Willemstad, Curacao (2019)
On March 21 we stopped in Willemstad, the capital and largest city in Curacao, an independent nation within the Dutch monarchy (sounds something like the British Commonwealth) that was formerly part of the Dutch Antilles (of which Willemstad was the capital). Curacao has a population of about 130,000.
Willemstad is a particularly nice city to explore on foot, in fact its urban center is a UNESCO world heritage site, so that is what we did. We had done that as well the first time we were here, in 2014:
But this had been a long and eventful voyage and we were really tired of bus trips, so we spent our day enjoying this city again. The ship was docked at what is called the Megaport which is a fairly short walk from the center of town.
Willemstad is divided in two by an inlet called Sint Anna Bay. The island was inhabited by a tribe of Arawaks when the Spanish first sighted it in 1499. Deporting the entire local population to Hispaniola as slaves, they established the first settlement at what is now Willemstad in the 16th century, but the Dutch West India Company took it over in 1634 to use as a naval base. The original settlement is on one side of the bay in a district called Punda (“The Point” in the local Papiamentu language), while the district on the other side of the bay, where Prinsendam was docked, is called Otrobanda (“Other Side” in Papiamentu). During the 18th and early 19th centuries it was notorious as the busiest slaving port in the Caribbean, with Africans being kept here for about 2 years to be “trained” for their new jobs before being sold on to North and South America. The slave trade was abolished here in 1863.
Leaving the ship we walked toward the bridge, passing through the Rif Fort (Reef Fort). Built in 1828 at the mouth of Sint Anna Bay to protect the town & the bay from pirates and invaders, the fort was outfitted with bombproof five foot wide walls and 56 cannons. A chain to keep hostile ships out could be deployed across the bay entrance to the Waterfort (Water Fort), originally built in 1634 but rebuilt in 1827. During World War II a metal net was used to keep out German submarines. Today it is a trendy shopping center with many restaurants and shops. From the upper level is a very fine view of the Queen Emma Bridge that crosses the bay.
We walked on toward the bridge, passing the statue to Luis Brion in Plaza Brion. Born in Curacao in 1782, Brion was an advanced naval tactician and a top lieutenant to Bolivar during the war for South American independence from Spain. He died here in 1821. The plaza had an excellent view of the colorful Dutch colonial buildings that line the shore on the other side of the bay. Nearby was a large freestanding mural depicting the same view during the age of sailing ships. As you can see from the mural, the multicolored buildings are not just modern innovation to attract tourists. These buildings are centuries old. The story is that most of Willemstad’s buildings were originally white, but a 19th century governor concluded that his migraines were caused by the glare of the sun reflecting off the white exteriors. Thus a decree was issued requiring all buildings to be painted a color other than white. The city’s characteristic multicolor pattern has been adhered to ever since.
We walked across the 550 foot Queen Emma Bridge to Punda. Originally built in 1888, this is a floating pontoon bridge that swings open to permit ships to sail into and out of the harbor. It swings open about 10 times each day. If you are on the bridge when it opens you cannot leave until it closes. This was originally a toll bridge: those wearing shoes were charged 2 cents to cross while barefoot walkers could cross for free. It accommodated automobile traffic until the four lane Queen Juliana Bridge opened in 1974; since then it has been for pedestrians only. The Queen Juliana Bridge is much higher, with a 185 foot clearance for ships to pass underneath, the highest bridge in the Caribbean. There is a large protected harbor behind this bridge that you can’t see from town because of the hills. The beautiful yellow Penha building at the bridge’s exit in Punda dates to 1708, the oldest commercial building in town (although it started out as a private home). Today it houses a cosmetics and apparel store, but is still the most photographed building in Willemstad and possibly in the entire Caribbean. So we have included our contributions to that total here.
Leaving the bay behind us we walked into the city and soon came to the floating market. This is a row of vendors’ stands along the water front of an interior inlet with boats transporting produce from Venezuela (about 35 miles away) docked behind them. The last time we were here the market was full with boats lining the waterfront all the way down. With the severe economic & political troubles in Venezuela this year many of these vendors no longer come here & the meager line of boats only reached about half way down the line of kiosks. In the area near the market are several small pedestrian drawbridges similar to those we had seen in Amsterdam.
We walked on to find the Maritime Museum. It was quite interesting, with many exhibits recounting the history of sailing in Curacao. On the way we passed some interesting wall art, which is colorful and plentiful in this city.
It was time for lunch so we sought out our favorite restaurant, set out over the water in a large inlet near the center of town. It was called “Timeless,” but had a different name the first time we visited a few years ago. But despite the name change, the lunch of local fish & chips, washed down with some local beer (which we discovered last time is actually bottled in Florida), was still just as tasty. From the restaurant we could see the library, which we had visited last time, with what looked like a brightly painted bookmobile (“Bus di Buki” . . . Book Bus?) parked in front. On our way to the restaurant we passed some more wall art and an installation of three birds playing in a band, created from discarded and recycled materials in 2016 by local artist Omar Sling. Then, not too far away, we encountered the actual birds, which are called banaquits. How often does that happen?
We headed for the Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue, the oldest synagogue in the Americas still in use. While the Jewish community in Curacao dates to the 1650’s, when it was founded by refugees from Recife, Brazil and immigrants from the Netherlands, this synagogue opened in 1730. On the way we passed a World War II memorial and had another nice view of the small drawbridge we crossed earlier in the day.
We returned to the Queen Emma Bridge to make our way back to the ship. On our way there we saw a monument to Queen Wilhelmina in (where else) Queen Wilhelmina Park. We also saw more wall art and an interesting vertical sundial near the bridge. And of course we saw our old friend the Penha building, but from a different angle.
When we reached the bridge it was fully open, so we had to wait. We listened to a family rather aggressively negotiating with one of several taxi drivers sitting nearby for a tour of the island. It took a while but they apparently came to an agreement since they all left together. Eventually we spotted a ship sailing from the harbor under the high Queen Juliana Bridge heading for the ocean. it sailed right by us, then another ship came as well. Finally they began to close the bridge. It has a hinge on the Otrobanda side and an operator’s house at the end of it where it connects to the Punda side of the bridge. Under the operator’s house are two propellers facing left and right which move the bridge across the water like a boat. While the bridge is open and no one can walk across a couple of free ferries carry passengers back and forth.
Crossing the bridge, we walked back to the Prinsendam. Unbeknownst to us, Robert was out on his balcony with his camera recording our progress.
That was, obviously, the end of our visit to Curacao. After dinner we went out on deck for a final look. The city was nicely lit up, with the hoops lining the Queen Emma Bridge constantly changing colors. A nice farewell from a very nice island port.