Blog Schedule

I post on Monday with an occasional random blog thrown in for good measure. I do my best to answer all comments via email and visit around on the days I post.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Walking Tour

While I was in the islands I went with my friend Margaret on an historical walking tour she conducts for groups of tourists off the cruise ships.

The tour took us to some of the more interesting older buildings in down town Charlotte Amalia. I thought I'd take you on it.

We drove passed Market Square on our way to our drop-off point. This was for centuries the hub of activity, the place everyone went to buy fresh produce, fish and other goods, like baskets and hats. It also has the dark honor of being the place where a quarter of a million slaves were bought and sold.

The actual tour started at Bakery Square, what used to be Lockhart's Bakery, a place that perfumed the air with all sorts of freshly baked breads and pastries. Now it has several small shops in it which are hardly ever open.

The front of Bakery Square on Back Street.

The back of Bakery Square. Behind the parked car on the right you can see the old charcoal fired outdoor oven, which was used when the bakery was in business.

The oven.
Next to Bakery Square is the Dutch Reform Church, second stop on the tour. It was founded in 1744. Denmark's queen, Charlotte Amalia, was Dutch. Because there were a lot of Dutch immigrants to the islands, it was appropriate to establish a Dutch church, even though the official state religion was Lutheran because the islands belonged to Denmark.
The front, please excuse the power lines!

Inside. The painted pews, pillars, balconies, and altar are original and were made of the local mahogany which is termite proof.
This is Crystal Gade (pronounced ga-da, it means street in Danish) right next to the Dutch Reform Church. It was named Crystal Gade because at the top of this hill is the Crystal Palace the first house to have glass windows. Flat panes of glass were very hard to ship from Europe and very expensive. (Shameless plug! The Crystal Palace is a B & B owned and operated by one of my classmates, Ronnie Lockhart. His family has been in the islands for-e-ver and owned the Bakery too.)

The hill Crystal Gade goes up is called Synagogue Hill because...the second oldest continually used synagogue in the Western Hemisphere is located half-way up.
I love this sign in their "parking lot."
The outside.

The inside. Here again are examples of the local mahogany.

This synagogue is one of only a few that has a sand floor. A common misconception is that the sand represents the Israelites 40 years of wandering in the desert. The truth is, the Jews who settled in St. Thomas were Sephardic Jews from Spain. During the Spanish Inquisition they were persecuted and forced to become Christians or face a horrible death. Despite "converting" many continued to hold services in the basements of their homes. They covered the floors with sand to help muffle the sounds of their chanting. The sand on this synagogue's floor commemorates those brave Jews.
From the synagogue the tour went down to Main Street and stopped at the Pissarro Building.

Camille Pissarro was born in this building in 1830. It is a warren of stairways, small balconies, and rooms. One can almost hear the clatter of the Pissarro children as they ran up and down the stairs playing hide and seek.

It's a shame people aren't as familiar with his work as they are with many of his contemporaries, who include, Monet, Degas, Van Gogh and the other Impressionists. And yet he is considered a founding father of the Impressionist Era and was a mentor to Cezanne and Gauguin.
Pissarro was strongly influenced by what he saw of slavery as a child and young man. At 12 his father sent him to France to be educated. He returned to St. Thomas when he was 17. At 18 he witnessed the emancipation of the slaves who won their freedom in 1848. He so hated the mercantile business his father wanted him to learn, and so loved painting, he "ran away" from home with a fellow painter and went to Caracas, Venesuela. Several years later he went back home. His father now convinced of his love for painting sent him back to France to study. Pissarro was about 26 or 27 at the time and never returned to St. Thomas.
Through out his life he painted country scenes, the homely scenes of peasants working. He refused to paint portraits of the upper class. Nor did he whip out paintings (as Monet did of hay stacks) simply because the subject was popular. He stayed true to his principles, even though it meant he and his large family lived poorly. He loved painting outside, though in the end it cost him his sight as he developed a chronic inflammatory eye disease. Still, even in old age, and nearly blind he continued to paint.
From the Pissarro Building the tour went to the Warehouse District, a group of several old long buildings where all sorts of cargo was stored. The harbor of Charlotte Amalia is the deepest, most protected natural harbor in the Caribbean. It became a center of commerce. Ships passing to and from Europe, the United States, South America, and Africa stopped here to load, unload, buy, sell, or have their ships refitted and restocked before continuing their journeys. Cotton, tobacco, indigo, sugar, molasses, rum and slaves are just a few of the items that came and went.
The harbor.
Here's a picture of a plaque that describes how and when the warehouses were built.
And this is what one of the three alley ways between the buildings looks like. That blue at the far end is the harbor.

From the Warehouse District we made our way up to the Lutheran Church. At 400 years old it is the oldest established church on the island.

Here again, all the wood is mahogany, even the painted pews.
Our tour is coming to an end. Next to last stop, the oldest structure on the island, Fort Christian, built in 1671 soon after Denmark took control of the island away from Spain. It is currently being renovated.

Last stop and where the tour ended, Emancipation Gardens. It is the place where the slaves were told they had won their freedom. The date was July 3, 1848.

To the left is a statue of a man carrying a cane knife and blowing a conch shell. He is calling the slaves to rise-up, calling the slaves to freedom.

I hope you've enjoyed this little tour which has been my pleasure to share. Tips are welcomed :)


  1. Your tour was wonderful...I'm tipping your way...grin...I love the pictures...Those churches are beautiful! Hugs...

  2. I hardly know where to begin--what a fabulous post! I feel like I've been there and learned so many fascinating things--the synagogue with sand floor and story of Pissarro, for instance. Wow.

  3. I so want to take that walk with you sometime! That was a fabulous walk through history. (I so want to edit out powerlines on my pictures sometimes too!)

  4. Lovely pictures, Bish. Thanks for the tour!

  5. Beautiful photos! I love the pastel shades of the buildings.
    That's a fascinating story about the sand floors in the synagogues.

  6. oooooh! I love the last picture most of all. You did a great job on these pics, Bish!


  7. You are a natural tour guide! I loved all the pictures of the churches...great timing because I recently posted 'Churches' on the setting thesaurus. Looks like a beautiful place.

  8. Thanks everyone! It was fun putting it together. I was thinking blog the whole time while on the tour and thinking pictures. They came out better than I expected.

  9. What an awesome tour! Thanks, Bish, I almost feel like I was there with you. It's amazing how much history one place can have. You mentioned Pissaro and I think he might be in one of our art books. I'll have to check now, but the name sounds really familiar. Thanks again for a great tour!

  10. Loved this: I felt I was there with you too.

    Some of my ancestors were Dutch reformed, (though I doubt any of them were in the West Indies). It always amazes me that people could go to church on Sundays, but reconcile themselves to the practice of slavery. It makes me wonder what I am doing now that my descendants might find reprehensible.


Your Random Thoughts are most welcome!