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Catedral San Cristóbal de la Habana. Photo © Byron Howes, licensed Creative Commons Attribution No-Derivatives.
The exquisite cobbled Plaza de la Catedral (Cathedral Square) was the last square to be laid out in Habana Vieja. It occupied a lowly quarter where rainwater and refuse collected (it was originally known as the Plazuela de la Ciénaga—Little Square of the Swamp). A cistern was built in 1587, and only in the following century was the area drained. Its present texture dates from the 18th century.
The square is Habana Vieja at its most quintessential, the atmosphere enhanced by mulattas in traditional costume who will pose for your camera for a small fee. One Saturday a month, the plaza is a venue for the Noche en las Plazas espectáculo.
Catedral San Cristóbal de la Habana
This intimate cathedral, on the north side of the plaza, is known colloquially as Catedral Colón (Columbus Cathedral) but is officially called the Catedral San Cristóbal de la Habana (Saint Christopher’s Cathedral, tel. 07/861-7771, Mon.–Sat. 10:30 a.m.–2 p.m., Sun. 9 a.m.–noon, free guided tour, tower tour CUC1). The cathedral was initiated by the Jesuits in 1748. The order was kicked out of Cuba by Carlos III in 1767, but the building was eventually completed in 1777 and altered again in the early 19th century. Thus the original baroque interior (including the altar) is gone, replaced in 1814 by a new classical interior.
The baroque facade is adorned with clinging columns and ripples like a great swelling sea; Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier thought it “music turned to stone.” A royal decree of December 1793 elevated the church to a cathedral. On either side of the facade are mismatched towers (one fatter and taller than the other) containing bells supposedly cast with a dash of gold and silver, said to account for their musical tone.
Columns divide the rectangular church into three naves. The neoclassical main altar is simple and made of wood; the murals above are by Italian painter Guiseppe Perovani. The chapel immediately to the left has several altars, including one of Carrara marble inlaid with gold, silver, onyx, and carved hardwoods. Note, too, the wooden image of Saint Christopher, patron saint of Havana, dating to 1633.
The Spanish believed that a casket brought to Havana from Santo Domingo in 1796 and that resided in the cathedral for more than a century held the ashes of Christopher Columbus. It was returned to Spain in 1899. All but the partisan habaneros now believe that the ashes were those of Columbus’s son Diego.
Casa de los Marqueses de Aguas Claras
This splendid old mansion, on the northwest side of the plaza, was built during the 16th century by Governor General Gonzalo Pérez de Angulo and has since been added to by subsequent owners. Today a café occupies the portico, while the inner courtyard, with its fountain amid lush palms and clinging vines, houses the Restaurante La Fuente del Patio. The restaurant extends upstairs, where the middle classes once dwelled in apartments. Sunlight pouring in through stained-glass mediopuntos saturates the floors with shifting fans of red and blue.
Casa del Conde de Bayona
This simple two-story structure, on the south side of the square, is a perfect example of the traditional Havana merchant’s house of the period, with side stairs and an entresuelo (mezzanine of half-story proportions). It was built in the 1720s for Governor General Don Luis Chacón and later passed to Pancho Marty, a former smuggler-turned-entrepreneur. In the 1930s, it housed the Havana Club Bar, which was used by Graham Greene as the setting for Wormold’s meeting with Captain Segura (based on Batista’s real-life police chief, Ventura) in Our Man in Havana. Today it houses the Museo de Arte Colonial (Colonial Art Museum, San Ignacio #61, tel. 07/862-6440, daily 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m., entrance CUC2, cameras CUC2, guides CUC1), which re-creates the lavish interior of an aristocratic colonial home. One room is devoted to colorful stained-glass vitrales.
Callejón de Chorro
At the southwest corner of the plaza, this short cul-de-sac is where an original cistern was built to supply water to ships in the harbor. The aljibe (cistern) marked the terminus of the Zanja Real (the “royal ditch,” or chorro), a covered aqueduct that brought water from the Río Almendares some 10 kilometers away. A small sink and spigot remain.
The Casa de Baños, which faces onto the square, looks quite ancient but was built in the 20th century in colonial style on the site of a bathhouse erected over the aljibe. Today the building contains the Galería Victor Manuel (San Ignacio #56, tel. 07/861-2955, daily 10 a.m.–9 p.m.), selling quality arts.
At the far end of Callejón de Chorro is the Taller Experimental de la Gráfica (Experimental Graphics Workshop, tel. 07/864-7622, , Mon.– Fri. 9 a.m.–4 p.m.), where you can watch artists make prints for sale.
Casa de Conde de Lombillo
On the plaza’s east side is the Casa de Conde de Lombillo (tel. 07/860-4311, Mon.–Fri. 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Sat. 9 a.m.–1 p.m., free). Built in 1741, this former home of a slave trader houses a small post office (Cuba’s first), as it has since 1821. The building now holds historical lithographs. The mansion adjoins the Casa del Marqués de Arcos (closed to visitors), built in the 1740s for the royal treasurer. What you see is the rear of the mansion; the entrance is on Calle Mercaderes, where the building facing the entrance is graced by the Mural Artístico-Histórico, by Cuban artist Andrés Carrillo.
The two houses are fronted by a wide portico supported by thick columns. Note the mailbox set into the outside wall, a grotesque face (that of a tragic Greek mask) carved in stone, with a scowling mouth as its slit. A life-size bronze statue of the late Spanish flamenco dancer Antonio Gades (1936–2004) leans against one of the columns.
Centro Wilfredo Lam
The Centro Wilfredo Lam (San Ignacio #22, esq. Empredado, tel. 07/861-2096 and 861-3419, , Mon.–Fri. 8 a.m.–5 p.m.), on cobbled Empedrado, on the northwest corner of the plaza, occupies the former mansion of the Counts of Peñalver. This art center displays works by the eponymous Cuban artist as well as artists from developing nations (primarily Latin America). The institution studies and promotes contemporary art from around the world.
La Bodeguita del Medio
No visit to Havana is complete without popping into Ernest Hemingway’s favorite watering hole, La Bodeguita del Medio (Empedrado #207, tel. 07/862-6121, daily 10:30 a.m.–midnight), half a block west of the cathedral. This neighborhood hangout was originally the coach house of the mansion next door. Later it was a bodega, a mom-and-pop grocery store where Spanish immigrant Ángel Martínez served food and drinks.
The bar is to the front, with the restaurant behind. Troubadours move among the thirsty turistas. Between tides, you can still savor the proletarian fusion of dialectics and rum. The house drink is the mojito, the rum mint julep that Hemingway brought out of obscurity and turned into the national drink.
Adorning the walls are posters, paintings, and faded photos of Papa Hemingway, Carmen Miranda, and other famous visitors. The walls were once decorated with the signatures and scrawls of visitors dating back decades. Alas, a renovation wiped away much of the original charm; the artwork was erased and replaced in ersatz style, with visitors being handed blue pens (famous visitors now sign a chalkboard). In 2010 it was undergoing yet another makeover. The most famous graffiti is credited to Hemingway: “Mi Mojito en La Bodeguita, Mi Daiquirí en El Floridita,” he supposedly scrawled on the sky-blue walls. According to Tom Miller in Trading with the Enemy, Martínez concocted the phrase as a marketing gimmick after the writer’s death. Errol Flynn thought it “A Great Place to Get Drunk.” They are there, these ribald fellows, smiling at the camera through a haze of cigar smoke and rum.
Casa del Conde de la Reunión
Built in the 1820s, at the peak of the baroque era, this home has a trefoil-arched doorway opening onto a zaguán (courtyard). Exquisite azulejos (painted tiles) decorate the walls. Famed novelist Alejo Carpentier used the house as the main setting for his novel El siglo de las luces (The Enlightenment). A portion of the home, which houses the Centro de Promoción Cultural, is dedicated to his memory as the Fundación Alejo Carpentier (Empedrado #215, tel. 07/861-5500, Mon.–Fri. 8:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m., free). Displayed are his early works, with his raincoat thrown stylishly over his old desk chair.
One block west, tiny Plazuela de San Juan de Dios (Empedrado, e/ Habana y Aguiar) is pinned by a white marble life-size facsimile of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote, sitting in a chair, book and pen in hand, lending the plaza its colloquial name: Parque Cervantes.
Edificio Santo Domingo
Calle San Ignacio leads 50 meters south from Plaza de la Catedral to Calle Obispo. On the southeast corner of the junction, the Edificio Santo Domingo—a looming contemporary building faced in glass—occupies the site of the early Convento de Santo Domingo, which between 1727 and 1902 housed the original University of Havana. The building was remodeled in eye-pleasing fashion, with a replica of the original baroque doorway and a bell tower containing the original bell that once tolled students to class.
The building today houses offices of the current university. On the ground floor, the Museo de la Universidad (no tel., Tues.–Sat. 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m., Sun. 9:30 a.m.–1 p.m.) displays a model of the original structure plus miscellany related to the early university.
Excerpted from the Fifth Edition of Moon Cuba.