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23/02/2015
By José Luis Estrada Betancourt. Photos Ferval / Excelencias Archive

Oh, the sea… the Atlantic is the source of one the many charms of this village founded on November 16, 1519. This awesome ocean gave way, among others, to the Malecon seawall that singles out the Cuban capital. Mile after mile of concrete slither in the form of a wall around part of this precious bag-shaped bay where locals and visitors, anglers and lovers, crooners and street vendors meet… The same happened back in the days when the city lured pirates, corsairs and greedy rulers who quickly understood this was no doubt one of the key trade and traffic points of the 16th-century Americas.

Suddenly, Spain also understood the need to take good care of one of its crown jewels as it embarked on its fortification. This process spawned a stunning and complex defensive system for any Spanish-ruled city in the Americas, based on the construction of splendid fortresses like the Three Kings of El Morro, San Salvador de la Punta and San Carlos de la Cabaña castles. These buildings laid the groundwork of the eventually highly-coveted Cuban architecture, in which Havana is quite a standout. 

The fact of the matter is that this city boasts Romantic, Gothic, Renaissance and Moorish elements living in perfect harmony. It was then when other eye-popping aspects popped up: load-bearing walls reinforced with buttresses and pilasters; round, lancet and Gothic arches; gabled and fall-down roofs, hanging balconies, friezes decked out with vitrified ceramics… All that much came as a token of a colonial architecture that evolved into the 19th century, one that took in not only the baroque and the neoclassic, but also the eclectic and other modern styles that showed up later in the 20th century.

The truth is a good deal of people would be enthralled by just driving through the bay tunnel en route to a picture-perfect town like Cojimar –the same village that inspired Nobel Prize author Ernest Hemingway when he wrote The Old Man and The Sea- or places like Bacuranao, Tarará, Mégano, Santa María del Mar, Boca Ciega and Guanabo, luring names along a coastline laden with balmy and see-through greenish-and-bluish waters, bright-white sands, coral reefs and coconut trees. Yet it would be pitiful to leave you with just the “plain” idea that Havana’s charms could just be limited to healthy sunbaths and sea swims, or to the practice of coastal snorkeling –which is equally possible.

It won’t even be fair to let you come here only in search of the famous tobacco, of the experience of witnessing how the scented cigars are hand-rolled in olden factories attached to universally-acclaimed brands, such as Cohiba, Partagas, Romeo y Julieta…; or maybe to find out, hemmed in by sweet scents and ethylic vapors, how an atypical rum like Legendario, manufactured in a quasi-handmade fashion, is distilled in a factory away from the lavish travel destinations.

The point is that this city, that abuts the Mayaquebe and Artemisa provinces, is simply irresistible for its dwellers –perhaps that’s its greatest treasure: cultivated, hospitable, friendly, joyful and industrious- and for its splendid culture, a culture whose flame keeps burning brighter than ever, just like the one lying behind that amazing architectural heritage, the traditions and customs that make its staunchest advocates stand up for it with pride and well-deserved vanity.

When it comes to Havana, either its Christ, the Alameda de Paula –the city’s oldest walkway- the Paseo del Prado, the National Capitol, the Templete, the Arms Square, the Palace of the Governors, the Central Train Station, or the 5th Avenue, Miramar, Playa, Coppelia, the National Hotel, the campus of the Havana University and the Jose Marti Memorial at the Revolution Square, pack a wallop. The Vedado area, featuring an even urban layout and plenty of greenery and lawns, is also home to the Columbus Cemetery, penciled in as the largest and most significant of the Americas.

No matter how you look at it, the Convention Center is always ready to host the most prestigious events and conferences. Dozens of theaters, art galleries, museums, bookstores that sell all kinds of literary genres, concert halls, cultural centers, famous cabarets like the matchless Tropicana or the fancy Parisien, performances staged by world-class companies like Cuba’s National Ballet led by Alicia Alonso, are also out there. But nothing outdoes a good jazz or bolero jam session, or the chance to shake a leg –or both- to the beat of an urban rumba, or dance to the rhythm of salsa and timba with top-drawer bands either at the Casa de la Musica or the celebrated Salon Rosado de la Tropical. It’s all about one-and-only shows and performances that will leave a mark in those who get to live this experience. And it’d be pretty exciting to drop by the Latinamericano Stadium in Cerro to watch a nip-and-tuck ballgame of the National Baseball Series.

It’s not its forte, but even if someone comes looking for some fresh air and relaxation it’ll be great to swing by the National Botanical Garden with over 1,482 acres of lush foliage that showcase both the national and world flora. And not far from there stands Expocuba, a humongous fairground; or the vast Lenin Park, the perfect spot to spend a whole day of leisure and entertainment.

The outskirts are equally teeming with to-dos. Out there visitors can find San Francisco de Paula, where La Vigia –the lovely getaway estate formerly owned by the author of For Whom the Bells Toll- stands; or Santa Maria del Rosario, a peculiar location with an ancient atmosphere and its renowned medicinal waters.

However, if what actually brings you to this island nation is the famous quality of its healthcare services, Havana is once again the right choice for you, the same city that was declared World Heritage by UNESCO in 1982. Havana boasts a number of medical institutions that half the world would be envious about: the Retinitis Pigmentosa, Neurological Rehabilitation (CIREN) and Placenta Histotherapy international centers, the Ameijeiras Bros. Clinical and Surgical Hospital, the Frank Pais Orthopedics Hospital, the Center for Medical and Surgical Research (CIMEQ), the Pedro Kouri Institute –specialized in tropical diseases.

 

Oh, yes… Havana is incredible, featuring the Caribbean’s most significant colonial center, with ancient buildings that speak volumes of a rich past; a city that shows off a robust culture that puts the present proudly in perspective and lets you dream of a spectacular future. That’s why poets and bards love it so much when they sing: Havana, my Havana / I wish you’d know the pain / I feel when I sing to you / and you can’t understand it’s love what I feel… and you really get to cotton on to them and believe those lyrics in your heart.

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