When I thought about my impending visit to Havana, what came to mind wasn’t architecture; it was the music of the Buena Vista Social Club. It was aromatic cigars. It was decades old cars. It was the vibrant Cuban culture. It was even, perhaps, its beleaguered history. And I wasn’t disappointed. They were all there – the rhythms of the bands, the aroma of cigars and the wonderful vitality of the people.
But I was surprised to find that Havana is filled with incredible architectural gems. In an amazing hotchpotch of styles and periods, the 500-year history of this incredible city can be traced through its buildings. Spectacular Baroque structures may be over-towered by modern skyscrapers. Neo-classical arches and extraordinary architectural detailing sit alongside the graceful tracery of colonial Spanish wrought iron verandas.
Unfortunately, many of the buildings are virtually crumbling. After the 1959 revolution, the country had much else on its collective mind, so buildings were neglected.
But Cuba has experienced a mini-revival of interest in architecture and even in the architects who deserted the revolution. The government is working as hard as it can to restore and preserve the history these magnificent buildings represent. And to help them along, the United Nations declared Old Havana a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Cuba has a rich history. First discovered by Europe as a result of one of the voyages of Columbus, it became an important port for Spain; many of the goods sent to and from America were shipped through Havana. To protect this valuable island, the Spanish erected two massive stone fortifications: El Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro (The Castle of the Three Kings of El Morro), built in 1630; and the fortress of San Carlos de la Cabaña, in 1774. Now part of Morro-Cabaňa Military Park, both forts house military museums and each night at 9 p.m., a cannon is shot from the promontory to mark the hour.
Columbus was so important a part of Cuba’s history that his remains spent more than 100 years (between 1796 and 1898) in the Havana Cathedral before being moved to their final resting place in Seville, Spain. This Cathedral, a gorgeous Baroque structure with asymmetric towers, stands in imposing Plaza De la Catedral (Cathedral Square). Its Plaza is a natural gathering place in Old Havana.
On one side, you’ll find the graceful Gothic arches of El Patio, a restaurant offering authentic Cuban fare. In stark contrast, Lombillo Palace is a distinctly Baroque building, dating to the 17th century.
There are lots of plazas like this one in Havana, little oases among the bustle of the streets. My favourite is Plaza Vieja, also 16th century. It’s worth a visit to see the elegant fountain and colourful colonial buildings surrounding it. According to the guide, the giant fan in this square was erected as a tribute to the colonial ladies who used their fans to create a secret language!
The plazas have become a haven for souvenir hawkers. Beware fake “authentic Cuban” cigars. There are book sellers (everything you ever wanted to know about Ché as long as you read Spanish), and quirky characters like Havana’s cigar ladies. I watch as one of these grand dames poses with tourists (for a small price, of course). She is dressed in beautiful white finery embellished with lots of flowers, an enormous cigar incongruously clamped in her teeth.
The white clothing might indicate adherence to Santeria, an Afro-Caribbean religion based on Yoruba (West African) beliefs and traditions. These were blended with Roman Catholic elements by African slaves. The religion is still popular. Remember I Love Lucy? Desi Arnaz (as Ricky Ricardo) used to sing his famous theme song, Babalu. Babalu is the supreme being in Santeria.
From near Plaza de las Armas, The Malecon, a 1.5-mile sea wall runs parallel to the Straits of Florida, along Havana Harbour. While often ineffective at keeping the waves from washing over the adjacent road, the road, which runs beside this sea wall, offers more fascinating architecture.
Among the most unusual of these is referred to locally as the Coffin Building, because its balconies protrude from the walls like giant coffins, a tribute I am told to the revolutionaries lost in the struggle for freedom.
The Malecon has been described as the world’s longest bench for lovers. As the sun sets on the water, young couples can be found every few metres along its length.
Don’t tell Cubans that El Capitolo or The Capitol, looks like the US building of the same name. They’ll tell you the architect claimed his inspiration came from the cupola of the Panthéon in Paris.
It’s a gorgeous neo-classical confection whose cupola should be seen from the interior.
Nearby stands the newly renovated Gran Teatro, built in the German neo-Baroque style. Both were built in the early 20th century and represent some of the grandest examples of Havana architecture.
These are just a small taste of what Havana offers in the way of architecture. Art deco buildings are sprinkled in amongst these classics, as are starkly modern structures like the Museum of Art. And the embassy district offers a view of some spectacularly beautiful homes, now housing consulates. Don’t even attempt to take pictures here or a policeman will politely but firmly explain that this is verboten.
Cuba may be a sun and sand destination, with visitors heading straight for the beaches of Varadero and Holguin, but don’t forget Havana – a magnificent city whose architecture and history touch Europe and America in a very real way.