The time to discover some of the wonders of the Havana's central historic district is the summer, despite the intense heat of the season.
It all began with an excellent idea from the City Historian’s Office, led by Eusebio Leal: to ensure that visitors, and especially Havana residents themselves, view the city through new eyes and delve into the beauty of the space they inhabit.
The Office thus devised the “Rutas y Andares” (Walks and Wanderings) program16 years ago, a name that evokes an extraordinary program presented by Leal himself on Cuban television entitled “Andar La Habana” (Walking Havana).
The Walks and Wanderings program allows participants to “go back in time,” as the poet Silvio Rodríguez might say, and discover some of the wonders of the City’s Historic Center.
It should be recalled that this year Havana was awarded the title of “Wonder City of the World”, alongside La Paz, Beirut, Doha, Durban (South Africa), Kuala Lumpur and Vigan (the Philippines), as part of an initiative by the New7Wonders project.
Novelties and further details on the 2016 Walks and Wanderings program were discussed at a press conference held at the Palacio del Segundo Cabo with Katia Cárdenas, director of Cultural Management within the City Historian’s Office.
To begin with, Cárdenas noted that on average, “We are privileged to welcome about 12,000 visitors every summer,” and added that for the next two months, seven walking routes - four of them particularly special – have been devised, as well as different “wandering” routes each week.
All the tours begin at the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, located in the beautiful Plaza de Armas, surrounded by the imposing Castillo de la Real Fuerza (1577), the Palacio del Segundo Cabo itself and El Templete, a small neoclassical building opened in 1828, where each November 16 Havana residents celebrate the anniversary of the first mass and the first town council of San Cristóbal de La Habana (1519).
Cárdenas added that these tours are conducted by over 400 guides, “eloquent collaborators,” as Leal has described them, including architects, experts, skilled workers, and restorers.
Among the different walking routes is one covering Havana’s old pharmacies, with visits to the Sarrá (Museum of Havana Pharmacy), Taquechel and Johnson establishments, all dating from the nineteenth century, located along Obispo Street and fully restored.
This year a special route has been organized in honor of the 90th birthday of the historic leader of the Revolution, Fidel Castro, (August 13) including visits to the Azpiazo-Castro-Resende lawyer’s firm, where Fidel practiced law, the Casa Oswaldo Guayasamín, Casa de África, Casa Simón Bolívar, Armería 9 de Abril, Casa Juan Gualberto Gómez and the Museum of the Revolution.
Another route that was very popular last year is repeated in this edition: the “Open Works” route, providing participants with the opportunity to visit Havana’s Capitolio building, and witness the progress of the significant restoration works underway here.
The monumental building, with its main entrance facing the Paseo del Prado, has been undergoing a total restoration process for over three years and is opening its doors to guided tours by architects.
The Havana Capitolio was inaugurated in 1929 and contains a range of sculptures by Italian artist Ángelo Zanelli, including the La República statue, standing at almost 15 meters tall and considered to be one of the largest indoor sculptures in the world.
Cárdenas explained that certain Havana hotels have conducted their own surveys regarding international tourists’ favorite city sights. Within the historical center of the city, these include La Bodeguita del Medio bar-restaurant, one block from the Plaza de la Catedral on Empedrado Street, No. 207, where many personalities have tried a famous “mojito” (Cuban cocktail made of rum, sugar, lemon, peppermint and fizzy water) and visitors can leave a message on the walls, of which there are about two million.
La Bodeguita is right next to the headquarters of the Carpentier Foundation, the Havana mansion which provided the setting for the great writer’s novel Explosion in a Cathedral.
The nearby Plaza de la Catedral, another preferred sites, is the most beautiful of Havana’s colonial squares. It owes its name to the imposing cathedral it houses. The superb facade is decorated with engraved columns and undulating arches that resemble waves. Alejo Carpentier described it as “music turned into stone” and it is considered the best example of eighteenth century Cuban Baroque architecture.
Stops along this route include the Taller de la Gráfica René Portocarrero, in the Callejón del Chorro and the Perfumería 1791, on Oficios Street, where one can purchase a natural, personalized fragrance.
An essential photo stop for tourists is the quixotic figure of the legendary Knight of Paris (by Cuban sculptor José Villa), located opposite the main entrance of the San Francisco de Asís Minor Basilica and the first monument dedicated to Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra in America, (by Italian artist Carlos Nicoli, unveiled in 1908), located in the park that bears his name on the corner of San Juan de Dios and Empedrado streets.
This year, the site is receiving additional attention, as 2016 marks 400 years since the death of the author of The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.
Among the preferences of tourists are two emblematic colonial forts, the Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro (1630) and San Carlos de la Cabaña (1774), on the other side of Havana’s Bay, which form part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Every evening at 9:00pm the Cabaña is host to a striking military ceremony in the style of the colonial era, with a traditional cannon shot, dating from the eighteenth century when a canon was fired to announce it was time to close the gates of the city wall and place the chain that closed off the port entrance.
Havana is vast, magical and marvelous, difficult to capture in the brevity of a verse, but “let’s go walking” this summer through the city that so many poets have written about. The Rutas y Andares program provides us a special opportunity.