When the sun has set on downtown St. Augustine, and the lively bars have closed and the streets have cleared and the tourists are settled in their hotel rooms, the Castillo de San Marcos National Monument seems to preside over the night, its dark shadows casting a solemn murk over the waterfront in this vibrant little city.
Perhaps the fort’s air of authority comes from the Castillo’s sheer size. The building’s shell alone is as big as a city block, and its site occupies more than 20 acres along the downtown corridor. At night, the Castillo’s watchtowers are uplit from the moat below, giving the fortress a foreboding appearance.
And that’s why the Castillo is perhaps the most critical stop when visiting St. Augustine. Nowhere else in Florida can you see, feel and comprehend the critical role played by this little city during the years when West European countries battled each other over the Atlantic Coast in the New World.
John Murphy, the chief of interpretation and education for the Castillo and nearby Fort Matanzas National Monument, notes that the National Park Service recently added Spanish-language interpretive boards to its exhibits.
Construction on the Castillo began in 1672, seven years after Spanish sailor Pedro Menendez de Aviles came ashore at the Timucuan village of Seloy and established the Spanish settlement of St. Augustine.
Most people who visit the fort simply walk the fortress with a self-guided tour program provided at the ticket booth. Inside the fort, visitors can investigate the many rooms of the fort’s first level—including a chapel and a single cell used as the city’s first jail—and see a video about the Castillo’s significance.
But the true wonder of this fort can be seen on the second level, where expansive views of St. Augustine, up-close looks at the towers where soldiers once stood guard and cannon demonstrations bring the fort to life.
Re-enactors fire cannons five times daily on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
“For many people, (the cannons) cement why this place was here,” Murphy says.
The Castillo, listed on Florida’s Spanish Colonial Heritage Trail, can claim a number of superlatives. It is the northernmost outpost for Spain’s expansive New World holdings, the best-preserved Spanish colonial fort in the United States and the oldest masonry fort in North America.
The Castillo is the granddaddy of St. Augustine’s forts. But for a complete picture of how the Spanish protected their settlement, consider visiting the sites of two other fortifications in the area.
In 1738, the Spanish governor of Florida offered freedom to runaway slaves from the British colonies who were willing to convert to Catholicism.
Many of the former slaves settled in a community north of the city called Fort Mose (mo-ZAY), making it the first legally sanctioned community of free blacks in what would become the United States.
Fort Mose also had a militariy role. It was St. Augustine’s northern defense against invading British, and saw action against invading troops in the Battle of Bloody Mose in 1740. Today, the site is a Florida state park, and visitors can tour a small museum and roam the grounds of Mose, though no structure remains.
Almost 70 years after construction started on the Castillo, the Spanish decided the fort, which had long protected St. Augustine, needed protection itself. Construction on Fort Matanzas, built at the Matanzas inlet to block the southern approach to St. Augustine, was completed in 1742.
Fort Matanzas is 50 feet on each side with a 30-foot tower—considerably smaller that the Castillo de San Marcos. Its remote location meant soldiers rotated in for 30-day tours of duty. Today, the site remains remote; visitors must take a ferry to the fort’s home on Rattlesnake Island, and boarding passes for the ferry are issued from the downtown Visitor Center on a first-come, first-served basis. The National Park Service charges no fee for the ferry or the fort.
“The Castillo can be busy with just crushes of people,” Murphy says. “What’s neat about Matanzas is that to get there, you have to go on a boat. It has more period-style furnishings than the Castillo, and it’s kind of intimate.”
Another quirky offering at Fort Matanzas: To get the soldiers’ birds-eye view, visitors must climb a ladder to reach the roof. The beach on the island is a popular yet peaceful place to wade and swim; for an authentic picnic to carry along to the island beach, before boarding the ferry make a stop at the Spanish Bakery in downtown St. Augustine for empanadas, picadillo or Spanish cookies.
“And then, on the ocean side,” Murphy says, “we’ve got what I think is the prettiest bit of beach in St. Johns County.”
If you go:
Castillo de San Marcos, 1 S. Castillo Drive, St. Augustine, 904-829-6506, www.nps.gov/casa
Fort Matanzas, www.nps.gov/foma/
Fort Mose, 15 Fort Mose Trail, St. Augustine, 904-823-2232, floridastateparks/org/fortmose/
Spanish Bakery, 42 St. George St., St. Augustine, www.thespanishbakery.com, 904-827-9701