Tuesday, 18 April 2017

Cienfuegos - Cuba's Pearl of the South

It was late in the day and a large golden sun was setting over the glittering waters of Cienfuegos  bay when we arrived in town and pulled up outside what can only be described as a Moroccan fantasy.    The Palacio de Valle, built in 1917 by a Spaniard, Acislo Blanco, is a mix of  many different styles from Gothic to Romanesque, Baroque, Italianate and Mudejar. It appears he couldn't decide what style he liked best.

Palacio de Valle, Cienfuegos
 There is a riot of ornamentation everywhere you look, stained glass windows, heavily carved and ornamented ceilings, statues, sphinxes, towers and turrets. We wandered through the palace and then made our way up a steep spiral staircase to the roof top bar.  Dusk was falling and it was magical looking out over the bay, rose coloured clouds drifting across the sky and a cuban band playing while guests lingered over drinks.  Batista had plans to turn the palace into a money making casino but his plans were scuppered by the revolution.  For a number of years it sat empty until it was converted into the restaurant, events centre and tourist attraction it is today. The palacio is really rather bizarre but I like to take things as I find them and enjoyed my visit there, not judging it but simply appreciating it for what it is.

Three photos of Palacio de Valle (photo above: Lynelle House)

The main avenue, Cienfuegos

Cienfuegos is considered to be the most elegant of Cuban cities, often referred to as Cuba's Pearl of the South.  Settled by French colonisers, rather than Spanish, the elegant 19th century buildings in the heart of the city lend it a sophisticated 'mini-Paris' feel.  It is  the most affluent city in Cuba with a UNESCO World Heritage listing, which provides funding to help preserve the city, and it also has income derived from several important industries located around the bay. Cienfuegos has an attractive waterfront edged with some grand pre revolutionary mansions  and a relaxed seaside feel.  It is also the only place we saw anything remotely resembling a shopping street as we know it, however thankfully devoid of chain stores. I am sure there are other shopping streets in Cuba but we never saw them.  The pleasant, shady, leafy avenue running through the centre of town and down to the magnificent Parque Jose Marti was a great place to stroll and, fortuitously for me, had a large, modern shoe shop where I was able to replace my broken sandals with a pair of beautifully hand tooled leather sandals for only $10.

Elegant French colonial buildings surround Parque Jose Marti

Parque Jose Marti is the heart of Cienfuegos with the Arch of Triumph (Arco de Triunfo), celebrating Cuba's independence and  reminiscent of the much bigger Arc de Triomphe in Paris, framing the statue of Jose Marti, Cuba's beloved poet and revolutionary.  The square is surrounded by elegant Parisian style buildings and there are shady trees and benches scattered here and there, well used by tourists taking advantage of the wifi in the square to catch up with news from home. As I rested there the voice of an opera singer floated from the Theatre Tomas Terry. What could be better than sitting in the shade in an elegant square under a clear blue sky, relaxed and happy and listening to opera?
Parque Jose Marti

A Cuban Ration Book
Elegant and all as Cienfuegos is we learnt more about the harsh reality of life for Cubans when our guide took us to visit a Ration Shop.  This is where Cubans go to collect their monthly allowance of rations to supplement their tiny incomes of $25US per person, per month. There seemed to be very little stock on the shelves and the rations provided are just the basics like oil, rice, beans, matches, and eggs.  Allowances are carefully worked out depending on family size, the age of children and the elderly.  As I mentioned in a previous blog, milk is severely rationed.  Often goods are late arriving at the store so the allowance carries over to the next month which means a family must survive without that basic item for the time being.  Nowadays there are other ways of buying goods but you need to have money to do this, and most Cubans don't.  This is where posing for photos for money or guiding, taxi driving or any tourism job  where you get tips, or even begging comes in. There is also a thriving black market in Cuba known as mercado negro, where unlicensed people sell fish they have caught, fruit they have grown and sometimes goods they have stolen. Battering is also a common way of trading. Rationing was meant to be a temporary measure when it was introduced in 1962 but has now been in place for 55 years. There is nothing romantic about strict socialism.

Inside a Cuban Ration Shop (photo: Lynelle House)
As we walked back to our bus we passed the statue of one of Cienfuegos' beloved sons, the musician Benny More (1919 - 1963)  Benny, born near the city, became a huge national and international star, his music encapsulating the feel and the rhythms of Cuba. In his song, "Cienfuegos" there is this line "the city I like the best". So beloved was Benny throughout Cuba that more than 100,000 people attended his funeral.  I tip my hat to Benny.  I too love Cuban music and I thoroughly enjoyed my brief visit to Cienfuegos.

You can hear Benny More by opening the link below.