Photo: Juvenal Balán

HAVANA, definitively established in 1519 on the edge of a wide bay with a narrow entrance and deep waters, with its history and legends, with its centuries-old stones, is mysteriously enticing.

The historic center of the Cuban capital, which will celebrate 500 years since its founding on November 16 this year, conserves a collection of castles, fortresses and buildings of such high patrimonial value that in 1982 UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site.

The heritage site includes Havana’s historic center and the fortifications erected since its establishment, such as the Castillo de la Real Fuerza colonial fortress, its first great fortification, work on which started in 1558 over the ruins of an old fort.

Due to its privileged geographic location (not by accident called the “Key to the Gulf” and the “Antemural of the West Indies”), the Villa de San Cristóbal de La Habana became a meeting point for the vast Spanish fleets that transported the riches of the New World: gold and silver, alpaca wool from the Andes, emeralds from Colombia, mahogany from Cuba and Guatemala, hides from La Guajira, spices, corn, potatoes, cocoa; all of which fuelled the avarice of corsairs and pirates.

Consequently, the Spanish Crown equipped its fortifications with the most advanced military engineering of the time. Thus La Punta and the fortified towers of La Chorrera and San Lázaro were built, and in 1563, on a cliff at the entrance to the bay, the Tres Reyes del Morro Castle, designed by Italian military engineer, Juan Bautista Antonelli. Later came the San Carlos de La Cabaña Fortress to complete the city’s fortification system.

Photo: Juvenal Balán

However, El Morro’s bastions and batteries, including the so-called “12 Apostles” cannon battery, which still exists today, were not enough to prevent the Siege of Havana by a large British fleet in 1762.

Havana was captured after two months. Sir George Keppel governed it until mid 1763, when the British swapped the city for Florida.

That same 1763, on the very hillside captured by the British and from where they defeated the city’s defenses, under the direction of military engineer Silvestre Abarca, works began on the new fortress of La Cabaña.

The work lasted more than eleven years and at such a huge cost that King Carlos III of Spain is said to have looked out of his window with a spyglass demanding to be shown where such an expensive construction was located. Perhaps to appease the monarch the fortress was named San Carlos de la Cabaña.

The fortress has a main body composed of two semi-bastions at either end: that of San Francisco and San Lorenzo; and a central bastion - San Ambrosio. A steep slope faces the bay, and on land it is surrounded by a large moat.

The largest military fortress built by Spain in the Americas, La Cabaña is a real treasure and has become another of the wonders of the capital.

Among its traditions is the so-called “nine o’clock cannon shot,” which recalls the cannon blast that signaled the closing of the city gates in colonial times. Today it is a real ceremony, complete with period uniforms.

But it is precisely the fact that every February the site becomes a “Fortress of Books,” which gives it even greater relevance today. In what is a completely different use to its original intention, thousands of Havana residents and visitors eagerly await the Havana International Book Fair every year, now in its 28th edition.

The fortress’ vaults are transformed into bookstores, with more than 600 new titles presented in this year’s edition, while its bastions and parade ground also host tents for further book sales.

February 7-17, La Cabaña becomes a hive of readers going back and forth through its narrow cobbled pathways in search of conference rooms and book presentations. Rooms named after greats of Cuban literature: Nicolás Guillén, Carpentier, Portuondo, Lezama Lima.

This grand literary festival offers the opportunity to reread or discover for the first time texts such as Los pasos en la hierba, by Eduardo Heras León, National Literature Prize winner to whom the Fair is dedicated; or the classic The Wretched of the Earth, by Frantz Fanon, independence fighter and member of Algeria’s National Liberation Front. It is precisely Algeria that features as the Guest Country of Honor at this year’s edition of the Fair.

Always an unmissable event, the Fair offers the possibility of finding that sought-after title, or the work of an admired author.

What’s more, the impressive San Carlos de la Cabaña Fortress offers one of the most spectacular views of Havana; a site to sit and contemplate the city’s mysterious charm.