Describing the mysterious charms of a city is often left to poets but I think it would be impossible to capture the beauty of Habana Vieja or “Old Havana” in a simple verse. So we will have to walk its streets and get acquainted with the urban landscape, the legends, and its real history.
“Wandering Havana” remains a popular saying for those who pass through it everyday. They get to enjoy the old city‘s enclave and appreciate the dreams of historians and artists who restore, brick by brick, the centuries old colonial architecture.
You will eventually learn the identity of the façades of the old mansions and the ancient walls by walking the zigzag of streets of this urban maze. The great squares, well preserved hotels, and mansions inhabit the city, first named San Cristóbal de la Habana almost 500 years ago, like ghosts that have never aged.
Recovering the architectural, cultural and historical memory of the city has been a salvaging of the past, of Cuban identity, and was one of the reasons why the United Nations Educational, Scientiﬁc, and Cultural Organization placed Old Havana on the World Heritage List in 1982. That restoration has been supervised by Eusebio Leal, the City Historian, who expressed that “to us, heritage is not the inheritance of the past but a conditional loan that future generations have given us. It is not a product and does not even have any exchange value. It is the jewel that only skilled hands can discover like when a diamond is extracted from a dark stone.”
Many specialists in the rescue of colonial structures, who admire the quality of the restoration work, have visited the Cuban capital to see with their own eyes how the city has been renewed without its main architectural lines changing.
That is the main principle that has brought together a small army of workers who emerged from the Gaspar Melchor de Jovellanos Workshop School. This institution was founded to teach and train people in different areas of restoration: masonry, carpentry, painting, stonework, forging, glasswork, electrical, plumbing, plaster work, gardening, restoration of paintings, and archaeology. The training of those young people has guaranteed the specialized work force needed for such an ambitious project.
The admiration shown by international experts can be illustrated by the professional opinion of the well-known Italian architect, Graciano Gasparini, who said that the restoration of Old Havana shows the closest relationship between the value of monuments and the places they honour.
Gasparini toured the old sector of the city and was amazed at the number of buildings being restored at the same time. He stressed the importance of allowing people to keep on living in the buildings and making them a part of the restoration process. He stated that in many countries, these kinds of areas become lifeless, especially after six when they are closed to the public.
The famous restorer said that the architect should be able to “listen” to the building and understand what he or she is being asked for. That is, to achieve the successful coexistence of today‘s design with yesterday's architecture.
Leal describes the goals he was striving for: “We have given life back to enclosures in all its forms, as an honourable habitat where schools and cultural and health institutions can ﬂourish. To call for the resurrection of what appeared to be dead may seem to be a romantic crusade. If it really were like that we would not be ashamed of being romantic in times marked by apocalyptic events. Our work creates other paths to hope: the one born from the recovery of memory, of the dream shared by many to create a new order ...”
Finally the City Historian says: “And now, when the words have ended and the testimony of how much we were able to do up to today has been written, let us pass it to future generations and especially to the children and youth of Cuba.
These assembled stones will be their pride and others will continue our work as we have with hope and joy. It will be like the ﬂickering ﬂame that never dies, like poetry nourishing it and holding it.”
Beyond the crisscrossing streets and the large arches of the portals, the facades of the old houses captivate us with their impressive architecture.
The traditional and romantic colonial houses were designed in accordance with the architectural customs of Spain, many with a common pattem of stonework and tiles which are being restored today, There are two representative examples of the architecture of the time located at the corner of Teniente Rey and Aguiar streets. The Spanish Mudéjar construction style, relating to Muslims in Christian-occupied Spain, was the starting point for the model Cuban dwelling.
There lies the style identifying that period: a compact ground ﬂoor surrounded by gardens, an inner courtyard, and a special detail, the roofs tilting towards the courtyard to provide a source of rain water for the cisterns. Of course, many of the buildings occupied by the ruling social class have today become hotels, museums, and institutions that allow us to enjoy the architecture that has survived the passing of time.
A City is Born
The genesis of the construction of the time can be found at the Plaza de Armas, the undisputable bastion from where the whole city developed outwards.
Just across from the square stands the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, today the location of the City Museum.
This beautiful building was the centre of colonial nobility for more than 200 years. A few steps away and crossing through a small grove of trees and the square's cobblestoned streets, the area's view is completed with the Castillo de la Real Fuerza. This is the oldest standing colonial fortress in the western hemisphere and is crowned by a tower capped by a small weather vane that has become a symbol of Havana. This is the Giraldilla, a bronze statue cast, according to legend, in the ﬁgure of a loving wife eternally waiting for the return of her explorer husband.
Very close by is the Cathedral of Havana, a magniﬁcent 18th century Catholic church built by Jesuits, decorated with a baroque façade and located facing the cobblestoned square bearing the same name.
The Cathedral is ringed by beautiful mansions with arcades including the former Palacio del Marqués de Aguas Claras which now houses El Patio Restaurant, providing visitors with a mixture of scents and Cuban rhythms.
Along the street crossing in front of the Cathedral lies La Bodeguita del Media, the “Little Shop in the Middle of the Block,” a place for authentic Cuban food. It is a bohemian restaurant, ﬁlled with traditions that not only remind you of its origins but also of all the stories leﬁ there by famous people including Hemingway who drank his Mojitos there. When you leave the Bodeguita, turn right on the cobblestoned street that leads to the bay.
Across the bay and facing you is the Christ of Havana with His open arms welcoming ships to the Capital. The sculpture was carved from white Carrara marble by the Cuban artist Gilma Madera who lived between l9l5 and 2000. Many people climb the hill to visit this looming and sacred ﬁgure.
A Protected Town
This description now leads us to get more acquainted with the fortress system of colonial Havana. Started in the 16th Century, these fortresses are considered to be among the oldest and most important in the Americas.
There were three military structures built in the second half of the 16th Century to form a defensive shield for San Cristobal de la Habana Castillo. First was the Castillo de la Real Fuerza in 1558. Then came the Fortresses of San Salvador de La Puma and Los Tres Reyes del Morro in 1590 facing each other at the entrance of the harbour.
The Atarés Castle was built later on in 1763 in the area outside the original town with a large view of the coast. Then came the last major structure, the Principe Castle in 1779, that was built farther away and could shelter up to 1,000 men.
Several watchtowers completed the system: La Chorrera, Almendares, and San Lazaro. Still, it was not enough to prevent the British from taking the city in I762 and keeping it for a whole year.
Of all these fortresses, the most emblematic and beautiful is El Morro castle with its 50 m high lighthouse standing at the entrance of the bay.
Started in the 19th Century, this eight km long road facing the Gulf of Mexico was ﬁrst named Avenue of the Gulf but Cubans renamed it the Malecón and it has stayed that way. The long Wall that separates the city from the sea was started at the La Punta Castle, at the entrance of the bay, and was ﬁnished in 1950 next to the mouth of the Almendares River.
This ocean front road skirts along six centuries of architecture from the earliest buildings of San Cristobal de la Habana , to the eclectic designs of Central Havana and Vedado, and ending at the gates of the tunnel that crosses into the most modern areas of Miramar.
There is no better view in Havana than the one from the Malecón. From east to west, paralleling the coast, the wall separates the city from the sea like a balcony Overlooking a breathtaking spectacle.
At night, visitors coming in from the sea and those sitting on the wall can admire the string of lights like glowing pearls stretched along the shore. Cubans of allgenerations gather there for leisure, love, and even dancing and singing with friends.
The Soul of the City
The historic centre's restoration is not only applied to buildings, squares, and streets but to the whole area with a special emphasis on the development of the community. The Museum of the City became the centre of a network of colonial houses turned into galleries and museums specializing in ethnographic, traditional, and historic topics.
Many concerts, shows, conferences, and art and museum exhibitions have helped to preserve and promote the values of Cuba's special culture.
In 1994, the San Francisco de Asís Basílica was reopened as a concert hall and specializes in choral and chamber music featuring many prestigious musicians.
In the year 2000, the San Francisco de Paula Church was transformed into a concert hall to host ancient music. It continues to promote the study and research into different styles of music, from the Middle Ages to the Baroque period, with an emphasis on Cuba‘s musical heritage.
Together with those important facilities are the old San Felipe Neri Church for lyrical music and the Amphitheatre, an outdoor space along the channel for great electronic and contemporary music shows.
We have only touched on a few highlights of this remarkable area, the genesis and still heart of modern day Havana, Wander through her streets and feel the history of this 500 year old city.