Old World Architecture Graces a Cuban Harbor

The Palacio de Valle is located in Cienfuegos, the second largest harbor in Cuba.  Sometimes referred to at the “Pearl of the South”,  Cienfuegos was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2005 as a result of the blending of old world architecture and modern urban design.

The Palacio de Valle is a masterpiece of styling, art and history.  When Amparo Suero married a wealthy Cuban businessman, Acisclo Valle, her father gave them Palacio de Valle as a wedding gift.  The couple renovated the property between 1913 and 1917, at a cost of 1 1/2 million pesos.

Italian architect Alfredo Colli, created this masterpiece, incorporating Italian and French into a building which is dominated by the unique character of Moorish style, carvings and color.  The Moslem crescent moon and the words Arabic words meaning “Only God is God” from the Koran, solidify the Moorish influence.

The construction of the building itself relies heavily on Carrara marble, alabaster, Venetian ceramics, Spanish ironwork and the carvings of renowned Spanish artist, Antonio Barcenas to blend much of the beauty of the old world  combining the best of Spanish, Muslim, Italian, French and even Egyptian design.

The exterior reflects the beautiful carvings seen throughout the Arab world.  The Sphinx guarding the main doorway reflect Egyptian symbols.

Bronze railings of Spanish design are seen throughout the interior and exterior of the building.

The art reflects the interconnections of the Muslim and Christian beliefs.  This lovely painting of the Magi, ie. the “Three Kings from the East” focuses on the Magi themselves, relying on the crown to symbolize the Christ child.

This tile Crusader depicts a Christian in full battle attire presumably prepared to fight the Moors.

There is little to explain the reasons for this combination of clashing cultures, representing the images and art of all the involved cultures with beauty, accuracy and respect.  Yet the flow of interweaving of the best of the old world, works effectively, playing the grace of Venice with the power of Spain.  It is not surprising then, that this building, now a restaurant, is itself recognized as a National Heritage Memorial.

By the standards of any religion or influence, the Palacio is a masterpiece.  While the cultural aspects of the building predominate our visit, the timeless beauty of the rooftop bar, with its view of Cienfuegos and the ocean, completed the experience for all of us.

The Fortifications of Havana Bay

The Havana Bay Harbor has a past as violent as its revolution.  The Spanish founded Havana in about 1519 as a part of its colonial empire.  Spain’s interest in Havana rested, in large part, because the Bay of Havana offered a secure port for the Spanish Galleons crossing from the New World to Spain.

Because of the wealth that passed through the city, old Havana was vulnerable to French, English and Dutch Corsairs. [1] The massive fortifications of Morro Castle/Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro were constructed by the Spanish beginning in 1589 to protect against attacks by these pirates.  Morro Castle sits across the harbor from another similar fortification, the Castillo de San Salvador.  With the protection of these two fortifications, and others along the Coast, Old Havana was considered to be impregnable to attack.

Considered the major fortification of the Havana’s defense system, Morro Castle stood for 150 years until it fell  during the Seven Years after a two month siege by the onslaught of English ships.

The fortifications were rebuilt and continued to protect and defend the harbor. They were used as a military base and prison.

In 1898 the USS Maine exploded and sank in Havana Harbor, in sight of these fortifications, its sinking was considered a significant cause of the Spanish-American War.

In 1959 Che captured another of the series of fortifications in the harbor, La Cabana and used it as a headquarters during one of the most brutal periods of the revolution.

For the last 63 years the forts have served no military purpose.  They are, instead, powerful symbols of Cuba’s colonial past.  The fortifications which serve as picturesque reminders of past battles, are now besieged by tourists, not enemy ships.

In 1972 Old Havana and its Fortifications was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site because of its importance to cultural and/or natural heritage.  A total of nine sites in Cuba have been recognized for inclusion on the list of World Heritage Sites.   All of these sites were founded by early Spanish colonists.  All of these designations are reasons for pride among the Cuban people and memories among the travelers fortunate enough to visit them.

[1] Corsairs were privateers/pirates and their ships.  They plundered enemy ships and communities in the Caribbean and the Mediterranean Seas. Unlike more traditional pirates, corsairs were authorized to plunder the wealth of nations with which their governments were at war.