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Plaza de la Catedral, Havana

We are now heading to the final square on our Old Havana walking tour.  As we walk through an alleyway, we pass by this mysterious looking face on the wall of Casa del Marqués de Arcos. Once a mansion, it was transformed into Havana’s main post office in the mid-19th century. You’ll spot a few faces along the wall used for mailboxes.

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How can I get a mailbox like that?

Directly across from Casa del Marqués de Arcos is a mural done by a Cuban artist depicting 67 of Cuba’s historical figures. Various colors of sand and stone mixtures were used to create this mural.

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We finally entered Plaza de la Catedral, and as you can see it is a bit more crowded than the previous squares. The streets began to fill with commuters, tourists, and shop keepers as it got later in the day.

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The Havana Cathedral is one of eleven Roman Catholic cathedrals on the island.

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The square was originally named Plaza de la Ciénaga (Swamp Square), but it was eventually drained and paved, and construction on the cathedral began. Thus a new name was needed.

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While the cathedral is the main focal point of the square, you can’t help but notice the stone buildings surrounding it.  The blue accents, columns, and iron work bring these somewhat dull stone buildings to life.

Wealthy families took up residence here after the construction of the cathedral in 1727. These mansions are now some of the best museums, art galleries and dining spots in Old Havana.

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You may also find some stray dogs making themselves at home and playing with tourists in the squares.

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Locals give them these name tags, so they aren’t nameless strays

The Commercial Galería Victor Manuel now occupies the former Casa de Banos (public bath house) which was built over the square’s cistern in the 19th century.

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The door was open, and I’m curious, so I took a peek inside. As our tour guide mentioned, nothing really opens in Old Havana until 10:00 a.m., so the door promptly shut behind me. They weren’t ready for customers just yet.

As a recap, I booked the Old Havana Walking Tour through Royal Caribbean excursions. It consisted of two portions; a walking tour in the morning to the 4 main squares in the city: Plaza de San Francisco Asís, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de Armas, and Plaza de la Catedral.

The second portion of the tour included a bus ride through the more modern parts of Havana. I’ll be sharing more details on that soon, as well as take you for a ride in one of the classic cars (note: the car ride was not part of the excursion).

The actual excursion lasted a little over 4 hours, and I strongly recommend. It was a wonderful way to get our feet wet and get a feel for Cuban history, culture, and lifestyle.

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Havana’s oldest square, Plaza de Armas

Our trip down yet another colonial style alleyway led us from Plaza Viejo to Plaza de Armas (Square of Arms or Weapons).

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Along the route, we passed by Hotel Ambos Mundos. This hotel once welcomed actors, actresses, writers and many American tourists. It is highlighted on the tour, as it was home to author Ernest Hemingway for seven years. That’s right; he rented a room on the fifth floor for $1.50 per night.

Just think, if you were to visit Havana in the 1930’s, you probably could have spotted Ernest Hemingway stumbling down this alleyway after one too many mojitos.

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The tour continued to Plaza de Armas, the oldest and most important square in Old Havana.  In Colonial Days it was the center of political power.

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Tacón Street is the only remaining road in Havana with wood bricks. Originally the Governor’s home was located in  Plaza de Armas, and since the Governor and his wife were quite fond of their afternoon naps, wood was used to repave the original brick to dull the sound of passing horses and cart traffic.

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At the center of the square is a beautiful lush garden area, perfect for escaping the hot summer sun and people watch.

A white marble statue of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes stands in the middle of the garden. He was a Cuban patriot, initiator of the Ten Years War against Spanish colonial rule in 1868 and ‘Father of the Nation.’

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That bird seems quite at home on Carlos’ head. 

Across the road, we got a glimpse of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, built in the 16th century as a way to defend the city from pirate attacks. It’s said to be the oldest stone fort built in the New World.

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The iron statue on top of the watch tower is known as La Giraldilla. It’s said to honor Havana’s only woman governor, who would spend hours watching the horizon waiting for her husband to return from an expedition to Florida.

img_7618That same statue is now the symbol of Havana and can be found on the Havana Club rum labels.

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We’ll get to try this rum a little later in the tour, but first, let’s go to church.  Plaza de la Catedral is the next stop.

 

 

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Havana, Cuba Square One

As I began to write this post, I realized the wealth of information (and photos) I walked away with, so I decided to break up my Cuban adventure into various blog posts. I’ll begin at square one, Plaza de San Francisco Asís, the first of four historic squares we visited on our city tour.

I still cannot believe it has already been a week since I set sail for Cuba on Empress of the Seas.

Sail Away!

It was an unforgettable experience. I wasn’t exactly sure what to expect when we docked in Havana at sunrise, but I was ready to explore and learn as much as I could, despite it being the crack of dawn.  I’m not a morning person.

We booked a shore excursion through Royal Caribbean, the Old Havana Walking tour. At first, I was concerned about not having a chance to explore on my own, but our guide generously gave us time to wander and take photos–even shop.

The tour began right outside of the cruise port, in Plaza de San Francisco Asís  (San Francisco Square).  The name comes from the convent built in the square during the 16th century, Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asís.

San Francisco Square

We stepped off the ship and into a time warp. The streets were relatively quiet as we crossed from the cruise terminal to the square. Later in the day, classic cars and horse and buggies line these streets offering tours. Highly recommended experience.

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First glimpse of the classic cars which the Cubans simply call “American cars.”

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Lonja del Comercio, served as a stock exchange until 1959. It is now an office building housing various media outlets.

At the center of the square lies a beautiful white marble fountain, the Lion Fountain.

Fuente de los Leones (Lion Fountain) built in 1800’s

I was instantly amazed by the vibrant colors and stunning architecture. Part of me was expecting the city to be run-down and dirty. It was far from that. In fact, some areas of the city were so clean and well maintained, I felt as though I was on a movie set.

We’ll continue down this alleyway in my next post.

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