Bridgetown was founded in 1628, settled by successive groups of Amerindians on a series of red mangrove swamps. As the most easterly of the Caribbean islands, its importance was far in excess of its small 166 square mile size. Along with Boston and London, 17th and 18th century Bridgetown was an economic hub, and the early Navigation Acts passed by the English Parliament after colonization were designed to block the Dutch from trading with Barbados.
We walked from the minibus depot along the inlet, across a bridge, through the Heroes Square, across another bridge, and along the boardwalk fronting the Careenage, a harbour where 17th and 18th century ships would be cleaned of barnacles. Here several large catamarans were taking on passengers for snorkelling and diving trips and the Jolly Roger, a replica pirate ship, is docked.
We strolled the backstreets and came upon St Mary’s Church, consecrated in 1827; it has a graveyard surrounding it in which famous local citizens were buried. During our visit, a local lay sleeping off a bender just outside the front door.
From the church we walked along Suttle Street, on which several of the buildings were roofless and decrepit, ghosts of their former 19th century glory.
Like both Nathon on Koh Samui and Levuka in Fiji, here, too, shop houses dominate, two storey structures in which the family lives upstairs while conducting business below. Many of these have wrought iron balconies. The back streets are quite narrow and winding, full of small grocery shops and bars, many of which advertise 24 hour slots.
Not too far from the riverfront downtown area are the Nidhe Israel Synagogue, Museum, and Cemetery. The name means “the scattered of Israel” and it was here that the Sephardic community of Barbados worshipped. From the Free Library, donated by that 19th century robber baron Andrew Carnegie, we walked along several streets trying to find the Nidhe Israel, only to realise after talking to a local, that we’d passed it without noticing.
She was kind enough to walk us back. The Museum was pretty much a non-event, with only a very few small artifacts along with its educational panels, but the mikvah, a ritual purification bath house only discovered in 2008 in the cemetery yard, was pretty interesting.
The small structure is tall and narrow, with stone steps leading down to a bath in which women would wash after menstruation and before bedding their husbands. Recently restored, the synagogue sits in the middle of a forest of seventeenth century grave markers.
In the 17th and 18th centuries Bridgetown expanded as a result of the wealth generated by the sugar trade; as it did the wealthy moved east and established the Cathedral of St Michael and All the Angels in 1665, to which we slowly made our way in a rain squall. Around the Cathedral, now sadly somewhat decrepit, with scaffolding and decaying stone and cement, is the Old Churchyard cemetery, where feral pigs ran wild in the 17th century and slaves buried their dead.
The town is quite clean and tidy and many of the buildings are painted in beautiful pastel, and sometimes vibrant red and blue, colours. Barbados is on the cruise ship map and the only other tourists we saw were a few folks in from the boats visiting the Nidhe Israel. I don’t know where the rest of the multitudes who visit this island go, but not Bridgetown, it seems. We hopped a big blue bus at the terminal and were back at the Coconut Grove in about ten minutes.
While Barbados and Bridgetown were economic hubs in earlier decades, the place seems quiet today. While some tourists are about, there are certainly no hordes and the people who are here seem to do little other than lie on the beach and consume happy hour rum drinks (some days us included!). The country is trying to reinvent itself as a destination for wealthy property investors and villas here go for a pretty penny. In fact, we have found the island to be very expensive, more expensive than Vancouver for food and drink (and not very good food at that, except for Mama Mia’s, the Italian café luckily just across the street from the hotel). Especially after South East Asia, sticker shock is hitting us hard! Especially tough is the 18% tax added on to everything we buy.
It’s funny that, wherever I go on this trip, I compare where I am to where I’ve been. After being there for three months, I was sick of Thailand by the time we left; but now that we’re in a very quiet, comparatively-speaking, Barbados, I miss the hive of activity that is Pattaya. I also miss the inexpensive and mostly very good food in Thailand and the café culture in SE Asia. Surprisingly, Bridgetown has nothing in the way of outdoor cafes, at least that we were able to find. However, it is a pleasant enough place with an interesting history.
Going out on our balcony in Thailand in the morning, I was greeted with a screaming hot sun and a blaze of white sky; by seven in the morning, it would already be 30 degrees – hot! Here the temperature is much more moderate – maybe 20 in the mornings, pleasant enough although I’d prefer more heat. A weather system is passing through and we’d had quite a bit of rain in the afternoons and early evenings here.
While in Thailand and Bali everyone had mopeds, and the traffic was horrendous; here there are virtually none. Local people travel on buses, minibuses, or walk. Gas and vehicles must be enormously expensive here, judging from the price of everything else.
Since I’ve not been to any Caribbean islands other than the Bahamas when I was 12, the only place I can compare Barbados to is Samoa, to which it is somewhat similar, although more populous, and, as a result of its colonial history as a trading hub and British garrison, with much more in the way of towns and interesting architecture.
See more pics here.