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Cuba Part 3: Havana, Day 2 (Morning)

This is Part 3 of a multi-part series on Cuba. Havana... I don't even know where to begin--the sights, the sounds, the people, the food... It is a daunting task just to organize all of my thoughts. So, I'm simply going to go in chronological order through our time in this enigmatic city. You can Click Here To Read Part 1 or Click Here To Read Part 2.

On day two, we wake early, excited to begin the one full day we have dedicated to exploring Havana. The weather is gorgeous, but we can already tell it’s going to be a hot one! We start off our morning with breakfast at a small bar down the street from our AirBNB, Cafe Espada. For $5 CUC we get a breakfast that includes coffee or tea, a fresh fruit smoothie, a fruit plate, toast with butter/marmalade, eggs made to order (we both choose scrambled, which comes with tomatoes mixed in), and ham. It is way too much food for breakfast, and I barely eat half of what I am given. It seems so wasteful in a country struggling to feed its people.

Before we meet up with Tony, we try to find the spot a family photograph was taken in Old Havana in 1948. Using a major landmark in the photo–the Monumento Máximo Gómez, a tall statue of General Máximo Gómez riding a horse–it turns out to be surprisingly easy to find. It’s weird taking in what has changed and what really hasn’t over the last nearly sixty years. After snapping a few photos from near the same spot as the original, we walk the short distance back to our AirBNB.

At 9am, Tony meets us to begin our day touring Havana. First, he takes us to the Banco Metropolitano where we exchange some more money for CUCs. The banks, which often have lines down the street, are quieter in the mornings. Only one person is allowed at the counter, and they are very strict about how many people are even allowed inside of the bank. It’s a rule the bank takes quite seriously! The exchange rate today is $0.875 per USD, which is still crazy to me.

After we get our CUCs, we’re off to see Fusterlandia–a special request I made the day before. It is a ways outside the city center. On our way, we travel down the waterfront and up “Embassy Row,” getting a glimpse of many of Cuba’s foreign embassies, including the three most important–according to Tony–the Spanish, American, and Russian.

The Spanish Embassy is the prettiest of the three, reminding me of a mini Royal Palace of Madrid. At night, it is lit up like a Christmas tree. Constructed in 1912 in the art nouveau style, the building features ornately decorated windows and balconies that resemble the tiers on a wedding cake. The Spanish Embassy is one of the best preserved buildings I’ve encountered in Old Havana, and it’s fanciful design makes it feel somehow welcoming.

On the other hand, the Russian Embassy resembles something belonging in a Cold War era movie. The structure is typical of the blocky, imposing Soviet era architecture I’ve encountered in Berlin and other eastern European locations. It resembles an upside-down sword, firmly planted in Cuban soil, which seems apropos given the two countries’ twentieth century relationship.

The American Embassy is surrounded by armed guards, which I find odd since the majority of it is probably empty (over 60% of the U.S. staff has been sent home as a result of the mysterious sonic attacks that took place). It looks quite uninviting with a high, iron fence surrounding the blocky complex, and 138 empty flag poles flanking its front like metal spikes (technically across the street in Anti-Imperialist Plaza). During George W. Bush’s administration, when tensions were increasing again, the Cuban government erected the poles to hold 138 flags to block out human rights messages being broadcast on the building by the Americans.

Our mini embassy tour complete, we head into a nondescript suburban area in the small district of Jaimanitas. As we approach the outskirts of Fusterlandia, there are splashes of colorful tiles, decorated houses, and fancy bus stops. “An appetizer,” Tony tells us, to the main course we are about to encounter.

Fusterlandia is an art project thirty years in the making. For anyone who knows Barcelona’s Antonio Gaudí, Fusterlandia is inspired by his artistic movement, Catalan Modernism. Fusterlandia is like Gaudí on steroids with some Picasso thrown in, spread out over several city blocks. The epicenter of the fanciful, over-the-top designs is José Fuster’s residence, decorated from driveway to rooftop in brightly colored mosaic tiles with sculptures and abstract paintings incorporated into the mix. (Hours Note: Per the sign on Fuster’s gate, the property is open from 9:30am-4pm.)

We start off outside the residence on the block leading up to it. There is just so much to see. First, we check out a mural featuring Fidel Castro, Raúl Castro, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Che Guevara in the Granma yacht. Then, our attention is drawn to a brightly-colored mosaic ode to Hugo Chavez with the caption, “El Major Amigo” (the best friend). We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore!

Upon entering the gates to Fuster’s residence itself, I don’t even know which way to look. The colors and twisting, abstract sculptures almost resemble some kind of psychedelic children’s playground. After exploring the ground floor, which include a mosaic-tiled pool, we head up to the roof to take in the view from above. From here, we can see an 8-chimneyed adjoining building that exuberantly proclaims “Viva Cuba” in mosaics. It feels like a very appropriate sentiment in such a bright, vibrant setting.

Fusterlandia is a photographer’s dream, and my husband has a field day taking pictures from every angle. We find it to be worth the drive; I’ve never been anywhere like it. The entire neighborhood seems to be incorporated into Fuster’s giant work of art. José Fuster’s studio is located at Fusterlandia, and you can buy a Fuster creation to take home with you, ranging from a $30 decorated tile to a $3,000+ canvas. We could stay all day and probably not take in everything, but we have a lot on our list for today, so we head back toward the city.

We are covering all of the sites we want to hit outside of Old Havana today first, so next ups is Plaza de la Revolución. Revolution Square (its English translation) is a popular site for political rallies. Encompassing 11 acres, the square feels even bigger since it is so bare. The central portion of the square basically resembles a huge, empty parking lot. The surrounding space, however, holds several often-photographed Cuban landmarks.

The Plaza’s northern side is dominated by the towering José Martí Memorial, Havana’s tallest structure. At 358 feet tall, the star-shaped tower features an observation deck on its top floor with sweeping city views. The Plaza’s southern side features the Ministry of Interior and Communications buildings. The Ministry of Interior building, sporting a huge, steel-sculpted face of Che Guevara, is one of the most iconic spots in Havana. Che Guevara is arguably the most famous and recognizable Cuban revolutionary. His portrait here was modeled after a photograph taken of him in 1960. Under Che’s likeness are the scrawled words: Hasta la Victoria Siempre (Always Toward Victory). Camille Cienfuegos, another famous Cuban revolutionary, is displayed in a matching portrait on the side of the Ministry of Communications building. Camilo’s portraits was added more recently, in 2009. His accompanying quite is: Vas Bien Fidel (You’re doing well Fidel).

After taking in the vast plaza, we hop into the jeep to drive to our next destination. This one is a bit more personal. We are heading to the Cementerio de Cristobal Colón, where my husband’s great-great grandparents are buried. We are both part Cuban–and have more relatives in Cuba who reside both inside and outside cemetery walls–but these are the only two we have been able to easily track down for our trip. Armed with their names, the years of their deaths, and a photo of the grave site, we are hoping that Tony can help us find the spot. (The photo was provided by my husband’s aunt, who was able to track down the grave when she went to Cuba on a church mission trip in the 1990s.)

The cemetery is huge, covering 140 acres, with over a million people interred there, so I don’t think the picture will help much. Interestingly enough, though, it proves key to our locating the graves. When we arrive at the main entrance gate to the cemetery, Tony goes to talk to the employee on duty about our request while we wait in the car. My husband’s aunt told us her search in the 1990s led to ancient looking ledgers and some local help before the site could be located. It was too long ago for her to remember where in the cemetery the tomb was located. We see Tony and the employee talking, Tony showing him the photo I’ve provided him with, and then watch them walk a short distance away and come back.

Tony open the car door and says, “Let’s go.” We both just look at him, confused. Are we going to look in ledgers? Is there something here he wants to show us? We both assume we will have to drive to find the tomb–the place is huge! Tony leads us a few steps into the cemetery directly next to where we are parked and gestures in front of him. “Here it is,” he says triumphantly. We both just look at him incredulously, but sure enough, the grave is right in front of us! Tony laughs and says that he wishes he could tell us he planned this, but he just got that lucky.

The cemetery employee was at a loss at first, but after looking at the photo, he shockingly said he thought he knew where the grave was located based on some of the landmarks in the background. He led Tony to the exact spot he recognized. Sure enough, there it was with their names inscribed on the tomb exactly as in the photo!

My husband is so excited. We had been uncertain–to say the least–that we would be able to located the site. After taking a few minutes to pay our respects, we explore some more of the vast cemetery. Of particular highlight are: the ornate entrance gate, the 75 foot tall firefighter’s memorial, and the tomb of Amelia Goyri.

Amelia Goyri, better known as La Milagrosa (The Miraculous One), is the unlikely occupant of the most visited tomb in the entire cemetery. Amelia and her infant son died in childbirth in 1901. They were buried in the Colon Cemetery, with her son lain at her feet. Her grieving husband could not get over her death and would visit her tomb every day, knocking three times to her with a metal ring and only walking away backwards, keeping his eyes on her for as long as possible.

When Amelia and her infant were exhumed years later, they were found intact–a sign of sanctity to Catholics–and the infant was (allegedly) miraculously cradled in her arms. As a result, the tomb was resealed, and from that time, La Milagrosa’s tomb became a shrine. Decorated with flowers and tablets inscribed with prayers and thanks, people come from all over Cuba to ask Amelia for safe childbirth, help with conceiving, and protection for their children. The faithful still knock three times with the metal ring on her tomb and walk away backwards. Tony jokes about a lot of silly superstitions or Cuban traditions, but he seems quite serious about following this one. So, in keeping with tradition, we do the same.

Tony says our next stop is the historic center. We’re almost ready for lunch, but first we decide to stop off to see the Capitolio Nacional (National Capitol) and the Gran Teatro de la Habana (Grand Theater of Havana). The two famous buildings sit next to one along the Paseo de Martí, better known as the Paseo del Prado. The Paseo del Prado is the dividing line between Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and Centro Habana (Central Havana). Parts of it remind me of the Ramblas in Barcelona, the city’s famous tree-lined pedestrian boulevard. Here, though, the pedestrianized portion of the Paseo del Prado is more like a central island in a fairly busy road.

The immense Capitol Building is technically modeled after the Panthéon in Paris. However, it looks quite a bit like the Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. I have to take a double take. The Cuban National Capitol Building’s dome stands at 92m (302 ft.) tall, 1 meter taller that the U.S. Capitol Building–a fact which any Cuban will quickly point out! Constructed in the second half of the 1920s, the Capitol Building was home to the Cuban government prior to the 1959 Revolution. After the Revolution, it served as the Ministry of Science, Technology, and the Environment. Today, the complex is under restoration, with much of the building covered in scaffolding. The Cuban government plans to make it the home of the National Assembly upon completion.

Next-door, the Gran Teatro de la Habana is quite spectacular in its own right. The Theater looks like it belongs in a major European city. Even next to the enormous Capitol Building, it stands out. The Theater is adorned with sculptures and marble and bronze works. It is most well known as the home of the Cuban National Ballet, a renowned ballet company that puts on an International Ballet Festival every two years. In addition to the ballet, the Theater stages operas, dance performances, and concerts.

Directly across from the Gran Teatro de la Habana sits Parque Central (Central Park). Parque Central is a popular city park–and a good spot to find a horse and buggy tour. The park’s centerpiece is a Carrara marble statue of José Martí, a nineteenth century writer and national hero who has come to represent Cuban independence. Twenty-eight palm trees circle the statue, providing some much needed shade from the midday Havana sun, and a nod to Martí’s birthdate, January 28th.

An eventful morning in the books, we walk around the corner to our lunch destination, La Piña de Plata to refuel and take a much needed break.

Credit for Some of the Featured Photos: Kyle Perkins

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