Let’s walk through Havana, my love,
Daylight appears and the city
wants to rise up.
THE Havana City Historian’s Office prepares an attractive program of visits to historic and cultural sites each summer, known as “Rutas y Andares” (Walks and Wanderings), offering local residents and visitors the opportunity to experience the Cuban capital’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites first-hand.
It has become tradition that these tours begin in the Plaza de Armas, on the Calle de Madera, the only street in the city whose cobblestones are made of hardwood, in front of the majestic Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, which was established as the Museum of the City in 1968.
The imposing building, which was the residence of Spanish colonial governors, was built between 1776 and 1792, on the land where the first church in Havana was erected in the 16th century, then named Parroquial Mayor, and which according to some historians was burned down by the pirate Jacques de Sores in 1555.
The work was designed by engineer Antonio Fernández Trebejos y Zaldívar, commissioned by the Captain General (Governor), Marqués de la Torre, and inaugurated by his successor, Don Luís de las Casas.
Robust, regal and beautiful, the Palace/Museum is considered an example of what has been called Cuban Baroque architecture, and occupies an entire block. It is located on the west side of the Plaza de Armas, the oldest square in the city (which acquired its current shape and size in 1589).
Built with limestone from the San Lázaro quarries, providing a rustic appearance, also used were rich Cuban woods, bricks from Málaga, grillwork from Bilbao, and Carrara marble.
After appreciating its solid and sober exterior, the first thing that stands out is its large portico with stone columns, carved from floor to ceiling, and arches that extend across the facade.
A large wooden door leads to the bright inner courtyard, dominated by the white marble statue of Admiral Christopher Columbus dating from 1862, and after enjoying the freshness of the garden, one can start the tour through some of its 40 permanent exhibition rooms, with artistic collections of great historic and cultural value.
Almost five centuries of history are captured in its magnificent halls.
From the colonial era is one of the public offices of the Captain General; the Salón del Trono (Throne Hall), build to imitate the great hall of the Royal Palace of Madrid; the uniforms of soldiers and officers of different ranks of the Spanish army, their weapons, documents, oil paintings, and photographs.
Turning to the nineteenth century independence wars, the Sala de las Banderas (Hall of Flags) stands out. Among those displayed is the flag raised in 1868 by Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, Father of the Nation; as well as Mambi arms, and allegorical paintings featuring independence heroes and battles.
One of the exterior galleries recalls, on bronze plaques, the four constitutions that were drafted and approved during the wars of independence: those of Guáimaro, 1869; Baraguá, 1878; Jimaguayú, 1895, and La Yaya, 1897; and the names of the heroes who signed them.
Other beautiful rooms are decorated with highly valuable pieces, including well-preserved period furniture, luxurious Venetian mirrors, jewelry and tableware belonging to aristocratic colonial era families.
As noted, several tours of this heritage city begin at the Palace, but other centuries-old buildings can be found in the Plaza de Armas itself. The first, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza (Castle of the Royal Force), built in the sixteenth century, with a drawbridge that passes over a moat, is one of the oldest in the American continent. It also offers another attraction: in the western tower there is a replica of the weathervane known as La Giraldilla, symbol of the city of Havana.
On the east side of the square is the neoclassical Templete, built in 1828 to commemorate the founding of the city and the first mass held here under a ceiba tree in 1519. It houses three monumental pieces by French painter Juan Bautista Vermay. Every year, on the eve of November 16, the date of the founding of Havana, hundreds of city dwellers walk around the ceiba tree three times and make a wish. (In the mid-eighteenth century the original tree died, and it has been replaced several times to date.)
Another palace is that of the Segundo Cabo (Second Corporal) or Vice Governor of Cuba, which is also one of the leading examples of Cuban Baroque architecture. Its construction began around 1770, and it was finished in 1791. It is a building in which austerity prevails: a portal with semicircular arches and an Andalusian-style interior patio. Since 2017, it has been home to the Center for the Interpretation of Cultural Relations between Cuba and Europe.
The Plaza de las Armas offers three other magnificent buildings. The Casa de los Condes de Santovenia (House of the Counts of Santovenia), built in the early eighteenth century, and today transformed into the luxurious Hotel Santa Isabel; and to close the loop around the square, the buildings that house the Museum of Natural History and the Rubén Martínez Villena Library.
These splendid colonial buildings are a unique attraction in this tour of Havana, a Wonder City of the World, which in 2019 will be celebrating its 500th anniversary.