Radio Habana Cuba | Between the sea and the hills


by Graziella Pogolotti

I arrived in Havana after a long journey. It was night. The ship remained in Pairo until dawn. Impatient to disembark, the travelers were amazed at the luminous curve of the Malecon that seemed to welcome visitors with open arms. Until then, he had lived in inland cities, crossed by rivers. The discovery of the sea left me fascinated forever with its infinite blue, the banging of the waves against the reefs and the persistent presence of the saltpeter. In that distant November, the beginning of winter accentuated the transparency of the air. In the morning, we line the harbor channel. When we went down to the dock, the bustle, the musicality of the proclamations and the permanent conversation of all with everyone awaited us.

As I grew older, my knowledge of the city expanded. First were the parks of Avenida del Puerto. In one of them rested a bust of Enrique Jose Varona and in the other, the seated statue of Jose de la Luz y Caballero. Then came the vericuetos of Havana and the long journeys to Marianao through Puentes Grandes, where the poet Julian del Casal visited the early Juana Borrero, and so it was still known as Royal Road. The visits to the Blue Ferret of the painter Carlos Enriquez made me walk the Jesus' Causeway of the Monte evoked, in classic text, by the poet Eliseo Diego. Thus, by way of sensitivity, my love for the city began to settle.

For the budding city, after the occasional transfer, the seed of everything was in the port. The early times were difficult. Made of flammable material, houses suffered frequent fires. But the geographical situation was the reason for its rapid prosperity. Key of the new world and antemural of the West Indies, next to the Gulf Stream, water route to Europe, became a meeting point for the fleets that transported goods extracted from America to the Old Continent. Pending favorable conditions for the great trip, the sailors, the military and the officials of the empire stayed for weeks in the city where they had to find shelter, food and ways of occupying leisure.

It was a kind of forced tourism that had to favor a certain tolerance with the bad life. The stay of such wealth in the time of pirates and privateers imposed the need to build fortifications paid with the so-called tobacconist of Mexico. Prosperity favored the manufacture of higher-ranking homes and the development of the first urban design. Subject of dispute by the empires of the time, it was occupied by the English who returned it to Spain in exchange for the Florida peninsula. To the sea, Havana owed its prosperity and the opening of its gaze towards the wide horizons that extended beyond the Atlantic, while the rest of the Island, protected by the distance that separated it from the central power, related to the Caribbean through Smuggling

Heirs of the fortunes accumulated by their parents, the Creoles built houses worthy of their rank. They followed the patterns of the dominant trends in each era, but adapted them to the available materials and the conditions of the torrid climate. The building of the fortifications had formed skilled masons. Maritime traffic and the availability of precious wood boosted the appearance of the shipyard for the repair of ships and to provide ships with the Spanish navy. With this, the various trades, including carpentry and blacksmithing, acquired a high level.

Architecture benefited from those advantages. To cope with the heat, it was necessary to ensure the greatest circulation of air, from the inner courtyard, with privacy protected by light screens, to the wide open windows towards the street. The singularity brand has accompanied the entire development of architecture in a port city, welcoming exchanges of the most varied nature and, at the same time, subject to environmental conditions that require the welfare of its inhabitants. The ardor of the temperature is complemented by the strong summer showers and the undulating terrain that rises gently from the coast.

That is why Carpentier defined Havana as a "city of columns" that support the sun and rain protective portals on long journeys through the urban plot. The Cuban writer is usually remembered as the author of the definition of the marvelous real. Heir and critic of surrealism, the great renovator in Latin American narrative associated the marvelous to the notion of the singular, of the unusual. He discovered it in Old Havana, fortunately today recognized and restored in its highest values, which had traveled hand in hand since his early youth. Like the painter Amelia Pelaez, she enjoyed the palliative stained glass windows designed to filter the violence of light. For the rest, the layout of streets and avenues through the undulation of the ground, offers the traveler attractive games of perspectives. Walking through Reina and Carlos III, the Prince's Hill is perceived on the horizon.

Those who conceived the integral design of the Vedado, took into account the landscape possibilities derived from the characteristics of the land. Paseo and Avenida de los Presidentes ascend from the coast to the summit from which the observer can see the whole panorama. San Lazaro Street flows into the university staircase with the open arms of its nutritious mother, Alma Mater, one of the sites with the greatest symbolic load in the Havana environment. It synthesizes the desire for knowledge and the indispensable struggle for national sovereignty and social justice. There were many who went down to combat in the city. There were many who also fell.

Mythical city, Havana has been sung by poets, storytellers and musicians. It reaches its half millennium with the scars of time. We have to celebrate it. For five centuries, facing all kinds of avatars, we have built a tangible heritage, a memory and a culture. Some of its strengths reside in the uniqueness and human dimension of the city. We have to recognize and value them to, on that basis, continue designing the future. (JR)

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