If you ask any Habanero (resident of Havana) to identify the heart of the city, the unhesitating response will be “La Rampa.” This bit of street in Vedado, stretching 500 metres down 23rd Avenue from the Coppelia Ice Cream Park to the sea, is the most central and bustling part of the capital. It’s the ideal place for a walk, a romantic date, a work meeting, for distraction… and so, during the last 60 years La Rampa has become, along with the Malecón (seawall), the most cosmopolitan part of the metropolis.
There are many ways to experience Havana. One is to follow the historic footprints; another is to follow one’s whim with pauses along the way wherever some place merits a stop. That’s what we will be doing on these pages, with La Rampa as the starting point.
There is so much emphasis on the values of colonial Havana that there is the risk of assuming the rest of the city lacks them. Vedado is the best of modern Havana, an achievement of national city planning. With the establishment of the Republic in 1902, the district acquired unexpected prosperity as, besides being the site of the University, aristocrats and the nouveau riche had their residences built there.
The architecture’s eclectic character achieved some of its best examples in mansions like those that today house the Cuban Union of Writers and Artists (corner of 17th and H), the Decorative Arts Museum (corner of 17th and E), and the Amadeo Roldán Auditorium on the corner of Calzada and D. Other buildings show a purer and more distinct architecture.
Such is the case of the genuine Florentine style of Casa de la Amistad (House of Friendship, on Paseo between 17 and 19) and the large Neo-Baroque edifice of the1830 Restaurant at the mouth of the Almendares River.
Near La Rampa is the famous and luxurious Hotel Nacional (1930) in the Spanish Plateresque style. This was the city’s only luxury hotel until the 1950s, when the Hotels Capri, Riviera and Habana Libre were opened in this part of Vedado.
Other area buildings marking valuable Cuban architectural stages are the Medical Retirement (23rd and N) and the Dental Retirement (L between 21st and 23rd) as well as the 39-story Focsa building (the block framed by M and N Streets and 17th and 18th Avenues) the Focsa is the tallest in the city and, in fact, in the country.
Of course, if one marks the heights achieved by the hand of humankind, nothing in Cuba surpasses the monument to José Martí in the Plaza de la Revolución (Revolution Square). Throughout the past 50 years, this has been the centre of the nation’s political life.
Framing the square are the National Library and the National Theatre, the headquarters of several ministries and the Palacio de la Revolución (Palace of the Revolution).
The 18-metre white statue of Martí is strikingly backed by a 142-metre obelisk. A 567-step staircase leads to the monument’s lookout point - also accessible by elevator –from which one has Havana at one’s feet and a view that takes one’s breath away.
The promenade of Paseo del Prado is the border between the modern and old city. It is inconceivable to think of Havana without this promenade or without Parque Central (Central Park). Nor can one imagine it without the American Fraternity Park or the Fountain of the Indian Woman (also called Nobel Havana). This is also the location of that palace of palaces, the Capitolio, inaugurated in 1929 as the headquarters of the Republic’s Congress.
For style, diameter and height, the Capitolio’s cupola is the sixth highest in the world. At the time it was built it was surpassed only by the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome and St. Paul’s in London. Under the cupola one can see the Statue of the Republic, the third tallest indoor statue in the world. At its feet, set into the floor of the Salón de los Pasos Perdidos (Hall of Lost Steps), is a jewel from one of the crowns of the last Russian Tsar, which marks kilometre zero from which all distances on the island are measured.
It’s a delight to walk down pedestrian-only Obispo Street, a commercial artery of small shops linking Paseo del Prado with the Plaza de Armas (Arms Square) in Old Havana. This plaza, the oldest in the city, was the site of the founding of Havana in 1592. The first mass is traditionally believed to have been performed here at the original ceiba tree (the tree was replaced in 1960) and it is here one encounters El Templete (The Small Temple). This commemorative monument dating from 1828 was where the first Town Council met.
The Plaza de Armas was the political-military centre of the island during the colonial period. One of the constructions partially visible from it is the Castillo de la Fuerza (Fortress of Might), the second fortress built by the Spanish in America and which displays atop its tower a tribute to La Giraldilla, the symbol of Havana.
Next to La Fuerza rises the Palacio del Segundo Cabo (Palace of the Second-in-Command, 1772), with its Andalusian patio and majestic façade. On the other side of the Plaza, across from the Hotel Santa Isabel, is the Palace of the Captain-Generals, today the Museo de la Ciudad or City Museum, the most genuine example of Baroque architecture in Havana.
In spite of the splendour of the Plaza de Armas, the Cathedral Plaza is the most harmonious of the Havana of yesteryear, while that of San Francisco, adjacent to the convent with the same name, displays the very beautiful Fuente de los Leones (Fountain of Lions). The buildings of Plaza Vieja (Old Square) offer a compendium of style from Baroque to Art Nouveau.
The Green Lung
Residents of Havana often forget the Almendares River. However, this river is one of the symbols of Havana and an intimate part of its identity. Via Metropolitan Park, which extends along its banks, one arrives at the nucleus of natural parks, the green lung so necessary to the city. There, to the south of the capital and forming part of this green lung, one finds Parque Lenin (Lenin Park), the Botanical Gardens, the grounds of Expo Cuba, Crystal River and the National Zoo. Descriptions fail; these sites must be visited to be truly appreciated.
From the south, one can return to Vedado’s La Rampa via Rancho Boyeros Avenue and be back from our tour of Havana. Don’t we deserve some chocolate or vanilla ice cream? Well, there’s Coppelia, more a national institution than an ice cream parlour, where it’s possible to enjoy the best ice cream in the country.