Plaza de Francia
The Plaza de Francia (French Plaza) has seen a great deal of history and was among the first parts of Casco Viejo to be renovated, back in 1982.
The obelisk and the marble plaques along the wall commemorate the failed French effort to build a sea-level canal in Panama. The area housed a fort until the beginning of the 20th century, and the bóvedas (vaults) in the seawall were used through the years as storehouses, barracks, offices, and jails.
You’ll still hear gruesome stories about dungeons in the seawall, where prisoners were left at low tide to drown when the tide rose. Whether this actually happened is still a subject of lively debate among amateur historians. True or not, what you will find there now is one of Panama’s more colorful restaurants, Restaurante Las Bóvedas.
Also in the plaza are the French Embassy, the headquarters of the Instituto Nacional de Cultura (INAC, the National Institute of Culture) in what had been Panama’s supreme court building, and a small theater, Teatro Anita Villalaz.
Tourists are not allowed into the grand old building that houses INAC, but it’s worth peeking into from the top of the steps or the lobby, if you can get that far. Note the colorful, if not particularly accomplished, mural depicting idealized versions of Panama’s history. (Movie trivia: The building was used as a movie set for the 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace, as were the ruins of the old Union Club.)
Next to the restaurant is an art gallery (tel. 211-4034, 9:30 a.m.–5:30 p.m. Tues.–Sat.) run by INAC that displays works by Panamanian and other Latin American artists. It was closed for renovation in mid–2010.
Walk up the staircase that leads to the top of the vaults. This is part of the old seawall that protected the city from the Pacific Ocean’s dramatic tides. There’s a good view of the Panama City skyline, the Bridge of the Americas, and the Bay of Panama, and the breeze is great on a hot day. The walkway, Paseo General Esteban Huertas, is shaded in part by a bougainvillea-covered trellis and is a popular spot with smooching lovers.
Along the walkway leading down to Avenida Central, notice the building on the waterfront to the right. For years this has been a ruin, but progress on turning it into a long-promised hotel is finally being made. This was once the officers’ club of the Panamanian Defense Forces; it was largely destroyed during the 1989 U.S. invasion. Before that, it was the home of the Union Club, a hangout for Panama’s oligarchy that’s now on Punta Paitilla.
© William Friar from Moon Panama, 3rd Edition