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Sightseeing in Willemstad

Sightseeing in Willemstad Curaçao

Willemstad - UNESCO World Heritage Site

First-time visitors to Curaçao, especially those who arrive by cruise ship, are amazed by the altogether un-Caribbean appearance of the capital city ofWillemstad. The Dutch, never a people to leave home without their creature comforts, built a little Amsterdam for themselves when they came to colonize the island in 1634. Much of their creation remains, and UNESCO, the organization that takes worldwide heritage sites into its sheltering arms, has selected the city as a worthy spot to protect.

United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) hands out itsWorld Heritage titles sparingly and after intense scrutiny, so the designation is a true international honor. Once a cultural or natural site is selected for protection, UNESCO orchestrates its restoration and shields it from environmental threats to preserve it for future generations to enjoy.

Willemstad was selected because of its collection of European colonial structures that illustrate the evolution of a multi-cultural community over a period of 300 years. Each of the city’s distinct districts has an individual history and culture that have entwined over the centuries to create a unique environment. The most interesting districts, historically and architecturally, are Punda and Otrobanda, which face each other across Sint Annabaai (Saint Anna Bay), the entrance to Schottegat Harbor.

Waterfort and Fort Amsterdam, the oldest structures on the island, sit on the Punda (the point) side of the bay. The protective stone Waterfort went up soon after the Dutch West India Company (DWIC) arrived, and its arches now house seaside restaurants and shops. Fort Amsterdam was completed in 1648 and became the center point for the city’s development. Achurch, government offices, and a residence for the island’s administrator were built inside its walls.

The stunning arches of Waterfort are now an historic foundation for the Curaçao Plaza Hotel and several waterside restaurants and bars. The yellow fort complex is in excellent condition and now serves as the seat of government of the Netherlands Antilles. The Fort Church still has an active Dutch Protestant congregation, and the building also serves as a museum for old maps and artifacts. An English cannonball embedded in the church’s southwest wall proves that the Dutch were not being paranoid when they fortified their city against attack. The famous, or infamous, Vice Admiral William Bligh, made immortal by Mutiny on the Bounty, ordered the attack on Fort Amsterdam in 1804, during a 26-day siege of the city. Admission to the museum is $5 for adults and $3 for kids.

Pietermaai

Protected by Waterfort and Fort Amsterdam, the Dutch went about their favorite pursuit, international trade. Schottegat Harbor hummed with activity, and warehouses went up along Punda’s shore. Narrow streets were laid out beyond the waterfront for houses and shops. The enclosed town had more than 200 homes by the early 1700s, and there was limited space for new development, so people began building outside the fortress walls on a strip of land called Pietermaai.

Today, Pietermaai has been widened by landfill, but the original layout of perpendicular streets remains unchanged. Handelskade, the street that runs along the waterfront of St. Anna Bay, is a showcase of 18th-century Dutch-Caribbean architecture. Many other original buildings have been restored in Punda’s commercial section. Some of the large homes built in Pietermaai have been restored as well, and the Curaçao Tourism Development Bureau is located in a lovely yellow and white 18th-century mansion at Pietermaaiweg #19.

Otrobanda

Otrobanda (the other side) is, of course, on the opposite side of St. Anna Bay. Restricted building permits were given for the area as early as 1707, but regulations limited development to warehouses and small shops with living quarters on the second level. Citizens saw little merit in these stipulations since land was plentiful on the other side, so they ignored the laws and set about building large homes for themselves, similar to those built by wealthy landowners in the roomy countryside.

Unlike Punda, where city planning resulted in perpendicular streets and uniform architecture, Otrobanda became a village of narrow streets and tight alleyways twisting capriciously from the waterfront through the commercial areas and out to the residential neighborhoods. Within 70 years, 300 homes spread across the district, and it had as many shops, warehouses, and offices as Punda.

After emancipation, free slaves moved into the area and built houses and small businesses, some on property that was originally the garden of a large estate. Other ethnic groups were attracted to the other side as well, and soon the district was a thriving middle-class community of many nationalities and cultures. It remains so today.

Brionplein

Brionplein (Brion Plaza) is the centerpiece of Otrobanda’s waterfront. It is named for Pedro Luis Brión, a citizen of Curaçao, who fought with Simón Bolivar for Latin American independence. Many of Otrobanda’s lovely restored homes are noted as childhood residences of the islands’ honored politicians, lawyers, doctors, and entrepreneurs. Parts of the district are still rundown and waiting for renovation funds, but the breezy alleyways lead past magnificent examples of Dutch colonial architecture.

Kurá Hulanda

Unquestionably, the best restoration is Kurá Hulanda (Dutch yard). It’s the imaginative work of Dutchman Jacob Gelt Dekker and his American business partner, John Padget. Their hands-on philanthropy has transformed an entire section of Otrabanda’s dilapidated slum, known as the Iron Quarter, into a magnificently renovated historical district – the best example of Dutch colonial architecture in the Caribbean.

Museum Kurá Hulanda is a lovely tribute to Africa and the citizens it lost to slavery. The circular central courtyard holds a double slap-in-theface reminder of the cruelty inflicted on so many – two tall pillars supporting a crossbeam and an antique ship’s bell. The bell was used to summon slaves to work; the crossbeam to tie them for beatings. Depressions worn into the wooden beam perfectly fit a man’s wrists.

The thread that ties this African exhibit to Curaçao is the Dutch West India Company, whose most profitable merchandise was human beings. The museum stands on ground once used as a slave market – a Dutch yard – Kurá Hulanda.

Elsewhere in the reborn complex, 65 buildings have been refurbished according to strict UNESCO preservation guidelines. No outer walls or supporting interior structures have been removed, and everything has been painted or refinished to conform to the original design. Now shops, restaurants, and overnight villa accommodations occupy the colorful buildings. Narrow cobblestone streets wind among the former homes, warehouses, and small businesses that so closely resemble a 19th-century Dutch village, they might be found in Amsterdam – or Disney World.

Riffort

Outside Kurá Hulanda’s walls, Otrobanda is guarded on the Caribbean side by Riffort, built in 1828. Its restored ramparts now shelter Riffort Village, a shopping and entertainment center that offers panoramic views of Punda and the sea. At the other end of the waterfront road, just past the cruise ship terminal, is Arawak Craft Products, a small ceramics factory with an open workroom where artisans turn out miniature replicas of Curaçao’s most noted mansions.

Inland, many streets are littered with construction projects as more buildings are being renovated. Conditioned walkers and devoted fans of architecture find many treasures among the clutter. Belvedere, across from Leonard B. Smith Plaza (named for the US consul who built the floating Emma Bridge), is one of the most impressive. The grand white-trimmed yellow house was built in the mid-1800s and was once the governor’s residence. Today, it hold the offices of a law firm, and the interior reception area is open to visitors during business hours. The Monument Foundation occupies the lovely mansion next door, and Leonard Smith’s former home, Washington Villa, is behind a wooden fence across the plaza.

Curaçao Museum and Koningin Emmabrug

The Curaçao Museum is on the far western edge of Otrobanda, a fairly long walk from the waterfront, on Anthony van Leeuwenhoekstraat. The two-level landhuis-style building constructed in 1853 was once a hospital and now houses antique furniture, Indian artifacts, and local art. The lovely landscaped grounds are used for cultural events and concerts.

Otrobanda and Punda are connected across St. Anna Bay by the floating pontoon Koningin Emmabrug (Queen Emma Bridge), named for Queen Emma of the Netherlands, who reigned from 1890 to 1898. The original bridge was designed by US Consul Leonard B. Smith in 1888 as a toll bridge and, until 1934, a small coin was collected from everyone who wished to cross. The current pedestrian structure, the third pontoon bridge to cross the bay, was built in 1939. Two powerful ship engines are required to move the 16 pontoons that support the 551-foot bridge – affectionately nicknamed “The Swinging Old Lady,” because she’s been swaying in the Caribbean breeze for more than a century.

Koningin Wilhelminabrug

The charming Koningin Wilhelminabrug (Queen Wilhelmina Bridge) spans the Waaigat lagoon, and connects Punda with the district of Scharloo, once a flourishing Jewish community. The Scharloo area is interesting mostly to history hounds and architecture buffs, who enjoy its restored 19th-century mansions built with Italian and Spanish architectural features by Sephardic Jews who had been expelled from Europe. It is best discovered leisurely and with no direction (and only during daylight hours). The attractive yellow building near the end of the bridge is the Office of Cultural Affairs; on the waterfront just to the west is a renovated 18th-century mansion that houses the impressive Maritime Museum.   465-2327. Admission is $6 for adults and $4.80 for students and children.

Scharlooweg

Wilhelminastraat leads to Scharlooweg and a white-trimmed rust-red building built in 1870 in the lovely landhuis style. Other former residences now house government agencies and private offices. Símon Bolivar Plein features a bust of the South American liberator; the Sociedad Bolivariana, a Venezuelan culture center, occupies the yellow building on one side of the plaza. On the opposite side is a magnificently renovated mansion with a spacious courtyard.

A white-trimmed green building at the far eastern end of Scharlooweg houses the National Archives. It has been meticulously restored and has a lovely fenced courtyard. Just beyond, is Julianaplein (Juliana Plaza) and the light yellow refurbished mansion built in the late 1800s which is now the Radio Hoyer building.

Last updated October 31, 2010
Posted in   Curaçao  |  Curaçao
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