It’s hard to get my head around the idea that life can exist with out classes. Yes, I know there are the favoured and the not-so-favoured in any system, but not to have a working class, a middle class, an upper class – I find that strange. And strange only because I’m used to it.
I didn’t see much obvious wealth in Havana. Yes, the vestige was there but there wasn’t a marked contrast that I could see. It was more about restored and yet-to-be restored. But in the south-coast city of Cienfuegos, about 250km (160 miles) south of Havana, I found it.
Cuban singer Benny Moré wrote a song about his home town, dubbed the Pearl of the South. He reckoned it was the most beautiful city in the country – I haven’t seen enough to comment, but man, does it have some amazing buildings. The city is certainly one worth wandering.
The town square is dominated by the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception (Catedral de la Purisima Concepcion). It was closed when we were there (a rarity by all accounts) so I missed the Chinese writing that was discovered on the church columns that is thought to date from the 1870s. There has to be a story worth telling there. The Neo-Classical building dates back to the early 1800s and is the city’s pride and joy. The government building isn’t too shabby either. Both sit on Parque Marti, named after the Cuban hero José Martí, who at the age of 16 had already founded his own newspaper La Patria Libre (The Free Fatherland). If there was ever a young revolutionary in the making, it had to be him. He said of books: Books console us, calm us, prepare us, enrich us and redeem us. Someone whose body of work is worth exploring. Note to self duly made.
It has its own yacht club complete with tennis courts, terrace bar, and all the swish and swank you’d expect from yachters everywhere. And in the neighbourhood, there are some great looking villas that I’d not say no to.
Were I to go back, I’d be sure to see the inside of the Tomás Terry theatre. The gold-leaf mosaics out front are apparently just a hint of the grandeur inside. Terry wasn’t an actor or even a playwright – he was an industrialist… from Venezuela … a sugar plantation owner who would later become mayor of the city. He wanted his legacy to Cuba to be a top-notch theatre (this is one of three built in the county in the nineteenth century – the other two are Theater Sauto in Matanzas, and La Caridad in Santa Clara). Anyway, in 1863, he set aside money in his will (some 60 000 pesos) and asked the governor that all but 10k be used to build his theatre, the 10k going towards a school for poor kids that would be supported by the proceeds from the theatre. The man was ahead of his time. It seats 950 (originally everyone stood on four floors, from what I understand) and has the ubiquitous Carrara marble, frescoes, and carved wood. Terry died a year after having the inspiration but his widow and heirs followed through.
It was the Palacio de Valle though, that really captured my imagination. Imagine having the money to bring a bunch of specialist tradesmen together and to borrow from various schools like Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque, Italianate, and Mudejar (apparently popular in Spain the twelfth century). You’d get what could best be described as a fairy tale. This is what Don Acisclo del Valle did, back around 1913. He had the money and he had the imagination. And this is what he got.
Had time been on our side, the rooftop bar is the perfect place to view the harbour and get ready for a seafood dinner in the Bodega below. It was all other-worldly. We were definitely on the rich side of town. And that’s not to say that there weren’t ordinary buildings in between the grandeur, but even these had a holiday feel to them rather than a permanence.
For the permanence we’d have to cross town, where I imagined the real people living. Taxis again abounded with the classic cars showing a wear and tear that befit their years. The local transport of choice was more of the horse and cart variety. Tourists were thin on the ground. And most were having coffee on the square. Some I even recognised. Those who venture beyond the bus tours and the guided itineraries seem few. Or perhaps it was off-season.
The city is worth far more than the time we had to give it. We missed the El Nicho falls, supposedly one of the most beautiful sights in the country. And the Botanical Gardens. Somewhere there’s a series of murals Murales that depict US-Cuban relations – that’s something I’d liked to have seen. Worth a stopover, if you’re in the country.