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Published: January 14th 2021
In our big (for 7 people) bus, we began our tour with a visit to a nearby fruit and vegetable market. Suppliers were still hauling in bananas, papayas, tomatoes, green peppers, pineapples and more. Bustling shoppers moved quickly through the crowded aisles, making their purchases with practiced efficiency. For a few items, short line-ups slowed the pace, especially for the vendor selling plastic shopping bags, which will be re-sold in smaller markets.
We climbed back into the bus for a drive-by tour of major buildings in Havana. The Capitol
, seat of government, was modelled on the US Capitol, complete with a gigantic dome, which was in turn inspired by the Panthéon
in France. The Cuban Capitol dates from the 1920s, when US influence was paramount. Also surprising was a beautifully symmetrical Russian Orthodox church
, another obvious influence in Cuba.
Because European tourism and trade is holding steady (as opposed to the renewed US embargo), buildings are being built or being restored in a society that is surviving OK. The embargo on cruise ships has significantly hurt the economy of small traders and shops, although (as a tourist) it is more relaxing not to have 4000 other visitors descend into the streets
Aging style and grace
all at once.
Just past the harbour we started our walking tour. This is where Spaniards
first occupied Cuba, which they thought was part of the mainland (which mainland?) We looked across to the Castillo del Morro and the Castillo San Salvador de la Punta, both of which were built by Spain to defend against privateers. The British forced them off Cuba for a time. (They traded Florida to get it back.) This evening we will be going to the ceremony of the cannons when, following a blast, the port is closed by dragging a chain across the mouth, a long-held defensive tradition.
As in all once-Spanish cities, the Plaza de Armas marked the original colonial government. In a few places are remnants of the old city walls. Nestled amongst the seventeenth century buildings was a small neo-classical building, decorated inside by heroic paintings of the founding of the city. Across the plaza was the sixteenth century Castillo de la Real Fuerza, heavy in its stone presence, designed for the Spanish defence of the city. Further around on the square was the Palace of the Captains General, once the residence of the Spanish Governors. Astonishingly, to quieten the
to muffle the sound of horses hoofs on cobbles
clopping of horses outside, the street in front was “paved” with blocks of ironwood; it lasted for centuries and was recently restored.
Walking in the narrow, pedestrianized streets of Havana was unexpectedly similar to walking in parts of Europe. A lot of the highly decorated buildings have been restored since the late 1990s, and many are painted in pastel colours. Restaurants and cafés are prolific, and Daniel confirmed that these are patronized mainly by Havana residents, who like to eat out.
The Plaza de la Catedral was less imposing, more friendly to the people strolling around. The cathedral still had its large nativity scene on the steps outside. Inside, the harmonious décor was neither overly ornate nor exceedingly plain. The stations of the cross were in the style of modern abstract geometry, in colourful tones that looked almost cheerful. One would have to know the stations very well to understand the symbolism.
Along the streets were various shops. A bakery emitted the delicious aroma of buns and cakes – bakeries are very popular in Cuba. We passed a small, open-fronted factory sewing Guayabera shirts
. For a moment we stepped into Ambos Mudos, the hotel where Ernest Hemingway stayed.
We also stepped into a museum of hunting rifles and implements used in the revolution. In Plaza Vieja I admired the ornamentation and glass windows on art nouveau buildings right next to traditional colonial buildings. Tucked into one of the old buildings was a school, where we could see the students in their classes.
As we threaded our way through the streets towards lunch, we encountered some street performers. Dancing on stilts, they were fantastically made up, probably representing a cultural element that was unknown to us. In flashes of colour they danced, seemingly oblivious of the cobble stones. Beyond them, just down the street were exposed sections of the sixteenth century aqueduct, now a curated and preserved part of history. Old Havana is recognized as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Café El Mercurio was a graceful government-owned restaurant on the Plaza San Francisco de Asis, named for the deconsecrated church across the square. For lunch we all had salad with light baguette-style bread, and I had grilled fillet of fish. Outside the restaurant was an ultra modern statue called The Conversation, perfectly expressing the fun of two people fully engaged with each other.
Callejon de Hamel
No object too humble to create art
drove to a short alley (Callejón de Hamel) that has been transformed into an art studio and workshops by an internationally known, self-taught artist, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona
. All the buildings were exuberantly painted with strange designs and scenes. Found objects, particularly bath tubs and odd shapes of metal, were incorporated into the walls or hung from any protuberance, still in an artistically arresting manner. While we were looking at his paintings for sale, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona himself came into the small room to greet us, although our lack of a common language kept the interaction short. One of his colleagues did take some time to talk about Afro-Cuban style and the influence of the Afro-Cuban religion that was derived from several African religions, especially Yoruba and Christian. Daniel had already told us that this particular group did not use the wide-spread name of Santeria
, because they thought the blend of religions was wider than commonly acknowledged.
In complete contrast, we moved on to the heroic recognition of modern Cuba at Revolution Square. An extraordinarily tall tower dedicated to José Marti
dominated a vast expanse of concrete park, presumably suited to mass rallies. Across a wide street were two large buildings, each façade
International icon of freedom
covered with a huge metal sculpture. One was of Camilo Cienfuegos
, an original revolutionary, with his quote, “Va bien, Fidel!”. The other was of Che Guevara
, with his quote, “Hasta la victoria siempre”. The site was spectacular.
For dinner we had “the best chicken in the world!”. Daniel assured us we were to have wonderfully juicy roast chicken in a special sauce. The El Aljibe restaurant
was in one of the richer neighbourhoods of Havana. To get there, we drove past a succession of architectural styles as neighbourhoods became less desirable throughout most of the twentieth century - urban sprawl. We were shown into a large, open building, almost a wide veranda. Service was family style, with salad, platters of chicken, cassava in oil and garlic, white rice, and rice and beans. During our morning tour, I had asked if the “banana chips” sold by street vendors were ok to eat; Daniel had nodded yes with a little smile. Now, here they were on our table! Thinly sliced plantain fried in very hot oil – as irresistible as potato chips.
We ended this long day at the nightly cannon ceremony at El Morro Castle. I was thrilled because my best souvenir
Crossing the moat to the Cannon Ceremony
of Havana from my first visit was an exquisite marquetry picture of the lighthouse and fort. In the dark, we approached thick stone walls revealed by heavy yellow light. With hundreds of other people, we crossed the bridge over the moat. Daniel led us to a good viewing spot, and we waited. A lot of tourists had already arrived and crowded near the cannon on the wall, where probably only the first couple of rows could see. We stood below the wall, able to see well. Near 9:00, an elaborate ceremony of marching, commanding, and waving of fire preceded the startling boom, marking the closure of the harbour by a chain pulled across. The procedure was the same as the firing of cannons during eighteenth century wars, as described by Bernard Cornwell in his novels about Richard Sharpe’s adventures. Only, during war it was done as fast as possible, and in this spectacle it was done in slow motion. A good display of history.
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