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A Couple of Curious Museums in Willemstad

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The very fact that tiny Curaçao has a Postal Museum was strange enough to arouse our curiosity. And after learning that it’s housed in the island’s oldest surviving building, we knew that we’d have to check it out. Later on the same day, we passed by another museum which looked to be even more unusual: the Octagon Museum in Pietermaai.

Postal Museum Curacao

The building currently occupied by the Postal Museum dates from 1693, just a few decades after the Dutch established Willemstad. Tightly packed between other buildings on the narrow, pedestrian-only Kuekenstraat, it’d be easy to waltz right by the ancient structure without ever noticing it. But it’s worth pausing to take a look, and depending on your interest in stamps, perhaps stepping inside.

To be honest, neither Jürgen nor I are the slightest bit interested in stamps, but we decided to visit the museum anyway. It’s kind of our job. When we stepped inside, the woman working there jumped to life; it’s safe to say that the Postal Museum doesn’t draw a lot of tourists. After taking our money (just $2 apiece), she led us on an exhaustive tour of the museum’s exhibits.

Her enthusiastic presence turned an experience which might have been dry into one which was rather fun. Frequently, she’d start to take her leave, saying something like, “Alright, I should let you see the rest at your own pace,” before remembering another piece of trivia which she simply had to share. And after we were done with the exhibits (all of which are dedicated to the history of postage in the Dutch Antilles) we stayed and chatted for awhile about her trips to Holland, and her distaste for Carnival.

We now walked down to Pietermaai, where we had seen signs for something called the Octagon Museum. We followed the signs onto the property of the Avila Beach Hotel, where we found an evidently old, octagon-shaped building. What could possibly be the subject matter of this museum?! Go on, I’ll give you a few guesses…

[splutter] Why, yes… you’re right! The Octagon Museum is dedicated to the life and times of South American liberator Simón Bólivar! How in the world did you guess that?!

Yes, this museum, which is only open for a couple hours on a couple days during the week, is all about the accomplishments of Simón Bólivar, and his Curaçaoan connections. Immediately before his military successes on the continent, he spent time on the island, staying in the now-vanished Plezier House in Otrobanda, and as a guest of the wealthy merchant Don Mordechai Ricardo, who owned the Octagon tower.

The museum is nicely done, with copious information on placards spread throughout the rooms. There are paintings and period furniture, as well as a copy of the Cartagena Manifesto. Although the museum itself is small, you’ll have to dedicate some time to it, if you want to read everything.

So there you have it: the oldest house on Curaçao is dedicated to stamps, and the most geometric house in Curaçao is dedicated to Bólivar. In the unlikely event of a rainy day during your stay, you might want to check out one, or even both of them.

Locations on our Map: Postal Museum | Octagon Museum

Curacao Collectible Stamps Online

More photos of the Postal Museum
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More photos of the Octagon Museum
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February 26, 2016 at 9:51 pm Comments (0)

Pietermaai Smal

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One of Curaçao’s four historic districts, Pietermaai Smal lays just to the east of Punda, between the Waaigat Harbor and the Caribbean. Once the most exclusive neighborhood on the island, Pietermaai endured a long, painful period of deterioration. But recently, it’s picked itself back up and become a home to the island’s trendiest clubs and restaurants, and its most popular boutique hotels.

Pietermaai Curacao

Willemstad’s initial expansion outside its city walls was west, across the Saint Anna Bay into Otrobanda. But in the 18th century, the capital expanded east as well. Pietermaai Smal was originally constructed as a home for merchants and the officers of the Dutch West Indian Company, and their high status is reflected in the impressive size of the homes. The neighborhood was known for its theaters and restaurants, and soon became the center of the island’s cultural and business life.

But in September of 1877, Pietermaai was devastated by the “Orkan Grandi,” a powerful hurricane which wiped out many of the neighborhood’s houses, and prompted residents to move elsewhere. Many relocated north into the Scharloo District, and the seeds of Pietermaai’s long twilight were planted.

Throughout most of the 20th century, and up until just a few years ago, Pietermaai was overrun with drug dealers who installed themselves inside the neighborhood’s deteriorating houses. But recently, a major effort has been made to clean up Pietermaai and restore it to its former glory.

Pietermaai Curacao

As far as we can tell, that effort has been a rousing success. There are still some destitute houses, but most have already been restored. There’s a burgeoning culinary scene here, with well-regarded cafes and restaurants setting up shop. And Pietermaai is a great place to go out — the 27 Club, Scuba Lodge and San Tropez are just a few of the bars and clubs in which we spent some fun nights.

Pietermaai was once home to the Dutch officers of the West Indian Trading Company, and today the neighborhood is once again dominated by their blue-eyed descendants. Walking around here on a Friday night can be shocking; the huge majority of people are white, and the only language you’ll hear is Dutch. Tourists heavily outnumber long-term residents in Pietermaai; the deteriorated houses were bought up by developers with business interests, and mostly converted into hotels.

Like all of Willemstad’s historic neighborhoods, Pietermaai is nothing if not colorful — every house is painted a different shade. During the day, it’s fun to stroll along the main strip and see the bright greens, reds and yellows of its historic buildings. And at night, the neighborhood is so lively that it can almost seem like one big party. Even if you’re not staying here, Pietermaai shouldn’t be missed; the neighborhood is yet another of this diverse country’s distinctive faces.

Location on our Map

List of Curacao Hotels

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February 12, 2016 at 7:28 pm Comments (0)

First Impressions of Willemstad

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Willemstad is the capital of Curaçao and by far its largest city, with about 98% of the island’s total population. In many respects, Willemstad is Curaçao. And for 91 days, it would also be our home.

Curacao Blog

Willemstad was founded by the Dutch West India Company in 1634, immediately after the Netherlands took over Curaçao from Spain. The city has preserved much of its colonial architecture and style, prompting UNESCO to name it a world heritage site in 1997.

The location for Willemstad was chosen because of the Schottegat, a large natural port which connects to the Caribbean by way of the Saint Anna Bay. It was ideal geography for the sea-faring Dutch, who settled down on the bay’s eastern side, and began constructing a neighborhood that wouldn’t look out of place in Amsterdam. This eastern section, known as Punda, is the oldest of Willemstad’s four historic districts.

Once Punda became overcrowded, in the early 19th century, people started to populate the western side of the bay. This new neighborhood was called Otrobanda, literally “other side,” and presents a slightly different style of architecture to that of Punda. Today, Otrobanda is considered to be Willemstad’s cultural heart, where locals come to shop, eat and party.

Curacao Blog

The other two historical districts are smaller, but still of interest. To the east of Punda, Pietermaai is where the Dutch ship captains and officers settled. This neighborhood is notable for its proximity to the sea, old theaters, and neoclassical architecture. Finally, there’s the Scharloo, just north of Punda, across the Waaigat Bay. This was home to the upper-crust of Curaçaoan society, and still preserves many of its colonial mansions.

We spent our first day in Curaçao walking around the capital city. The first thing I noticed was the city’s outrageous color scheme. Almost every building in Willemstad is a different shade of blue, yellow, green or red. This rainbow array is actually mandated by law in Curaçao — before 1837, when sunglasses were not yet in widespread use, the buildings had been completely white, and the glaring sun caused headaches and eye problems. The colors helped, and the law has stuck around into the present day. Curaçaoans seem to take great pride in their buildings; we often saw homeowners at work repainting their houses.

After the color, the next thing I noticed was the music. Our first excursion into Willemstad was on a Saturday afternoon, and cumbia, samba and salsa were blasting out of houses, booming from the windows of passing cars, and being played by bands at touristy restaurants. We even saw a DJ who had set up on a regular street corner in Otrobanda. Curaçaoans apparently enjoy living with a constant soundtrack of feel-good rhythms.

Curacao Blog

Other random first impressions: there seem to be as many tourists as locals, but this surely waxes and wanes whether a cruise ship is in port. The family across the street from us owns a rooster. Policeman are rare, though there are a lot of security guards protecting higher-end shops. Also, there are plenty of dogs but we hardly saw cats. And there’s all types of income-levels: During our first week in Willemstad, Microsoft founder Paul Allen’s yacht, the Tatoosh, was docked in the bay (this is a boat which comes equipped with multiple other boats and a helicopter). I was admiring it, when a crazy-eyed guy with a yellow beard and an apparent drug habit came up to me. “What a boat! Hey man, you have a guilder?”

With all the music, the people randomly dancing, the bars spilling out onto the streets, the festive atmosphere, the sun’s warmth, and the brightly-colored houses, Willemstad is certainly not a city for those who enjoy being dour. There’s nothing gray about it, and it would be difficult to stay in a bad mood once you’re outside and mixed up in the happy-go-lucky vibe. In fact, during the extent of our stay in Willemstad, I don’t think I had a single grumpy day. That can’t possibly be true, but it’s how I remember it… and I guess that’s all that matters, now.

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December 10, 2015 at 9:09 pm Comments (0)
A Couple of Curious Museums in Willemstad The very fact that tiny Curaçao has a Postal Museum was strange enough to arouse our curiosity. And after learning that it's housed in the island's oldest surviving building, we knew that we'd have to check it out. Later on the same day, we passed by another museum which looked to be even more unusual: the Octagon Museum in Pietermaai.
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