamoured of the Tiffany skylights.  The Caucus room was very dark but was filled with gleaming silverware.  This was a service from the USS Maryland which is designed with lots of references and symbols relating to the state.  I like things that are shiny but the silverware was all a bit fussy for my taste.  I wouldn’t want to keep it polished either.  Just as well I will never own a silver service set then!  Probably the most historically significant room in the State House is the Old Senate Chamber.  It was in this space, in December 1783, that George Washington resigned his commission as Commander of the Continental Army thus establishing an important precedent for America’s democracy.

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Back out on the cold streets, we wandered around and poked our noses into the odd shop.  We spent a lot of time rummaging in a very cluttered, very musty, but entirely wonderful book shop.  We then wandered down to the Dock area.  There I found the statue commemorating Alex Haley, author of Roots, and Kunta Kinte, the fictionalised African ancestor of Haley’s that is the starting point of his saga.  We sat there and people- and duck-watched for a bit before walking back through the old streets and back to the car.

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This was my first visit to Annapolis since I first visited in 1995 and I had forgotten how quaint and attractive it is.  At some point we will have to return with the kids, in warmer temperatures, and when there is more to do.

Fort McHenry

While our oldest two sons were still gallivanting in central America with their grandparents, Mr Pict and I decided to take the younger two on a weekend trip to Baltimore.  It takes less time to drive to Baltimore than it used to take us to drive to Glasgow from where we lived in Scotland and that was a journey we used to make just to buy shoes.  Despite its relative proximity, however, we had only visited Baltimore once since we emigrated to America.  It was, therefore, time to go and explore the city a bit more.

First stop was Fort McHenry.  Even if you don’t know much about the War of 1812 (like me!) you will likely know of Fort McHenry through association because it was the defence of that fort that inspired Francis Scott Key to write the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, the rousing song that would later become the national anthem.  Fort McHenry is positioned on Baltimore’s harbour since it was that waterway it was built to protect and it is in the shape of a five pointed star to maximise the vantage points for each bastion.  Built at the close of the 18th Century, the Fort was in constant use by America’s military from then until the end of the First World War.  It is, therefore, a very historic place of national significance.  Want to hazard a guess how thrilled our 8 and 10 year olds were to be there absorbing all of that history?  See if you can spot the point at which they disengaged.

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After an introduction in the Visitor Center and the youngest Pictling signing up to do the junior ranger activities, we headed out into the swampy humidity to tour the fort.  There were reenactors demonstrating something about firing cannons and cooking at the fort but the kids had no interest in engaging with any of that so we didn’t pause.  Once inside the thick walls, we found that some young men were demonstrating different drum signals that were used to signal different messages.  I think there might have been one rhythm that was beat out on the drum skin to signal whose turn it was to peel potatoes.  But I may also have just imagined that because I wasn’t paying adequate attention.

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We not only saw a reproduction flag flying above the fort but also saw the original wooden cross brace from the famous defence.  It had been preserved as if it was a religious relic.  I confess that I don’t particularly understand America’s near worship of its flag but, of course, this flag has much more historic significance than most.  It was, therefore, pretty cool to see the crumbly old wood.  The defence of the Fort took place over the 13th and 14th of September and it didn’t really end in a victory for either side.  It was more a withdrawal by the British naval vessels because the great defence of the fort had depleted all of their ammo.  If memory serves, the whole War of 1812 similarly concluded because everyone just sort of gave up and decided to pack it in.  Anyway, the flag that was flying during that 25 hour period of conflict had been sewn by Mary Pickersgill and it was seeing the flag emerge through the smoke the next day that told all the onlookers – including Francis Scott Key – that America had prevailed and still held the Fort.  So that it what the national anthem is all about.  We had taken the boys to see the original Star Spangled Banner way back in 2014 so we were gradually piecing together its history in a scattershot way.

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As a Civil War nerd, Mr Pict was much more keen on the Fort’s history from the Civil War era.  During that conflict, the fort had been used as a military prison and some prominent prisoners had been held there.  One building told the story of that period of history and we were able to step inside one of the very pokey jail cells.

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It was a sticky hot day and the kids and I are not much into military history so we didn’t look at every single space or exhibit in detail.  We walked around the ramparts and took in the views and we pottered around in the various barrack buildings.  Each building exhibited a period of the fort’s history, including its use in the First World War as a military hospital and its use in the Second World War as a coastguard base.  There was a room filled with barrels to show what the gunpowder stores would have looked like and there was a collection of cannon outside one building.

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The boys had had more than enough of visiting the fort, especially because it was so similar to Fort Mifflin, so we decided to depart before they spontaneously combusted in a combination of frustration and heat.  They soon cheered up on the walk back to the car, however, since they found dozens of shed cicada skins stuck to the bark of trees.

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