Cuba, Day 2, Part 1 Plaza de Armas, Cathedral Square, Mercaderes Street

It’s time for us to head back to Cuba, so we can continue to explore its history, people, music and food.

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In my first blog in this series, I gave an overall introduction to the trip we took with Ross Halleck of Halleck Vineyard.

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Ross organized the trip with the help of the folks at Cuba Explorer for Halleck’s Inner Circle wine club. A dozen intrepid travelers and wine lovers met in Miami to catch a 4 am flight to Havana. In Cuba: Day 1, Part 1 I brought you along on our flight and morning tour of some of Havana’s most important monuments and a beautiful park.

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We paused for a delicious lunch and some local music at El Aljibe Restaurant, which was so good it earned a blog post all its own.

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Cuba: Day 1, Part 2, is a virtual tour of the Museum of the Revolution and a buffet dinner at our hotel.

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There are all sorts of tours available these days for Americans who want to visit Cuba with themes ranging from art and history to LGBT life on the island. (People from most other countries can visit Cuba just as they visit anywhere else, but there are still restrictions on American tourism.) One of the things that set this trip apart from any other were the bottles of Halleck wine that appeared on our tables every night at dinner.

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Our first day was a long one, so we were all very happy to find our beds that night, knowing that are agenda every day would be similarly full of sights, music and food.

We began Day 2 at the Plaza de Armas [Weapons Plaza (or Square) or Parade Ground]. This is the oldest square in Havana. It was laid out in the 1520s and was originally called the Plaza de Iglesia (Church Square) after a church (La Iglesia Parroquial Mayor, or The Major Parish Church) that was originally the focal point of the square. As we got out of our bus, we saw El Palacio del Segundo Cabo (The Palace of the Vice-Governors of Havana) and El Castillo de la Real Fuerza (The Strong Fort).

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El Palacio del Segundo Cabo was built in 1773 as the Royal Post Office, but it has served a number of function in the almost 250 years since it was built. It became the home of the Vice-Governor in 1854 and that name has stuck with it through various incarnations as a post office, palace, Supreme Court, National Academy of Arts and Letters, Senate, and headquarters of the Cuban Academy of Science. It has been closed for renovation since 2012 and will reopen as a cultural center.

Overlooking  the harborthe history of El Castillo de la Real Fuerza is a cautionary tale of governmental and military incompetence.

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Construction of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza began in 1562, but it was not completed until 1577. Slaves and French prisoners provided most of the labor to build the fortress. An older fort, Fuerza Vieja (Old Force) had been built to defend the city against pirates, but it was too far back from the harbor to be effective. A French pirate managed to damage the fort rather heavily in 1555, and Fuerza Vieja was demolished in 1582. The Castillo de la Real Fuerza was planned and eventually built during that period, but, it, too, was not only located too far from the harbor to be fully effective in defending the city, but was also too small. It soon became the official residence of the Governor of Havana.

The watchtower you see in the image above was added in 1634. The figure at the top is a weathervane (la giralda, in Spanish) in the shape of a woman.

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The sculpture is the work of Gerónimo Martín Pinzón, an artist who lived in Havana at the time. He modeled it after the figure that tops the famous bell tower of the Cathedral of Seville in Spain. Here is an old image of the Cathedral of Seville and its bell tower that I took with a point-and-shoot camera way back in 2008.

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The cathedral’s bell tower is called La Giralda (The Weathervane), after the large sculpture that tops the tower and does, in fact, serve as a weathervane. The much smaller figure on the bell tower in Havana is known as La Giraldilla (the little weathervane). It became a symbol of the city. As you will see later, it also appears on the label of Havana Club Rum. The statue you see atop the watchtower in my photo is a copy; the original is in the City Museum in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, which we’ll visit shortly.

Dominating one of the four sides of the Plaza de Armas is the Hotel Santa Isabel.

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The building was constructed almost 200 years ago as a palace for Havanan aristocracy. It was rebuilt at the beginning of the 19th century when it became the home of the Counts of Santovenia. In 1897, it was converted into a hotel that was popular with artists, writers, diplomates and other travelers. More recently, it underwent a complete renovation that was completed in 1997. Former US President Jimmy Carter has stayed in the hotel several times. 

The colonnade that runs the length of the front of the hotel is spectacular, and I can only imagine how many people, famous and obscure, have sat there sipping a cool drink.

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There is no sign on the hotel, just the initials etched into the entrance door.

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The elegant receptions desk is almost a piece of artwork.

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The inner courtyard provides another fine location to sit and sip a Mojito.

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The square itself bustles with all sorts of activity. There are vendors of food, drink, books and more, as well as people doing hard work.

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In the middle of the square is a park, Parque Céspedes, and there stands a statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the first President of the Republic of Cuba. He is also known as El Padre de la Patria (The Father of the Country).

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In 1868, Céspedes freed his slaves and declared Cuban independence from Spain, starting what would become known as the Ten Years War. In 1869, Céspedes was elected President of the Republic of Cuba in Arms.

The war had some rough similarity to the American Civil War, though the division was East and West rather than North and South. Western Cuba was dominated by sugarcane plantations that used slaves to fill the large labor requirements of that crop. The West was also the seat of the Spanish Governor-General, who loved on the plaza we are making our way around in this blog post. To the East, the presence of the Spanish Crown was lesser, and the main crop was tobacco, which required much less labor to grow, harvest and process. 

Céspedes and his rebels were somewhat successful at first, but between their internal disagreements on how the war should be fought and the country organized as well as Spain’s overwhelming military advantage, the rebellion was finally ended in 1878. It would take two more wars, the so-called “Little War” of 1879-1880, and finally the Cuban War of Independence (1895-1898) for Cuba to finally break free of Spain. The United States entered the War of Independence on the Cuban’s side for the last few months, so the conflict is sometimes called the Spanish-American War.

Céspedes did not live to see the independence he fought for, however, as he was killed by the Spanish in 1874 after he had been deposed by another faction within the group fighting for independence. Céspedes’ statue was installed in 1834 in the place formerly occupied by a statue of King Fernando VII of Spain. (We’ll see that statue when we get to the City Museum across the square.)

Next to the Hotel Santa Isabel is a building called El Templete (The Temple), which was built in 1827 on the site where the first mass and city council meeting in the newly formed city of Havana were held in 1519.

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El Templete was undergoing renovation when we were there, but I understand the building contains a statue of Christopher Columbus and three paintings by Jean Baptiste Vermay.

Our next stop was La Taberna del Galeon [The Tavern of the Galleon (a type of  armed cargo ship common, especially in Spain, in the 15th-17th centuries)]. La Taberna is a cigar and rum shop downstairs with a bar upstairs.

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For some visitors to Cuba, rum and cigars (ron y cigarros) are the main reasons to go, so this store is a slice of heaven for them. The two biggest rum producers in Cuba are Havana Club, based in Havana, and Santiago de Cuba from Santiago on the eastern side of the island.

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Both producers make a wide range of rums differing primarily in how long they are aged before bottling. Blanco (“white,” sometimes called “silver”) rums are only aged a year or so before bottling, but some are aged for 25 years or  more. Young rums are generally best served mixed in cocktails, while aged rums are best sipped straight up, like a good Scotch or Cognac. I tasted a lot of rums while I was in Cuba, and my personal favorite was the 20 year old Santiago de Cuba. Your taste, of course, my vary.

Take a moment to examine the labels on the Havana Club Blanco. Do you recognize the little figure just above the Havana Club name? It is our friend La Giraldilla, the little weathervane on the watchtower of El Castillo de la Real Fuerza that we discussed earlier.

I am not a cigar smoker, but this display brought gasps of delight from the members of our group who were.

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Names like Cohiba, Montecristo, and Romeo y Julieta are to cigar smokers what Romanée-Conti and Lafite are to wine lovers and Ferrari and Porsche are to car lovers. These cigars are hand rolled from the very finest tobacco grown in Cuba, which some say is the finest in the world. Alas, they meant little to me, although I thought the displays made for some pretty nice pictures.

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While these may be among the finest cigars in the world (though folks in the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, and elsewhere may beg to differ), they still bear the same health warning as any bargain-basement domestic cigarette in large, black and white labels.

One of my favorite things about traveling through Latin America is the dogs. Many dogs roam freely through the neighborhoods, owned by no one and everyone. Cuba was no exception.

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Our next stop was the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (Palace of the Captains General).

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As the name implies, the building was intended as the residence of the Spanish governors (Captains General) of Cuba. Its construction began in 1776, just as something revolutionary was occurring on the mainland to the north. The  Royal Post office (later to become El Palacio del Segundo Cabo, as discussed above) and El Castillo de la Real Fuerza had already been built on the the northern side of the plaza, so the Palacio was planned for the western side. Sparing no expense, much of the building material was imported from Spain and Italy. The labor was provided, of course, given the time period, by slaves. It was not ready for occupancy until 1791 and was officially complete in 1792. It served as the residence for Spanish governors until 1898 when Cuba gained independence from Spain. Somewhat ironically, it was taken over by US Military Governors from 1899 until 1902 when the President of the Cuban Republic moved in. It remained the Presidential Palace until 1920 when a new Presidential Palace was built. If you have read Cuba Day 1, Part 2: Viva la Revolución!, you may remember that the new Presidential Palace is now the Museum of the Revolution. The old Palacio served as City Hall from 1920 to 1967.

The old Palace is now the home of El Museo de la Ciudad (the City Museum). The Palace is, well, palatial. It is a beautiful example of Baroque architecture. Just walking though the door…

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…or through one of the rooms….

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…or the courtyard…

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…makes it easy to imagine how magnificent it must have been when it served as a palace.

The centerpiece of the courtyard is a marble statue of Christopher Columbus that was completed in 1862.

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When I told you about the statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the first President of the Republic of Cuba (above) that stands in the plaza, I mentioned that it replaced a statue of King Fernando VII of Spain. The king’s statue now guards the front colonnade of the City Museum.

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There was a metal sculpture on the colonnade that I have not been able to identify.

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Perhaps it came from La Iglesia Parroquial Mayor, or The Major Parish Church, which was torn down to make room for El Palacio.

Here is a map that should help you see how these various buildings are arranged around the plaza.

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The El Templete marked on the map with a little fork and knife is actually a restaurant named after the monument which we will visit for lunch. The unlabeled (I dropped a pin on it) yellow box between Hotel Santa Isabel and El Castillo de la Real Fuerza marks the location of the El Templete monument. La Taberna del Galeon is on the other side of the hotel.

As I was leaving El Palacio, what looked like an old bell tower fused with a very modern building caught my eye.

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Our guide, Mariana, later explained that the “old” bell tower was actually a reproduction of a tower that was part of a Dominican monk monastery. The monks had founded the first University in Cuba (and one of the first in the New World), the Real y Pontificia Universidad de San Gerónimo de la Habana (Royal and Pontifical University of Saint Geronimo of Havana) on the site in 1728. The University became a purely secular one in 1842 and was renamed the National University when Cuba gained it’s freedom from Spain. The name has not changed since then, but the University is now made up of several buildings around the city. The old monastery is long since gone, but this building is one of the newest and most modern in the city and in the University system. A reproduction of the monastery’s bell tower was designed into the building, which houses the Colegio de San Gerónimo (Saint Jerome College). The name is an homage to the historical name of the university and does not indicate a religious affiliation. It is on Calle Tacón (Tacón Street) just north of the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (City Museum).

Also along Tacón St., I noticed the entrance to a photography store with some interesting etched glass.

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Of course, there is no escaping souvenir shops anywhere in the world.

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We walked on toward the Plaza de la Catedral de la Habana, passing some old boats on the sidewalk along the way.

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The tower you see in the background about ¼ of the way in from the left border is the Havana Cathedral, which we will get to in a moment.

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Behind these boats you can see a pit where Los Restos de La Muralla de La Habana (The Remains of the Wall of Havana) have been excavated. We saw another piece of the old wall that once enclosed the old city at the Museum of the Revolution in Cuba Day 1, Part 2: Viva la Revolución!,

A short walk down Empedrado Street brought us to Cathedral Square (Plaza de la Catedral).

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There are several important buildings on the square and I will discuss three of them. Let’s start on the right side of the panoramic shot of the square with the Casa del Conde de Casa Lombillo (House of the Count of the House of Lombillo). As I researched the history of this building, I grew increasingly confused. Different articles and maps referred to Casa del Conde de Casa Lombillo, Palacio del Conde de Casa Lombillo, Palacio del Conde Lombillo, and similar variations and permutations. Eventually I figured out that there was one Casa del Conde de Casa Lombillo on the Plaza de la Catedral and another on the Plaza Vieja (Old Plaza). 

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To add to the confusion, the Casa del Conde de Casa Lombillo on Cathedral Square actually has three important facades: one facing the square (seen in the photo above), one facing Empedrado Street the other facing Mercaderes Street. We approached the Cathedral along Empedrado, where I snapped this photo.

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Here is a closeup if the plaque above the dolls.

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The plaque says that the building was completed in the mid-18th century, mentions the facades facing three different directions and a little about the additions to the building that have been made since it was originally built. Today it is the home of a magazine called Opus Habana, two art galleries and the City Historian’s Office.

On the left side of the panorama of the plaza is Casa del Marqués de Aguas Claras (House of the Marquis of Clear Waters).

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The casa (or palacio as it is referred to in some places) is now a restaurant called El Patio. We did not eat there, so I don’t know how good it is, but it certainly has a great location. The large patio looked like an ideal place to cool off in the heat of the day.

The main attraction on Cathedral Square is, of course the Havana Cathedral or La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana (The Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception of Havana).

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The church was designed in the Baroque style. The Jesuits began the construction of a church, La Iglesia de la Compañía de Jesús (The Church of the Jesuits) in 1748 and oversaw the project until 1767 when they were expelled from Cuba by order of the Spanish King Carlos III. The church was finally completed in 1777. The Church was consecrated as a Cathedral (La Catedral de Havana) in 1782 and officially recognized as a Cathedral by the Roman Catholic Church in 1793. (In the Roman Catholic Church, a cathedral is the main church in a diocese and is the home of the Bishop for that diocese). 

Before the Cathedral was built, the plaza was known as Plaza de la Ciénaga (Swamp Square) because it was built on a very marshy area. The swamp was drained and paved, but the high water table hinders restoration projects on the buildings around the square even today.

Notice that the bell tower on the right…

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…is significantly wider than the clock tower on the left…

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The side doors and knockers on the cathedral were impressively built.

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The Cathedral was open and a mass was starting during our visit. I normally do not take pictures during an active religious ceremony without explicit permission as I don’t believe it is appropriate. However, there were dozens of people taking pictures, many with flashes popping, all around the perimeter of the church and even sitting in the congregation, so I decided to take a few myself—discretely, and without flash!

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The artwork above the altar was impressive…

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…as was the artwork on the walls around the room (see more in the gallery at the end of this blog post).

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The area around Cathedral Square was not immune from the decay and lack of repair that was common around the city.

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Still, there were places of beauty, too.

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We left the Cathedral Square walking down Mercaderes Street. Along the way we passed laundry out to dry…

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…well-preserved, 1950s era American cars…

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…kids on their bikes…

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…and a fountain.

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On the right side of this picture, hidden behind the tree is a yellow and blue building, The Little Blue Doll Haberdashery (La Muñequita Azul Mercería).

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If you look closely you can see the Little Blue Doll on the sign on the corner of the building. You don’t see the word “haberdashery” much anymore. It used to be a store that specialized in hats, but those are pretty rare these days. In the UK, especially, it can refer to a shop that specializes in men’s clothing. Perhaps most commonly these days it refers to a shop that specializes in fabric and all the stuff (needles, thread, etc.) needed to turn the fabric into clothing, and that is the definition that fits this store. It’s bright yellow and blue colors make it easy to spot.

I am told there are almost always some street musicians outside of La Muñequita Azul Mercería. You can sort of see them behind the people in the street and in front of the wall of windows in the shop. I don’t know if the band I saw are the resident musicians or of there is a rotating group of players. Here is a short clip of the music while I was there.

 

Sometimes a young, up and coming musician would help out.

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To the left of La Muñequita Azul Mercería is the yellow-brown La Casa de Obispo, (the House on Obispo [Street])

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  This is the oldest house in Havana, built in 1594. 

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Across the street from the yellow and blue Little Blue Doll Haberdashery is a pink building that is the Hotel Ambos Mundos. You can see it in the picture above looking down Mercaderes Street, past the fountain.

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The hotel became famous when Ernest Hemingway lived there for six years back in the 1930s. To make sure no one forgets, there are pictures of Hemingway all over the lobby.

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Apparently Cuban security guards as just as vigilant as America security guards. 

Another wall includes more photos of Hemingway.

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This famous picture of Fidel Castro and Ernest Hemingway is prominently displayed.

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Though Hemingway spent a lot of time in Cuba in the 1940s and 1950s and wrote The Old Man and the Sea there, he was not terribly involved in the politics. This photo was taken on the one occasion when Hemingway and Fidel met, which was at a fishing tournament held in Hemingway’s honor in May, 1960. Not surprisingly, Castro won. Hemingway left the island for good later that year. The bar is supposed to look pretty much like it did when Hemingway lived in the hotel.

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Continuing south of Mercaderes we passed Simón Bolívar Plaza.

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Bolívar was the great liberator of Latin American, playing a major role in gaining independence for several countries then under Spanish rule. I wrote a summary of his life in Cuba Day 1, Part 2: Viva la Revolución!. If you want to know more, Bolivar: American Liberator by Marie Arana as a very readable account of his life from a Latin American perspective.

 

The plaza is, appropriately, across from a house that Bolívar stayed in while visiting Cuba in March, 1799.

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The house is a colonial mansion built in the early 1800s. It is now a museum dedicated to Bolívar funded by the Venezuelan government, their most famous native son.

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We continued along a beautifully maintained section of Mercaderes….

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…until we passed Parque Rumiñahui.

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This is a small park with numerous benches for people to relax under the shade trees. There are also a couple of fountains, which always add to the ambience. The park is named after the last Inca emperor, Rumiñahui, who waged a ferocious guerrilla war against the Spanish conquistadores before he was finally defeated in what is now Ecuador in 1535.

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We continued down Mercaderes Street, past some beautifully maintained homes…

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…past locals and tourists going about their business…

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…and past locals watching life go by from their balconies.

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As we approach the Plaza Vieja (Old Plaza) I’ll bring this chapter to a close and we’ll pick up there in Cuba, Day 2, Part 2, Plaza Vieja and more.

 Take  a few minutes to browse the images in the slideshow. There are many that are not included in the article above.

 The author is a member of the Halleck Vineyard Inner Circle Wine Club and the Amazon Associate program, but otherwise has no affiliation with any of the places, companies, equipment or locations mentioned in the article.

All images were taken with a Sony Alpha a6000 camera and a Sony-Zeiss SEL1670Z Vario-Tessar T E 16-70mm (24-105mm full frame equivalent) F/4 ZA OSS lens, Sony SEL1018 10-18mm (15-24mm full frame equivalent) F/4 Wide-Angle Zoom Lens, or Sony 18-200mm (24-300mm full frame equivalent) F/3.5-6.3 E-Mount Lens using ambient light. Post-processing in Adobe Lightroom® and Adobe Photoshop® with Nik/Google plugins. 

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