Havana Blue

Havana breathes blue. Its shutters, doors and walls are painted in every shade from baby blue to lapis lazuli. Its streets are lined with indigo shadows. It is wrapped about by the blue-black Quink Ink Atlantic, which looks as though anyone swimming in it would come out tinted ultramarine. Juliet Barclay takes this theme and floats through this Caribbean city. As the poet Fayad Jamis wrote: “Once seen, never forgotten: Havana’s fathomless blues saturate your visual memory.”

Beneath the centuries of multi-coloured limewash in Old Havana’s eighteenth century mansions, archaeologists often discover elaborate and beautiful mural paintings in which an exquisite powdery blue predominates. This has come to be known as “Havana Blue” and the colour is still used all over the city, gently echoing the triumphant azure of the Cuban sky.

Havana breathes blue. Its shutters, doors and walls are painted in every shade from baby blue to lapis lazuli. Its streets are lined with indigo shadows. It is wrapped about by the blue-black Quink Ink Atlantic, which looks as though anyone swimming in it would come out tinted ultramarine. Hot, blowy afternoons in Havana are blue and white with windy washing, billowing and flapping on lines strung across the innumerable azoteas of Centro Habana. On Saturday mornings, huge blue cakes with exuberant white trimmings are collected from the San José Bakery in Obispo Street and carried solicitously home, their pastel meringue icing gleaming sweetly in the sun. Classic American cars restored with thick coats of cerulean gloss paint growl throatily past in a cloud of blue fumes. Trumpeters whose neighbours object to the noise of their practising sit on the wall of the Malecón moodily blowing their blues out over the glittering azure expanses of the ocean.

A traditional dance event in one of the squares features a beautiful girl in a blue and silver dress and turban; she represents the Black Virgin who presides over the church of the fishing village of Regla, on the eastern shore of Havana harbour. Her Afro-Cuban alter ego, Yemaya, goddess of the sea, is associated with marine symbolism–anchors, boats, fish, the moon. Her swaying devotees mutter powerful charms and clasp their blue and white bead necklaces and amulets.

In the mossy eighteenth century courtyards of Old Havana, pale blue trumpet-shaped flowers cascade down the Tuscan columns. The stained-glass fanlights contain eighteenth-century glass of such a deep blue it appears almost purple, casting startling patches of ultraviolet light onto the white walls when the afternoon sun slants through the windows.

Blue gleams and shimmers on sunny mornings in the frills and furbelows of the crinolines worn by girls celebrating their fifteenth-birthdays. Flouncing round Old Havana in frantically frothy frocks, they preen and pout for the camera. Aquamarine satin trimmed with a frenzy of nylon lace provides an especially pleasing effect when its wearer leans provocatively against the baby blue walls of the Bar Taberna in the Plaza Vieja.

One seldom feels blue in Havana but one sees it everywhere; the colour is one of the city’s strongest visual leitmotivs. “What would I be without you, my city of Havana?” asked the poet Fayad Jamis. “When I wandered through the world you went with me, you were a piece of blue in my shirt… an amulet against nostalgia.” Once seen, never forgotten: Havana’s fathomless blues saturate your visual memory.

“What would I be without you
my city of Havana?
When I wandered through the world you went with me.
You were a song in my throat
A fragment of blue in my shirt
An amulet against nostalgia.”

From Si no existieras, by Fayad Jamis


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