I know that I told told you that I was going to talk about our departure from Georgia and our drive to Orlando for the next leg of our vacation, but I’m not going to do that today. Sorry. The reason that I am not going to do it is that we had another stop to make before got to the land of Mickey Mouse and happy-happy, joy-joy!
Once we left St. Simons Island, we were on I-95 south in no time at all, and shortly after that, we crossed out of Georgia, into The Sunshine State! Please note that the sun was shining just as much in Florida as it was in Georgia. Anyway, we were in Florida, mighty glad we were, because we were about to do something really cool… we were going to St. Augustine!
Oh, I know what you are thinking. You are probably thinking: “What’s so cool about St. Augustine?” Well, I’ll tell you, this: It ain’t the beach. Okay, St. Augustine isn’t a bad place, but it isn’t the place that makes people jump up and down either. So why do I say that it was cool? Because St. Augustine houses a few treasures that not enough people know about. The first is the Castillo De San Marco. The Castillo (pronounced cas-tee-yo) might be a place that you aren’t familiar with, because of the crappy history that is taught to our young people. Most of the history of exploration and colonization of North America is taught from and Anglo-centric view, which frequently downplays and sometimes outright ignores not only the role of France, but also that of Spain to an even greater degree.
The town of St. Augustine was born in September of 1565, when Don Pedro Aviles claimed the place in the name of the Spanish King, Phillip II. Anyway, after driving out some French settlers on the St. John River, he fortified that town. It should remembered that the Spanish that Spain established the first permanent settlement in North America more than forty years before the English established Jamestown, and more than 50 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth. The town flourished and after a number of raids by English pirates the Spanish crown, in 1702, authorized the building of a stone fort. The fort protected the town, and despite sieges and attacks, it was never conquered.
Okay… history lesson over… for now. So the Castillo is still there and it is really a great place to see. Not only does it have a covered walkway (a place where troops could serve artillery, or where infantry could move from place to place without being exposed to enemy fire), it has troop berthing spaces, a church to see to the spiritual needs of the soldiers, and an impressive deck for the placement of the great 32 and 42 pounder cannon that were the Castillo’s main armament. It should be remembered that this town and it's fort represent the geographical high-water mark of Spanish colonialism in North America
Isn't it a beauty?
OK, so… we didn't spent too much time at the Castillo on this trip, as we had other fish to fry (do you love fried fish? I certainly do… as a matter of fact, I think that I am going to cook panko crusted Tilapia this Friday evening. Mmmm!) So, we crossed the street from the Castillo and proceeded to George street, where there is a sort of funky, bohemian shopping area. Naturally, we skipped the funky, bohemian stuff because that really isn't our gig, and proceed to a small, unassuming, unremarkable building, which bears a sign for the Saint Photios (pronounced Fo-shus) National Greek Orthodox Shrine.
Now, if you aren't an adherent to the Orthodox church you might not think that this means much of anything, but you would be wrong, and oh-so-shallow! The St. Photios shrine is a wonderful, living example of the narrative of the first significant Greek presence in the United States. You see, in 1768, a man named Andrew Turnbull decided that he was going to settle in the area that later became New Smyrna, and that he was going to need labor for his plantations… well who better than Greeks and other Mediterraneans who might not be disinclined to work in the Florida heat. This same gentleman took a heck of a lot longer to get things going than he planned and once he did, he failed miserably. The Greek population of his platations moved in large part to the St. Augustine area, which by this time was in British hands (the British having traded Havana, Cuba to the Spanish Crown for possession of St. Augustine). The Avero house, where the shrine now stands became the focal point for Greek society, culture, and faith in the region.
The shrine is as beautiful inside as it is outside, and is something that you should see, whether you are Orthodox or not. There are splendid icons, vaulted ceilings, a place for prayer, and a new exhibit of the history of the Greeks in Florida. There is also a great gift shop that I am certain that you would enjoy. The shrine is run by Polexeni (Polly) Maouris-Hillier, and if you ever get there, please take a few minutes to chat with her about the place. She is a treasure.
After leaving the shrine, we went back to the car and headed down the fabled A1A through St. Augustine Beach to the even lesser known bit of St. Augustine's history, the U.S. National Park Service Fort Matanzas site. Fort Matanzas, shown below, was built around the same time as the Castillo de San Marco, it's purpose was to defend the Castillo or at least give warning in case the British decided to launch a riverine sneak attack up the Saint Johns river.
I know that Matanzas doesn't look like much, but believe me when I tell you that it is the stuff that anyone interested in the American colonial period can't help but love. Consider: St. Augustine is the northernmost Spanish town in the Americas, but it has farms, walls, a church, a monastic community, and a big honkin' fort! Matanzas? Well… not so much. It must have been lonely there, nearly three hundred years ago. Can you imagine that? The sole aim of the soldiers there was to watch out for British marauders… who never actually went that way. It isn't believed that the fort's artillery EVER fired a shot in anger.
As you can see from the photos below, Matanzas is still a rather lonely place, accessible only by water (dig the hat on park ranger Olivia, who is the first mate on the boat).
I love this place. I do… it is an amazing piece of history, and I hope that if you are ever in the St. Augustine area, you go and see these things, you will truly be glad that you did.
OK, have you had enough of a history lesson? I am sure that you have, so I will end the lesson here, as it is not time to get back on the road (and hey, it is only noon-ish… how's that for packing the time just right?!).
Back on the road, we made our way back to I-95, heading for I-4, which takes us from east to west, and to Orlando.
I'll pick-up more of the story then, because now I need to go to make lasagna before I got to choir rehearsal.