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Havana’s 500th Anniversary Celebration

By: Sarah Cherres

Friday November 15th, 2019

On November 16th, 2019, the Cuban City of Havana will officially be celebrating its 500th foundation anniversary. It is a momentous milestone that very few cities in the American Continent have been able to observe. In preparation for the milestone festivity, the City of Havana has undergone extensive renovations in crucial city landmarks. Havana is also brimming with excitement and an agenda full of events, important visits, and other happenings to welcome residents and visitors during this crucial moment in Cuban history.

A Brief History of the City of Havana

The City of Havana was founded in the 16th century as San Cristóbal de La Habana by Spanish conquistador, Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar. Although the location of the city changed strategically throughout history, it finally settled in its current area in 1519. Today, what was once known as Puerto de Cardenas is what we know as Havana Harbor or El Puerto de La Habana. As a port city with a privileged location, it was instrumental in the Spanish conquest of other American territories. Havana was granted the title of “City” by King Philip II of Spain in 1592.

Today, Havana stands as not only the largest city in the country but also as the main province, principal port, and center of trade in Cuba. It has a remarkable cultural blend that combines its European, Asian, African, and Caribbean roots in aspects such as culture, architecture, cuisine, music, and religion. The architecture on its own is an awe-inspiring blend of neoclassical, colonial, baroque, art deco, eclectic, and modern. From castles to present-day hotels, the richness and depth of its history permeate the city.

Areas such as Old Havana (La Habana Vieja) received recognition as World Heritage Sites by the UNESCO. The City boasts charm and nostalgia. It tells a story with the intricacy behind its architecture, its art, and its history. Even its modes of transportation are intriguing. To take a ride through Old Havana in a vintage car and delighting in a panoramic tour is an exquisite and unique experience! To walk through Old Colonial Havana is to step back in time, also getting a glimpse of its golden peak in the 1950s.

For centuries and more recent decades, the country has seen affluence, lack, and periods of transition. However, Cuban people continue to be spirited, resilient, and proud to be Cuban. Now, on the eve of the 500th Anniversary, Cuban people are ready to remember Havana’s history, restore the city’s beauty, and celebrate it.

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Preparing for the Celebration – El Capitolio

One of the iconic buildings undergoing extensive renovations in preparation for the 500th Anniversary celebration is the majestic and symbolic Cuban National Capitol Building, El Capitolio, one of Havana’s main landmarks. The construction of this opulent structure started in the early 1900s but paused for changes. Once construction resumed, the building was completed in only three years – between 1926 and 1929 – during a time of affluence in Cuba. Then-president, Gerardo Machado, commissioned the construction under the guidance of Cuban architect Eugenio Rayneri Piedra.

The Capitolio is an impressive representation of neoclassical architecture. A 56-step staircase, known as La Escalinata, commands the entrance. Beyond the stairs, stand large bronze doors with images that represent the history of Cuba. Upon entering, the view is all about the breathtaking, bronze, marble, and hardwood interiors and impressive cupula. Beneath the cupula is also the third-largest indoor sculpture in the world, called la Estatua de La República (The Statue of the Republic). The nearly 50-foot bronze, gold leaf statue was achieved by Italian artist Angelo Zanelli. The sculpture represents a young woman holding a shield and a lance. Then, on the ground where the longitude and latitude lines meet at point zero, is a replica of what was once a 25-carat diamond. Rumor has it that the diamond once belonged to Russian Tsar Nicholas II. The story says that once in Cuban soil, it was stolen in March 1946. It was then mysteriously returned to President Ramón Grau San Martín three months later in June 1946.

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The National Capitol Building was first constructed to house Congress. After the Cuban Revolution that began in the late 1950s, the Capitolio went through a period of abandonment. Now, following a long season of political changes and renovations, it is slowly transitioning to become the home for the National Assembly. It is truly a majestic sight to behold — Unique in structure, level of detail, and lavishness. In the present day, the staff at the Capitolio is very knowledgeable and can provide tremendous insight into the history of the building, from the elaborate table settings to the ceremonies and events that once took place within the beautiful marble and hardwood walls.

Saturday, November 16th will mark the opening of the south wing of the Capitolio and two important halls, the Constitution Hall (Sala de La Constitución) and the Símbolos Patrios (Patriotic Symbols) Hall. At 9 p.m., the cupula and the exterior of the Capitolio will light up in all its splendor. It would also be a magical time for an evening stroll through the historic center of Havana. The Capitolio is in a centric location, across Paseo Martí, popularly known as Paseo del Prado and streets Dragones, Industria, and San José in Havana.

During the recent opening of another renovated landmark, the Convento de Santa Clara, renown Havana historian, Dr. Eusebio Leal Spengler, announced the inauguration of other initiatives and edifications in observance of the 500th Anniversary, such as the Museo de Los Bomberos (Fireman Museum), the Museo del Ferrocarril de Cuba (Railroad Museum of Cuba), the Museo del Automóvil (Automobile Museum), and the Castillo de Atarés (The Atarés Castle), amongst others.

Royal Visits to Cuba

2019 brought high-ranking Royals from England and Spain to Cuba. Earlier in the year, Cuba welcomed Prince Charles and his wife Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, from England. This week, the Cuban capital is enjoying an official Royal visit by King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain. All visiting monarchs have made history for being the first to set foot from England and the first in 500 years to visit from Spain, respectively.

Goya in Cuba

In preparation for the celebration and Royal visit, the prestigious Museo del Prado in Spain allowed the transport of a self-portrait of romantic artist Francisco José de Goya y Lucientes, known as Goya, to Havana due to the artist’s close ties to the art movement in Cuba. The Spanish painter was highly influential during the late 18th and 19th centuries. He was also instrumental in the foundation of the San Alejandro Art Academy in Cuba. The painting will also be in exhibition during the visit of King Felipe VI and Queen Letizia of Spain. Goya’s self-portrait will be on exhibit for a month on the fourth floor of the Universal Art Building in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana, starting on November 14th, following the Spanish Royal visit.

Events Across Havana

Friday, November 15th, 2019, will see the event Noche Habanera (Havana Night) on the eve of the 500th Anniversary. The event will take place along the famous Malecón de La Habana, a nearly five-mile and waterside stretch that serves as the main roadway. Fireworks and great fanfare will resonate during the event!

At the stroke of midnight on November 16th, Cubans will also make their wishes at the famous Ceiba tree, located in Plaza de Armas in Havana, by El Templete. Following tradition, people must wait until midnight to walk three times, counterclockwise, around the Ceiba tree, and make one wish. This ritual is said to have religious origins, as the tree represents the souls of the ancestors. Attendees tend to leave “ofrendas” or gifts at the base of the tree.

Another timely event is scheduled to take place at the San Salvador de La Punta Fortress. The fortress was built in the late 1500s to protect the entrance to the City of Havana through the port. The upcoming event will feature performances and live classical music. Celebrities and notables are expected to attend this event on November 16th.

Another music festivals taking place will be the Festival Internacional de Música de Cámara Habana Clásica, taking place from November 10th to the 24th. Calle Obispo, known for its stilt walkers, is also expected to have a vibrant street party and a large crowd. Festival-goers will surely get their music and dancing on!

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Celebrate Havana’s 500th Anniversary in Cuba!

There is still time to book an all-inclusive vacation to Havana to celebrate the Anniversary of this lively and historic City’s foundation. With the recent changes to the travel policies, it is a perfect time to find a trusted Cuba travel agency. A professional and law-abiding agency, such as OnCuba Travel, can help you simplify the process to travel legally to Cuba from the U.S. OnCuba Travel can help you choose your reason for travel to Cuba and buy your visa.

Although there is a recent travel ban to arrive in Cuba by cruise ships, you can still travel to Cuba by plane. OnCuba can help you book your roundtrip flight to Havana, coordinate airport transfers in Havana from José Martí International Airport, or rent a car in Havana to drive across Cuba! The knowledgeable staff at OnCuba Travel can also help you plan your full itinerary in Cuba, book daylong excursions to places like Old Havana, or prepare a custom program for you and your group. They can also guide travelers to the best hotels in Cuba or find apartments for rent in Cuba to meet your plans and needs. Whether you want to visit a real Havana Cigar Lounge in the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba and attend the 2020 Habanos Festival, see artists’ studios in Cuba alongside art professionals, or learn how to cook Cuban food, OnCuba Travel can help!

You are one step closer to an unforgettable vacation in Cuba. Contact OnCuba Travel’s team by phone at (305) 602-0219, email at [email protected], or by Live Chat during business hours to get started.