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The London Free Press

30-Year Island Veteran Guide To Real San Juan


August 5, 2000
Copyright © 2000 The Toronto Sun. All Rights Reserved.

If you want to visit the real San Juan, forget the beach and casino tourist traps. You have to meet Allan Fitch, and you have to visit El Batey bar in the old city.

Perched on his favourite chair in the rustic tavern on Calle Cristo, across from the El Convento Hotel in the heart of Old San Juan, he can spin tails by the hour about his 30 years in America's oldest city.

Bring up baseball and he tells the story of the day second baseman Carlos Baerga came into the bar for a photo shoot for Sports Illustrated. The next month, a picture of Baerga playing pool was a two-page spread in the magazine. Talk entertainment and Fitch, 60, recounts the afternoon singer Tony Bennett visited.

Yet El Batey (meaning plaza in the Taino Indian language) is an unlikely looking attraction. At best, it seems creepy and dangerous. Yet it's a genuine slice of Puerto Rican life most visitors pass by. Inside, walls are covered by graffiti -- every visitor contributes.

"That's me up there," Fitch says, pointing at a picture behind the bar that I can barely see in the darkness. "I was younger then, of course."

Fitch -- almost an institution in Old San Juan -- seems to have done just about everything. Right now, he's a copy editor on the bilingual San Juan Star. Before that, he spent 20 years tending bar at El Batey, worked in other areas of publishing , served in the U.S. army and tried a stint at croupier school.

But it's the years at El Batey he speaks of most fondly. The affection is clearly returned. When he left the bar, his boss offered him a unique pension plan: he can drink there for free -- forever.

Walk with him through Old San Juan and it seems the journey will never end. He stops to talk with just about everyone.

The streets surrounding El Batey make up an historic zone dating back to 1521. Politically, Puerto Rico is American by virtue of its U.S. territorial status . Emotionally, it is Caribbean and Latin American. Hence, the original seven-square-block city is more like Cartagena, Colombia, than Cleveland or Detroit.

Next to Santo Domingo, it is the second-oldest city in the New World.

Old San Juan's buildings and fortifications -- protected by such designations as National Historic Zone, National Historic Site and World Heritage Site -- are among the best preserved of Spain's colonial cities.

The Puerto Rico Tourist Co. booklet, Que Pasa, maps out a fascinating half-day walking tour. Take time to see all the colonial highlights --- La Fortazela, San Felipe del Morro, San Jose Church.

The old city's vitality results from its survival of nearly five centuries of time, war and human neglect. In the 1940s and '50s it had become a slum. Government wanted to demolish the old city and create a financial district.

But a restoration movement began, creating a vibrant community where about 10,000 people live. You're as apt to see a businessman in a $1,500 suit as a street person just waking up from a night on the sidewalk.

"I wouldn't live anyplace else," Fitch says. "Everything is here. I can walk wherever I want to go."

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