Valle De Vinales: A Cuban Shangri-La

Shangri-La in Cuba you ask?  Well, why not.  Shangri-La is described by James Hilton, the author of 1933 novel, Lost Horizon, as “a mystical, harmonious valley”.  It is depicted in the movie by the same name as a place in many ways comparable to the Eden of the Bible, a place of permanent happiness in which the fertile soil, the kindness of the people and the beauty of the land, creates an environment of peace and contentment.

The Valley De Vinales seems to be such a place.  Only 51 square miles, it is located in the Pinar del Rio Province of Cuba. The Valley has been recognized as a UNESCO Heritage site since 1999 for its combination of “karst” [1] landscape,  in conjunction with its rich culture of architecture, crafts, music and traditional agricultural methods. [2] The valley’s rich soil and temperate climate make it a breadbasket of Cuba.

Traditional farming, relying heavily on use of oxen, enhances the romantic image of the area.

But tobacco is king in the valley, as a result of the combination of rich soil and temperate climate touted as producing the finest quality of tobacco.  While food crops are traditionally cultivated, tobacco farming combines traditional methods with more modern farming techniques.

After the harvest of the tobacco, the leaves are dried in specially constructed barns before being sent to cigar factories in nearby Vinales. The thatched barns in which the tobacco is dried are both practical and graceful.  The owner of the tobacco plantation we visited could be the model for the Juan Valdez coffee ads.

While in many ways a blessing for Cuba, it was tobacco that expanded slavery in Vinales.  But Vinales was both curse and blessing, for it was the mountains surrounding the valley that became a home for runaway slaves, who were able to live for extended periods of time in the caves that stretch throughout these mountains.  The descendants of those slaves thrive today in this rich multi-ethnic culture.

The beauty of the valley and the mountains that surround it are not to be soon forgotten.  The Vinales National Park located in the valley helps preserve the historical value of the area.  While tourism has expanded throughout the valley, tourist areas fit into and, in some ways enhance, the natural beauty of the valley.

[1]  Karst is a special type of landscape that essentially identifies a “sinkhole” or sunken area of land.  Karst typically is in an area of soluble rock such as limestone.  The low mountains in the valley are quite fragile, as a result of the erosion of the structure of the mountains by rain and weather, leaving the caves that are described above.  It is this same fragility that causes the depression in the land.

[2]  Even the UNESCO description of the basis for declaring the Valle de Vinales evokes the image of shangra-la!

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A Rare and Precious Pearl–Dubrovnik, Croatia

It is Lord Byron who first described Dubrovnik as the Pearl of the Adriatic.  An ancient commercial and trading city, it was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1979.   It’s massive stone walls, erected from the 13th and 16th centuries, seem to rise out of the sea.

The harbor, now filled with pleasure boats, once made Dubrovnik a center of trade and commerce and brought great wealth to the region.  It ws settled as early as the 7th century.

A fortress sits outside the walls of the city, protecting the harbor and its citizens from ancient dangers.

As you approach the walled city, you are greeted by ceremonial guards straight from central casting.

For many years Croatia, like many of the former Union of Socialist Soviet Republic, was nearly inaccessible to Westerners.  In 1991, Croatia separated from  Yugoslavia, and, as a result, Dubrovnik became embroiled in the upheaval between the Serbs and the Croats,  sometimes called the Balkan wars or the Croatian War of Independence.  There is little left to remind us of the Siege of Dubrovnik in 1991-1992.  Most poignant is the Rooms of Remembrance for the defenders of Dubrovnik, mostly teenagers, whose images from the wall remind us of the our own children.  The destruction of the city itself, while extensive, is no longer in evidence. The churches, homes and public buildings have been rebuilt and now appear untouched by war.

The walled old city includes only two hotels.  One was very expensive.  We stayed in the other one.  While the amenities were sparse, the rooftop view made any inconvenience irrelevant.  At night it was almost otherworldly.  

In the daytime it provided a view of a rooftops and buildings in a large section of the city.      

Walking the narrow streets was an experience all to itself.  Like many medieval cities, there is no motorized transportation.  Walking is not the challenge, finding our way through the maze of streets to our destination, was another matter.  Fortunately, there were plenty of cafes where we could sit, watch the natives and the tourists and enjoy the company of friends.