Cruising Havana in Vintage Style

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August 17th 2018
Published: August 18th 2018
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We were very excited about our first trip to Havana by ship, and although Havana as it is today is appealing and very interesting to explore on foot, we hoped that at least some vestiges of the city's glamorous past remained, and that overall our visit would be a rewarding learning experience -- we weren't disappointed!! On that first visit in October, 2017, we decided to splurge on a wonderful, but rather expensive excursion --- a Havana city tour in a vintage American car. A good number of like-minded ship passengers, probably many from the U.S.’s “Baby Boom” generation like us, were doing the same. After being transported by bus to a parking lot not far from the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, we found an array of rainbow-colored, vintage cars waiting for us with their drivers/owners standing next to them. We were allowed to choose the one we most would like to make our Havana tour in. With everyone rushing to secure the flashier cars, our choice was a lonely-looking ’54 red & white Dodge with an owner/driver named Jésus.

With everyone settled into their lovely touring cars, soon the convoy of these colorful cars set off from the parking lot looking like a parade. On the agenda were stops at 3 memorable sites: historic Plaza de la Revolucion or Revolution Square, the “Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón” (or Necropolis Cristóbal Colón) in the Vedado section of Havana, and lastly the Hotel Nacional de Cuba.

Revolution Square is famous as the site where enormous crowds of Cubans have gathered for political rallies and have been spurred on in the past by the fiery speeches of Fidel Castro and other Cuban Communist Party heavy weights. By contrast, in the last 20 years there have been two popes who have said Masses here and have also drawn large crowds and this signaled an important change. Once considered a Catholic nation, post revolution the Cuban government under Fidel Castro pronounced Cuba to be secular and a “war on religion” ensued. However, in 1992 or thereabouts, Castro softened his stance on religion and only a few years later, allowed Pope John Paul II to visit the island. Revolution Square’s importance to the people of Cuba as a tangible and meaningful place of history cannot be underestimated.

The square itself is nothing more than a very large paved parking lot but what made it stand out to me was that it is surrounded by the images of 3 luminaries in Cuban history: anchoring the square is the towering “José Martí Memorial.” Wiki states: “…. Through his writings and political activity, he (Martí) became a symbol of Cuba's bid for independence..” from Spain and is sometimes referred to as the "Apostle of Cuban Independence.”

In addition, Revolution Square is surrounded by important Cuban government buildings such as the National Library, the Palace of the Revolution, and the offices of the Ministries of the Interior and Communications. As shown in so many photos, two of these buildings’ edifices support black, steel-line profiles of two revered revolutionary heroes --- the Argentinian revolutionary, Ernest “Che” Guevara, and Cuban revolutionary, Camilo Cienfuegos who was assumed to have died in a plane crash, although the mysterious disappearance of the plane is still considered questionable to many.

We had ample time to take photos here, and after admiring the lineup of vintage American cars and talking to a few justifiably proud owners of these cars, our own rambling car convoy continued on its way through interesting neighborhoods before arriving at the next stop which was “Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón.”

Considered the most important cemetery in Cuba, “Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón” is certainly one of the most remarkable cemeteries in the world. The exquisite sculpture and architectural detailing of the main cemetery entry gate is a prelude to what you’ll see further on in this roughly 150-acre cemetery. A closer look at the gate reveals a marvelous multi-arch structure featuring demi-lune medallion friezes: Jesus crucifixion and Lazarus’ resurrection. In 1901, a beautiful Carrara marble sculpture entitled “The Three Theological Virtues” was placed atop the largest arch with figures representing faith, hope and charity. The Latin inscription, “Janua Sum Pacis,” on the base of the sculpture translates as “Gate of Peace.”

Once inside the main gate, we exited our taxis and gathered to meet up with a very animated and enthusiastic local guide who entertainingly related history, facts, and interesting stories about the cemetery. The intense sun, heat and humidity that day made us scamper from one tree to the next to grab even a little shade while trying to listen to our guide who explained the symbolism on several of the most well-known memorials. The tour moved relatively quickly but I often lagged behind to take photos of the unique and often exquisite monuments and grave adornments, and wished I could have taken more.

There is a saying here, “The pale death enters both the cabins of the poor and the palaces of kings," associated with the cemetery and it may attempt to explain that though the most expensive and ornate of grave memorials may be what visitors first see on entering the cemetery, the cemetery was designed for all Cuban citizens who want to be buried here. Burials are now paid for by the Cuban government.

Perhaps for Cubans, the most significant memorial here is that of Señora Amelia Goyri --- “La Milagrosa” or the “Miraculous One,” who died in childbirth on May 3, 1901, and was buried here with her child at her feet. Señora Goyri’s memorial sculpture which depicts her with a large cross and the baby in her arms portends the legend surrounding La Milagrosa. Señora Goyri’s husband was so distraught over her death that he visited the grave sometimes several times a day. The flat marble slab, like others, had an iron ring at each corner and her husband always knocked one of four iron rings on the marble slab and then backed away so he faced her grave for as long as possible.

It is the practice at Colón Cemetery because of space considerations that bodies are exhumed 3 – 5 years after the initial burial, and the remains placed in a smaller box. This was the case with Señora Goyri. The legend continues that when the grave was opened, her body was uncorrupted (a sign of sanctity, holiness or saintliness in the Catholic faith) and the baby, who had originally been buried at its mother's feet, was allegedly found in her arms. Since then Señora Goyri has been called “La Milagrosa,” or the miraculous one. Visitors seeking an answer to their prayers or wishes leave flowers, burn incense, and knock on the grave with the aforementioned rings.

Another memorial deserves mention. The magnificent, 75-ft. sculpture atop the grave known as the “Monumento de los Bomberos” is dedicated to the 28 firemen who lost their lives in the great fire of May 17, 1890. It so tall that it was difficult to photograph the entire monument and get the entire view of it, but suffice it to say the monument’s detail is remarkable. Surrounding the base of the marble memorial are the likenesses of the fireman who died that day featured in medallion portraits. It is a touching memorial, and the sculpture is full of symbolism – at top an angel bears the body of a fallen fireman; the black, iron chain surrounding the monument is interspersed with tear drop links; bats featured prominently in the wrought-iron fencing surrounding the monument which in Cuba symbolize good luck, brotherhood, and faithfulness; the pelican is a symbol of self-sacrifice, and the list goes on. The monument is by Spanish sculptor, Agustín Querol, whose signature is engraved near the bottom of the monument below the figures of the nun and pelican.

Our tour ended at the Capilla Central which is located at the main intersection of the graveyard. The church, painted in deep ochre and brick red with white lacy, architectural trim for adornment. Our group, grateful for the efforts of our local guide, rewarded him generously as we knew that any tips given would add greatly to his monthly income.

Colón Cemetery is quite unlike any other I have seen in person up to this point. The rich craftsmanship and character of this cemetery --- the skill of those who designed and created the memorials, the people buried here, and the sentiment of the people who lost loved ones and commissioned these exceptional memorials, all speak volumes. The tour ended too soon, but had the time been available, I would have taken many more photos here as well as visited the graves of the “Buena Vista Social Club” members who are buried here: Rubén González (pianist), Pío Leyva (singer), and Ibrahim Ferrer (singer). For me, somehow this made the cemetery seem less a place of sorrow than one of hopeful and long-lasting remembrance.

Our final and also greatly anticipated stop on the vintage American car tour in 2017, was the Hotel Nacional de Cuba --- another vintage beauty which is perched high on Taganana Hill overlooking the Malecón and Havana Harbor. Opened in 1930, now designated as a National Monument, the lovely symmetrical lines of this hotel were designed by the New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead and White.

The hotel is a symbol of the golden age of entertainment in Havana prior to the Cuban Revolution and where celebrated entertainers have performed, notable personalities have stayed, and where the infamous characters Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky hosted heads of the major American mafia crime families at the 1946 “Havana Conference” as dramatized in the film, “Godfather II,” directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

Though the once glamorous casino here no longer exists, the hotel retains a great deal of ambiance which we enjoyed on each of our two visits to Havana. The Hall of Fame Bar’s walls are adorned with murals of the famous at the hotel, and the bartenders here make a delicious mojito. It’s a pleasant L-shaped room with large windows and is home to some nice memorabilia. Tickets for the evening show at the hotel’s Cabaret Parisien and the show "Cubano, Cubano" can be found online or as a cruise ship’s shore excursion.

During our last visit to Havana in May, 2018, we made it a point to visit the Hotel Nacional de Cuba a second time when we would be on our own and have more free time. After arriving there by taxi, we walked through the hotel's lobby and revisited the Hall of Fame Bar for one of their good mojitos and enjoyed the chance to soak in the atmosphere of this famous hotel. We also looked in on the hotel's large event spaces, and the small gift shop before taking a turn around the hotel's attractive outdoor areas. Heading out to the property's edge towards the seafront, there was an area with tables and chairs perfectly positioned for overlooking the gorgeous seafront. We followed signs indicating where the hotel had been built on the site of the former Santa Clara Battery, a fact which we were unaware of on our first visit. A small portion of the 1797 Battery has been preserved and we saw two very large cannons or coastal guns from the late 19th century pointing towards the harbor. Had we not walked up to the area where the cannons were positioned, we would have missed them completely as they were fixed in low, concrete holds surrounded by heavy chain barriers.

We walked back through the expansive lawn and garden area where people were lounging in the shade as a trio strolled about playing music for guests here. Here we noticed a sign for "La Baracca," a covered, outdoor café overlooking the waterfront, and quickly decided to have lunch there before returning to the ship. Our meals of rice, beans and ropa vieja were fine but not worth the inflated tourist price they charged us. Our stone-faced waiter was no bargain either, but my husband and son enjoyed their cold Bucanero Cuban beers. As we were eating, the strolling trio came into the café just in time to entertain the few guests and improve the atmosphere which was unexpectedly dull. Still it is, of course, what you make of it and we had a fine time.

As far as we were concerned, our time in Havana ended too quickly and we said we would not rule out a third visit to get to know Cuba even better though the next visit would surely be a more comprehensive look at the entire island. However, only a few weeks after our visit to Cuba, we would visit a country so totally different in climate, culture and history -- Iceland!

Additional photos below
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19th August 2018

It feels as though I've been to Havana now after reading your blog. Good stuff Sylvia
19th August 2018

Thanks for your visit Malcolm! Glad we had the chance to visit Havana twice as they were both good visits. Now anxious to move on to new places.
20th August 2018
Capilla Central - Colon Cemetery

Colon Cemetery
I've read quite a few Cuban blogs but have never come across Colon Cemetery as a place to visit - I'll definitely have to add this to our wish list! It sounded hot on that visit, but I love your photos with those stark shadow lines :)
20th August 2018
Capilla Central - Colon Cemetery

Thank you!
RENandDREW, thanks for your visit! Prior to our 1st visit to Havana, I had never heard of this cemetery either and I found it fascinating -- especially the beautiful memorials and the stories we were told. I was hoping to revisit it for more photos on our 2nd trip to Havana, but never made it there.

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