Severe concrete Russian-built apartments with ‘‘Miami windows’’ (jalousies) ring the capital. One and all celebrate the balcony as clothes line.
Inside that ring, Havana reveals its exquisite heart: the Plaza de Armas with its statue of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, who freed his slaves and began the 10 Years War against Spain.
The plaza is surrounded by street sellers of antique and not-so old books and prints. Parallel streets named O’Reilly and Obispo are fronted with grand former palaces. El Templete, a small Roman temple built in 1828, hosts a revered kapok tree on its lawn that matches girth and poise of the Doric columns.
Art Deco and colonial buildings, wide plazas and skinny streets make up the old city, overflowing with sophisticated and grand architecture. The cathedral is a national monument, with a rich Baroque facade. But one building after another is remarkably beautiful.
The Capitolio Nacional, with a rotunda seven inches taller than the one it mimics in Washington, D.C., was built from 1927 to ‘29, by workers laboring 24 hours a day in three eight-hour shifts. It houses the truly Amazonian statue (56 feet tall, 49 tons) of Cuba herself, and in the floor in front of her, directly beneath the dome, is a replica of a diamond marking zero point—from which all distances in Cuba are measured.
In 1946, the diamond disappeared, but one day reappeared on the desk of Ramon Grau, Cuba’s president form 1944-48. It was said to have been found in a bureau belonging to his sister-in-law, Paulina, who also happened to win the national lottery. (There’s a sly joke about a fountain built by Grau that’s on the road to the airport. It’s called Paulina’s bidet.)
The diamond was replaced, and remained in the floor until 1959. Today, it’s supposedly in the national bank.
In a poor part of the old city, Salvador Gonzalez has created a magical outdoor Afro-Cuban art museum, the Callejon de Hammel, or Hammel’s Alley. Dieties and symbols of Santeria are painted in vibrant colors on walls and posts; in niches, nooks and the sides of buildings. The captivating liveliness and genius of the place are astonishing.
I watched schoolchildren holding class on a sidewalk here as tourists shopped for medicinal herbs and dogs romped and barked in this transformative spot.
Not far away, past the University of Havana, beyond the treeless Plaza de la Revolucion, is one of the jewels of the city: the Necropolis Colon, the Columbus cemetery.
Here, I saw the mausoleum of Catarina Lasa, decorated by glass artist Rene Lalique; the simple and powerful Pieta by the sculptor Rita Longa for the Aguilera family; an angel asking for silence to hear a whisper of the dead; the monument to the students killed in 1871 in the first war of independence; a large domino marking the grave of a woman who died after making a wrong move in a game that, but for a single move, could have been perfect.
After visiting the former Presidential Palace, still showing bullet holes from an assault by doomed students trying to overthrow Batista (who escaped through a secret door), I saw a monument to these youths considered martyrs. It is a nontraditional work for a cemetery, with the Cuban flags flying in stainless steel. A long line that runs the length of the monument is a sundial that marks 3:20 p.m. every day of the year, the time of the raid. When the sun reaches that hour on March 15, it hits an aluminum cap and eternal flame.
SOJOURN TO GIRON
On the way to Cienfuegos, we stopped at Playa Giron and Bahía Cochinos, the Bay of Pigs.
Giron was the name of a parrot that once flew in the area. Germans like to vacation here in the village; tourism and fishing are the only industries.
In 1961, because it had the only telephone in the area, a nearby sugar mill was used by Fidel Castro as headquarters during the failed April invasion by Cuban exiles.
Shallow aquamarine waters and a coral reef off shore made the U.S.-backed invasion ill-starred. In all, 162 men died and 1,000 were taken prisoner. The prisoners were returned some 22 months later in exchange for medicine, food and equipment for Cuban hospitals. A billboard exclaims that Giron is the site of the first defeat of Yanqui despotism in Latin America. Billboards on Cuban roadsides are few; they are political, not commercial.
A late afternoon arrival in Cienfuegos put the city in its best light, bathed in pearlized orange-pink-yellow softness. At the center is Parque Marti, a rectangular plaza with rows of green chairs, flowering trees and a bandstand for regular Thursday night performances.
This wonderfully open space is surrounded by a slew of historic buildings, including the Teatro Tomas Terry (named for a sugar baron who amassed $33 million in the late 19th Century). On the western end of the plaza is the Palacio Ferrer with one of the most beautiful cupolas on any building, so delicately set atop its house it seems to be made of lace.
The cathedral anchors the east end of the plaza, and it was here that the stained glass of the Paris Cathedral was sent for safe keeping during the French Revolution. Cienfuegos keeps it safe to this day.
On the Cienfuegos Bay are the yacht club and the lavish Palacio de Valle, an architectural mishmash of exquisite Moorish details crowned with three towers in entirely different styles. From the rooftop, I watched the sun set over the bay into which Columbus sailed in 1494.
ORQUIDEARIO DE SOROA
The Soroa Orchid Garden on the road to Havana is a part of the Cuban national botanic garden system.
Seven hundred species of orchids and 6,000 plant species are carefully tended. The hilly topography if not the trails, makes the visuals sublime. Huge ficus trees shade the walk up to the main house, along with Brownea, a tree with ixora-like flowers, and a beautiful erythrina. Masses of crotons line the trails, and on rock walls are handmade rock containers holding dendrobium orchids.
In the octagonal shade house, a central opening looks to the sky, like the iris of an eye. Grammatophyllum species are on a central column—these are orchids capable of becoming enormous, while their botanical name is sugar cane orchid (gramma is grass, phyllum is leaf and when several feet tall, the plants resemble sugar cane).
The garden was begun in 1943 by Canary Island lawyer Tomas Felipe Camacho following the death of his daughter during childbirth. The government took it in 1960, and now the University of Pinar del Rio runs it. Education and conservation of Cuban orchids are top priorities here.
Jose Bocourt Vigil, who illustrates Cuban orchids, has a studio at the garden. His book, Iconografía de Orquídeas Cubanas written with Rolando Perez Marquez, was published in Spain, and some of his work was on display at the Camacho museum. He graciously signed prints, such as the ghost orchid, a native to Cuba and Florida. The price? $2.
Not far outside Cienfuegos lies the Jardín Botánico de Cienfuegos, which used to be called the Harvard Garden or the Atkins Garden.
Edwin F. Atkins was a Bostonian who took over his father’s sugar interests and eventually produced 4,000 tons of sugar a year. However, his cane fields, like those of others, were plagued by disease and gradual decline.
Two American professors urged him to collaborate with Harvard to set up a sugarcane research facility. Atkins did, hiring Robert Grey who created the garden. David Fairchild photographed many of the garden plants.
After the Cuban Revolution, the United States relinquished the garden to the Cuban government.
Hermes Rodriguez, who was director for 23 years and who knew each tree and plant, walked me through the garden for more than three hours, offering leaves to sniff and taste with stories about each. The trees bear the scars of Hurricane Inez.
Many would be recognizable to South Floridians, such as garcinia, nutmeg, mamey and sapodilla. But only here would I learn the Cuban expression, ‘‘You’re like a caimito’’ meaning changeable; the fruit tree bears leaves that are green on top and copper on the bottom.
PINAR DEL RIO
Settled by Canary Islanders in the 16th and 17th centuries, this is the tobacco producing region and, said two remarkable guides Alexis and Manuel, it always has been the poorest area of the island. Its nickname is the Cinderella of Cuba.
Tobacco originally was planted closer to Havana, but sugar barons forced the small tobacco growers into this western province.
Today, Cuba’s famous cigars are being produced and sold by the millions each year while the sugar mills are closing.
Tobacco is planted from government-allotted seed in November-December, and the government expects an exacting harvest. Since the Russians left, the government stimulated tobacco production by allowing farmers to own their land. The catch: They can leave the land to their children, but sell only to the government.
I stood inside a drying house and looked up at leaves sewn together through their stems and draped over poles. The most recent harvests hang on the lowest poles. Every few days, the poles are moved up and when the darkest are adequately dry, they are stacked between layers of sugarcane so they ferment, and don’t become brittle before shipment to the cigar factories.
At the factory, cigar rollers, mostly women, work 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. five days a week and earn $8 a month. Meals are less than a Cuban peso (26 pesos equal $1) and day care at the factory is $1.30 a month. Rollers may take home two cigars a day to sell on the street. If lucky, those will be Montecristos that may bring $15 or more each.
Surrounding the tobacco farms and drying houses, the mogotes and their fossils bear witness to the islands’ Jurassic birth. The mogotes are enormous rock formations that once supported limestone ceilings, which collapsed millions of years ago. Not all of the caves disappeared, though, and in the Valle de Viñales there is an 11-mile series of cuevas (caves) for exploration. In the Cueva del Indio, where the San Vincente River runs, tourists may board a small boat and ride from one side of a mogote to the other.
In the valley, Viñales is a quiet little town with pastel houses, pastel pillars supporting shady porticos and a sweetly simple church kitty-corner from a museum. Both face a plaza where souvenirs are sold. Viñales recalls the failed intent of the original settlers to grow vineyards.