After leaving the Castillo, I began exploring the streets of a city which had come alive. Already, the wide sea-front avenue and the narrow alleys of the ‘old town’ proper were filled with the smell of food, from grilled fish to gelato. Buskers were beginning to claim their respective spots, and I made my first donation to a man doing an acoustic version of “Turn the Page” by Bob Seger. The other major building I wanted to see in the town was the Basilica of St. Augustine, and so I made my way blindly, moving forward only at glimpses of the spires.
The basilica doors were closed for a funeral, so I milled around the plaza for a bit. After escaping a confrontational man in his cups who claimed to be a tour guide who could get me onto an island ordinarily restricted to federal employees (what, Rikers?), I admired the general scenery until the sound of bagpipes drew my attention. What proved to be a funeral service at the basilica had ended.
After waiting twenty minutes or so for the bereaved to leave and the doors to be reopened to the public, I entered the basilica very quietly and sat in a chapel for a moment to gauge the situation. If nothing else, I could sit and soak in the atmosphere. More tourists came in behind me, and they weren’t shy about roaming around taking photos, so I took a few of my own and beat a respectful retreat.
Although I would spend over twelve hours downtown the first day — strolling, sitting, cruising — the day’s biggest surprise came early, around noon, when I laid eyes on Flagler College.
Established as the Ponce de Leon, a luxury hotel in a time when people wintered in St. Augustine, Flagler College now bears the name of its architect, Henry Flagler. This man also contributed several other buildings to downtown St. Augustine, but he wasn’t just a local architect. He helped found Standard Oil and developed one of the first major railways in Florida. By the time I finished touring the gallery and dining hall of the college, I was completely awed by the man.
Even an unpracticed eye like mine couldn’t help but notice the overwhelming amount of detail. The Ponce de Leon rvivaled even the two basilicas I’ve been in for architectural grandeur. Even the water tower was a visual feast. To the learned eye, there were even more surprises.
For instance, this fountain? Not just a fountain. It’s the central point of a cruciform courtyard, but also presents an image of sword stuck planted in the ground — a sword of triumph and conquest. It’s also ringed by twelve frogs, one for each month, and four turtles, one for each season.
The inside is similarly divine. Much of the interior is painted in gold leaf, and replete with mythic imagery. The gallery floor is a mosaic with minute imperfections that were sewn in intentionally, so as not to rival Creation in their perfection. And the dining hall — Dios mío! Decorated with colorful panels memorializing Spain’s empire, it was lit brilliantly by sun and chandlier. My camera didn’t do justice to the amount of golden light in the room. It was awe-some in the truer, older sense of the word.