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The revivification of Old Havana’s cultural life has been high on the Office of the City Historian’s list of priorities from the outset. The historical centre is full of churches, some functioning, others deconsecrated in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when they were put to various other uses, usually destructive to the fabric of the buildings. Three of these have now been restored to act as a trio of important, and complementary, concert venues. The Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis, which stands in the Plaza de San Francisco, was originally the church attached to a monastery from which all Franciscan missionary activity on the South American continent was coordinated. In 1762 it was seized by the British invaders for Protestant worship, and after being deconsecrated was used for Customs warehousing, as a Post Office and finally as a cold store. It lost its noble dome and crossing during a hurricane in the mid-nineteenth century, and it was a sad structure to which the Office of the City Historian turned its energetically benevolent attentions.
After an exceedingly painstaking restoration during which a massive concrete cold store had to be removed from the nave of the church, the Basilica Menor was reopened as Old Havana’s largest concert hall. Its acoustics are superb, it is air conditioned throughout, and now audiences attending the excellent Saturday night concerts of chamber music, choral concerts and piano recitals can ponder the elegant asceticism of the building whilst listening to distinguished classical musicians from Cuba and abroad. The Basilica is closely linked with the Iglesia de San Francisco de Paula, which stands at the end of the Alameda de Paula, overlooking the harbour. The Alameda used to be Havana’s principal promenade ground and it is Eusebio Leal’s intention to return it to its bygone beauties, removing the unsightly remains of old wharves which lie before it and restoring its decorative wrought iron and classical statuary. The church is the chosen rehearsal space of Ars Longa, the Office of the City Historian’s ancient music group, and it is from there that they coordinate Havana’s annual Early Music Festival.
To these two concert halls has recently been added the Iglesia de San Felipe Neri, a beautiful seventeenth-century oratory which was converted to banking premises in the 1920s. Architecturally it is a rather curious combination of soaring ecclesiastical spaces with distinctly earthbound bankerly detailing, but it works beautifully as a venue for song recitals and lyric theatre. Its large wooden stage is floated over the original altar area, under which archaeologists discovered the foundation stone of the building together with a handful of silver and gold coins, which are now on display in a glass case to one side of the stage according to an old custom.
It is not only music that is being rejuvenated in Old Havana, but dance as well?not the all-pervading salsa from whose strains it is virtually impossible to escape, but exciting modern dance which takes place throughout the streets and squares of the historical centre during the annual City in Movement Festival. This innovatory event, conceived and organised by the Office of the City Historian’s Cultural Programming Department, involves dance groups from all over Cuba and the world interacting in a relay of movement which starts in the Plaza de Armas and ripples out in every direction, linked logistically by the ‘Stiltwalkers of Old Havana’ whose task it is to stride like gaudy beribboned giraffes between the groups to activate each performance, accompanied by a running, shouting crowd of thoroughly overexcited children.
Balancing the requirements of visitors and residents is vital to the success of the restoration of Old Havana. It is an appallingly overcrowded area of the city where many people live in very poor conditions, sharing completely inadequate sanitary facilities; housing is thus absolutely first priority with the planners and architects of the Office of the City Historian. However, without the income from tourism very little can be built, so facilities must be provided for visitors, but only the kind of visitors who will respect and enjoy the area. All the hotels in the historical centre are housed in old buildings of exceptional historical and architectural interest and they are all charming. Perhaps the most charming of all is the Hotel Santa Isabel, housed in the Palace of the Counts of Santovenia on the Plaza de Armas. It has an incomparable view of the leafy Plaza de Armas and has been chosen by a glittering parade of dignitaries and their entourages, from film stars, socialites and supermodels to illustrious clergymen, important diplomatists and visiting heads of state.
The practical way in, which the restoration of Old Havana is now being achieved, is a join-the-dots theory whereby small groups of buildings are restored for a carefully considered mixture of end uses. Afterwards, the spaces between these areas are gradually transformed as the renaissance effect radiates outwards. An interesting case in point, currently in progress, is that of the corner of Teniente Rey and Compostela Streets, where the restoration of the exquisite neo-Gothic and neoclassical excesses of the Farmacia La Reunion is providing the focal point for a group of buildings including a school (this is already restored and opened), shops (principally the pharmacy, which sells herbs, spices, medicines and all sorts of pharmaceutical supplies and also houses a small museum), a bakery, a church (still open for worship, but in sore need of repair), a small hotel (in the potentially extremely pretty but currently ruined cloisters of the Convent of the Little Sisters of Santa Teresa) and above all, lots of housing, both for those already in need in the area and also the families who will move out of the Convent prior to its conversion to a hotel. All these families will be housed in spacious conversions of the old offices above the pharmacy, and in restored buildings nearby, in addition to an interesting new building project in the area.
In amongst the more earnest social aspects of the restoration project there are delicious doses of frivolity. Perhaps the most popular of these to open in recent years is the Museo del Chocolate, where a small exhibition of chocolate-making equipment provides an excellent pretext for the sale of sinfully delectable hot and cold chocolate, and truffles made on the premises by graduates of the Cuban School.
A great deal has been done in Old Havana but there is still a quite staggering amount left to be tackled and funds are in short supply. However, no-one in their right mind would advocate an indiscriminate opening-up of the area to general and foreign investment. The longer the current (albeit economically unsatisfactory) situation continues, the longer the Cubans will have to consolidate their enviable achievements in Havana’s restoration, to strengthen the habaneros’ sense of individuality and to fortify their cultural bastions against the stifling blanket of North American homogeneity which is already flapping threateningly in their direction. As Hugh Thomas quoted on the frontispiece of his monumental Cuba, the Pursuit of Freedom: ‘Yet, Freedom! Yet thy banner, torn, but flying/Streams like the thunder?storm against the wind.’
(Lord Byron, Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, canto iv, stanza 98)
‹‹ Previous ›› November 2014 This article formed part of the november 2014 issue of What’s On Havana The definitive monthly travel & culture guide to Havana Download our current issue of What’s On Havana, your definitive travel, culture and entertainment guide for all things happening in Havana, Cuba’s bustling and enigmatic capital city. We include features from around Cuba written by the best international travel writers covering Cuba. Our monthly online digital magazine is also available in Spanish and French.
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