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Old Havana Plain and Simple

Old Havana Plain and Simple

Posted by Miguel Ernesto on March 07, 2016

Havana has several symbols, but the National Capitol is likely to be one of the most famous elements, since it’s similar to Washington’s. This huge building, inaugurated in 1929, has been closed to the public for nearly six years. A millionaire investment aims at giving the impressive property its splendor back and, since people say that history is cyclic, it will once again become the seat of the Cuban Parliament, just like it did before 1959.

Walking in front of the Capitol can presently be a sort of odyssey. There is dust everywhere, the noise is deafening sometimes, holes have been opened in the streets and, every day, tens of workers do their best to install new water pipes and finish in the area, where royal palm trees stand out, Cuba’s national tree.

Although the area looks like a battlefield, it’s always crowded by tourists that take pictures of a Capitol that, step by step, begins to take shape. The order given to the restorers by Havana’s Historian Office, chaired by Dr. Eusebio Leal, was specific: no element of the original structure can be modified. So the engineers have had to devise original methods in an effort to install air-conditioning systems, so they are not visible.

There is no deadline to finish the works in the Capitol. It suffered decades without a full restoration and time and apathy seriously damaged the iconic building. Once it opens its doors, besides housing the National Assembly of the People’s Power (parliament), the Capitol will keep its museum function, so guided visits are going to be allowed –and charged – to such areas as the Hall of Lost Steps and the “Statue of the Republic”, a sculpture inspired by the legend of Palas Ateneas and described as one of the biggest indoor statues of the world.

Near the Capitol another imposing building already shows its best image. After three years of restoration works, the Grand Theater of Havana, “Alicia Alonso”, has reopened its doors and it’s one of the few theaters that have been named after a living dancer. The spectacular building, inaugurated back in 1838, reduced its capacity from 1,500 seats to 1,300, but both the acoustic and lighting systems have been improved, and an Opera Café has been included to hold events. This palace is gorgeously illuminated at night and it catches the eye of visitors.

When we go down the noisy boulevard of Obispo, the most crowded spot in Old Havana, where several State-managed stores, from the cheapest to the most expensive, coexist with private gastronomic business (bistros), and we step into the Square of Arms. We see the Templete, another iconic building of the city that is also undergoing a complex renovation process. Built in 1828, the small Greek-Roman temple was proclaimed World’s Heritage in 1982. 

This place is famous among the people of Havana because it hosted the first mass and session of the city hall of St Christopher of Havana, the original name of the village, back in 1519. It took place under a huge ceiba. Ever since that time, the tree became part of one of the most curious traditions in town. On November 16, when the foundation of the village is celebrated, the inhabitants of the capital used to go around the mythical tree and drop a coin at its roots, thus asking St Christopher to grant them a wish. 

The first ceiba died in the 18th century and it was replaced with a new one. The latest tree was in that place for 56 years until it was chopped down. That action shocked the people of Havana and they expressed sorrow at the disappearance, at least temporal, of one of the biggest symbols. The six-decade-old ceiba, authorities said, was in bad condition due to the termites. A 9-year-old ceiba tree will be planted there.

Beyond the Square of Arms we find the Port Avenue, an important place to the people of Havana. The waves, times and apathy had caused severe damage on the walls and nearby buildings, but a significant investment has tried to rescue this symbol of Havana.

Paula Tree-lined Avenue is one of the areas that have already been restored, the first public promenade in Havana, back in 1776. This was one of the most important social and cultural spaces in colonial Havana colonial.

The Tobacco and Wood Dock was forgotten for decades and it presently stands out as a state-of-the-art brewery, featuring Austrian technology, where handcrafted beer can be tasted, right in front of the sea. One day, which doesn’t seem to be too far away, that brewery will be totally connected to the Promenade, one of the works that has attracted the highest number of visitors, since they can walk on a structure that floats in the bay. 

How much has the restoration of Old Havana cost? The authorities don’t air official numbers, but the magnitude of the works and projects indicate that it’s a significant amount of money, for a country with an economy that goes through a crisis most of the time. However, that great architect Mario Coyula once admitted: “Havana costs, but it’s worth it.” This man was so right and he championed the investments in a bid to save a city with nearly five centuries of history.

 

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