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  • Writer's pictureInger and Jeff Latreille

One Sturdy Fort

Updated: Apr 19, 2023

~Friday, April 7, 2023~

Day 1,028

A very quiet campground this morning, unlike our last place. Other than the occasional group of excited kids riding by, it’s just the sounds of the nearby rumbling ocean and the Anastasia Island birds chirping away. One of those birds, a cardinal, was having a good ol’ time checking himself out in the side mirror of our truck. Or maybe he’s agitated thinking it’s another bird trying to get to his nest? Then, a less appealing creature decided to pay me a visit. While enjoying the outdoors with my morning cup of coffee, I felt something crawling up my leg. No, the caterpillars are back! Brushing it off quickly, I immediately thought we had an invasion. I’m actually surprised I haven’t yet had any nightmares of them crawling all over me. But this was the only one to be found. Did this little fella hitch a ride with us all the way from Tampa nearly 2 weeks ago? We shall see. You’ll be the first to know if we spot any more.

Hmm, now what to do on our first day in St. Augustine? How about a bike ride into the heart of America’s oldest city? That is its claim to fame anyway. Only 3 miles from our campground, it was nice that our route gave us a wide bike lane and plenty of empty sidewalks to get there. To get into town meant crossing the Matanzas River via the Bridge of Lions which connects Anastasia Island to St. Augustine. Originally, this bridge was a wooden structure built in the late 1800’s, containing no rise but a moveable opening for ship traffic. It wasn’t until the height of the extravagant Florida land boom of the 1920’s that it received a complete overhaul. Today, it is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is also included in the “11 Most Endangered Historic Sites” by the NTHP (National Trust for Historic Preservation).

We arrived just in time to watch its bridge draw upward to allow a tall sailboat to pass under it. From our vantage point, we saw the beautiful skyline of St. Augustine and our first stop of the day….the Fort Castillo de San Marcos National Monument.

What impressed us the most was how well preserved the fort is, considering its coastal location and age…..over 350 years old. In other words, the United States was pretty much empty when it was built. I know many of you would not prefer a big history lesson, but wanted to give you a little background as to why this fort is even here. Beginning in the 1500’s, many European powers, including Spain, France and Great Britain were fighting for control in the New World. But, with a wealth of trade and territory at stake, how could they defend their outposts from enemy attack? In 1565, Spain established St. Augustine to protect its Gulf Stream shipping route and anchor its claim to La Florida (roughly today’s Florida and parts of surrounding states). But once word got out by the early 1600’s, British colonies began to encroach from the north, eventually descending on the newly established city. To defend itself, the Spanish built nine wooden forts before constructing the one that stands today. It took a little over 20 years to build, constructed between 1672 and 1695, never succumbing to battle.

It was difficult to get a sense of its shape from ground level,

leaving us to rely on drawings from an overhead perspective. Our tour began in the Sally Port, the entrance of the fortress and the only way in or out of the Castillo. Here you see the large drawbridge and the portcullis. The portcullis was a heavy sliding door

which has since been removed for preservation purposes and stands inside one of the casemates stationed behind plexiglass. Between these two wooden barriers, the strength of the Castillo is apparent. The thickness of the outer walls varies from 14 to 19 feet thick at the base and tapers to 9 feet towards the top. The walls were formed by blocks of coquina stone (coquina is a Spanish word for “little shells”), quarried from nearby Anastasia Island (we’ll see the remnants of this quarry another day). It took over 400,000 blocks of stone, all cut and set by hand, to complete the massive fortress. Because the stone is porous, it could never shatter from the impact of cannon fire, only compressing slightly, making it practically indestructible.

As we continued through many of the rooms, we were able to learn more about the fort’s history and construction by its many exhibits. As the fort changed hands over the years between the Spanish and the British, the fort would withstand every battle; the town, not so much. In fact, during the 1702 British siege, the townspeople were better off leaving their homes and sought refuge in the Castillo, even bringing their livestock with them. These animals were protected inside the wide, dry ditch (moat), surrounding the fort.

The moat would also make the Castillo less vulnerable to enemy attack. For more than a month, nearly 1,500 people crowded into the fort, relying on the provisions they brought with them until the siege ended.

As we toured the outside perimeter of the fort, we noticed an unusual looking flag flying from several different locations. As Spain’s power spread to the New World and across the Pacific, this flag, referred to as “The Cross of Burgundy '', was carried by her ships and flown over most fortresses as a symbol of guarding their possessions. The X-shaped cross symbolized the rough branches of the trees on which Saint Andrew, the patron saint of Burgundy, was crucified.

One relic from its battle days was recognizable to us……an old furnace we remember seeing on our visit to Yorktown in Virginia. But shame on us, we’d forgotten its purpose. This was a furnace to prepare “hot shot” (cannon balls) to fire at enemy wooden warships. They would basically heat up cannonballs

until they glowed, then had another set of men carefully deliver it up to the second floor where the muzzle-loading cannons were stationed. Nothing like adding a little heat to the battle.

If a battle can’t take down this incredible fortress, Mother Nature would in her own good time. Hurricanes, waves and rain have weakened the fort somewhat, especially the historic 1840’s seawall that was meant to protect it. So in 2011, the National Park Service created a living seawall adding coquina boulders, then filling the space between the old and the new construction with silt. This silt would allow for greater stability, preventing further erosion while allowing mangrove and marsh grasses to grow.

This site represents not only Spain’s 300-year occupation of Florida, but also the mingling of a variety of cultures that made the U.S. what it is today. So why is it that St. Augustine, with so much history, and being the oldest city in the U.S. didn’t get more recognition in history class? At least it’s getting attention now in the way of tourism but also preservation. This is when I say that technology is a “good thing”. The University of South Florida has documented every inch of the Castillo, using reality capture and laser scanning/imaging tools in the hopes of catching deterioration early. I’m sure many have caught on to this amazing technology, helping to preserve even more of our amazing historical structures.

To celebrate Good Friday and to satisfy our rumbling stomachs, we were on a mission to find a good eatery/brewery with outdoor seating to enjoy our pleasant weather. Live music would be an added perk. Bingo! We found all three at the Backyard at Meehan’s Irish Pub. Our perfectly situated outdoor seating

on the corner of Hyppo and Charlotte streets allowed us to take in the flavor of St. Augustine, from people watching to the modes of transportation flitting about, i.e. horse drawn carriages, bicycle taxis, trolleys, etc. But we also had another distraction of an adorable blonde retriever puppy. She stole the show for sure and frankly, felt sorry for the owners who never got to enjoy their meal in peace. Maybe we should tell our son that this is the key to finding a suitable mate. 😉 Our waiter was a lot of fun and offered great service despite how busy they were. Our Good Friday celebratory drinks were a Half and Half for Jeff (half Guinness & half Harp beer) and a Mai Tai for me. Our food was absolutely delicious. Jeff had the recommended Reuben and I had the Seafood Sandwich special which was blackened Mahi Mahi. Hyppo Gourmet Ice Pops was directly across from our restaurant and per the recommendation of our waiter, was told it’s not to be missed. My light lunch saved me room for this delightful treat, though not for Jeff. Hyppo has been known to make over 400 flavors, with about 30 on the list today. The champagne/mango one sounded refreshing on this warm day and did not disappoint. Made from scratch with organic fresh fruits, it was the perfect, refreshing treat.

On the way back to retrieve our bicycles we had parked at the Castillo, we walked a few of the charming brick streets, noting the shops I wanted to return to. St. George Street didn’t appeal to us at all even though it's the city’s most popular street. It may have been the small section we were in, but it was just too crowded with pedestrian traffic and a bit too gimmicky in the way of attractions. But there are plenty of other amazing sections of St. Augustine we have yet to explore. We can certainly see why this is a tourist destination.

To ensure we’d make it back to the campground before dark, we left the town around 6:30. In the end, it was a good decision to have brought the bikes to avoid the Friday traffic jams and expensive parking fees. Once we got back to the campground, there was still a sliver of light left

so we took a ride through the other 7 campground loops. What we discovered is that there really is no such thing as a bad campsite here. They’re all beautiful, some more spacious than others and actually very few that could fit a rig our size. We have reason to believe this campground was originally meant for tent camping. But once they added in electricity and water to the sites, they made a few of them extra roomy to accommodate RV’s. One thing’s for sure. We are in the best loop with its close proximity to the beach. Plus, how could you go wrong when your loop is named after the very thing that made Fort Castillo still standing today…..Coquina!

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