When a singer-songwriter daughter of mine some years ago wanted to leave a big city for a smaller one, I right away proposed St. Augustine. Magda, who had played the city before, thought it might excite her creativity. St. Augustine is nothing if not magical.
Those of us familiar with this earliest permanent European settlement in North America keep coming back as if we were history itself: as if the spirit of some balcony angled over a narrow street, a turret raised atop a landmark tower or a wall meant to repel intruders from long before America, as a political ideal, arose in the popular imagination.
A Brief History Lesson
Spain founded the city in 1565. Its forts helped defend against hostile powers that preyed on Spanish treasure fleets returning from Peru and Mexico. In defense, Spain between 1672 and 1695 built the Castillo de San Marcos. Its distinctive omni-directional bastions successfully helped repel attacks from land and sea.
Formidable as it remains - now a National Monument that interprets St. Augustine as part of American and world history - the fort also reminds us of war's distant echo in the day-to-day city. So strong was war's grip on the town that when St. Augustine became irrelevant to world affairs, time virtually wound down. The architecture of fortification became an aesthetic legacy.
Big history and little history mingle like a grandma passing on life's secrets to a schoolgirl.
Visitors might easily find themselves walking down Avenida Menendez Lane, past the St. Francis Barracks and the Museum of Florida's Military History. Maybe past a stack of cannonballs beside a monument honoring WWI troops and on to the Santo Domingo Redoubt, a recently restored post of logs from the 1730s embedded in the city's defensive wall behind the Visitor Information Center.
Respect Clings to Memories
North of town in the 1720s, Spanish Fort Mosé (now known as Fort Mosé Historic State Park) settled runaway English slaves in the continent's first sanctioned African-American community. But an English assault in 1740 reduced the site to age-old marsh again, today most evocative when clouds shroud the sun and sea fog blurs distant beach dunes. A museum and plaque honor the site's settlers.
Even the formidable Castillo bestows a mixed legacy. Yes, of war, but also by its shapely arches and belvedere towers of having inspired architects of leisure. Ornamental hotels of the 1880s still remain as a college (Flagler College, originally the Ponce de Leon), as two historical museums (Zilla Zorayda Castle, still of the same name, and the Lightner Museum, originally the Alcazar) and, in one case, fully restored again for guests (the luxurious Casa Monica).
The Bridge of Lions, with its own lyrical arches and towers, connects the town with the beaches of Anastasia Island.
At the island's namesake state park the beach is broad and backed by dunes. Morning glory vines be-ribbon the way. Yet even here, on a recent rare windswept day, bastion St. Augustine came to mind. Sand blew in ghostly gray sheets evoking coastal struggles first waged by Spain's defenders almost 450 years ago. For all of a day, everything felt hunkered down before bursting again into sunny renewal.
Ponte Vedra Beach and Anastasia State Park
Laced along an otherwise smooth sandy shore from Ponte Vedra Beach to Summer Haven lie sections of shells by the billions, their fragments compacting with sand and water the way nature formed the regionally distinctive building material called coquina. Spain quarried coquina for its defensive perimeter. Across from the beach, Fort Matanzas was part of that perimeter. Today the small fort stands fully restored 15 miles south of the city, served by free hourly National Park Service ferry. Former quarries remain open to visitors in Anastasia State Park.
The park itself and beach portions of a national estuarine research reserve extend for much of St. Johns County's 42-mile shore. Mid-week, these beaches attract few visitors. Only dune walkovers intrude. Otherwise, the way is wild.
Precisely this juxtaposition of remaining wilderness and the longest continuous European presence in North America also evokes our wonder. No wonder we come back - daughter Magda included, married and a mom now, already with her own daughter in tow.