Santiago de Cuba – a morning of history!

Today was a jam packed day of proper toursity activities (so jam packed that it’ll be spread over two posts)! We first headed to the Castillo de San Pedro de la roca del Morro or the fort of San Pedro which is on the rock of El Morro. This Unesco World Heritage Site (yes, there are a fair number of these in Cuba!) sits 60m above Santiago harbour, 10km southwest of the city – according to the good old Lonely Planet. It was designed in 1587 by an Italian military engineer: Giovanni Bautista Antonelli to protect Santiago from pirates. This didn’t happen due to financial constraints, so the building work didn’t start until 1633 and was hit and miss for the next 60 years. So, in the meantime the British partially destroyed it and then finished it again in the early 1700s. As the threat of piracy had gone by now, the fort was converted to a prison pretty much constantly until the Cuban architect, Francisco Prat Puig, restored it in the late 1960s. It is now the home to a museum about the pirates who were the initial reason the fort was built and the US-Spanish naval battle that took place in the bay in late 1660s.

It was an interesting place to visit – though all in Spanish and with a Spanish speaking guide, so take someone who can translate for you – and it had some spectacular views. It was nice to discover some history that wasn’t directly related to Che Guevara and the war of independence!! We hadn’t really got to any museums before this point, so it was nice to get some detailed perspective from a local point of view.

The views from the fort, however, were absolutely stunning: the sea was so clear and blue. Really nice to see some of the coastline which wasn’t touristy or beachy..but has some locals and was just the land. Sounds really weird, but it really was lovely 🙂

Castillo de San Pedro del la Roca del Morro
Castillo de San Pedro del la Roca del Morro

We then headed to our next destination – Cementerio Santa Ifigenia, the cemetery originally built to house the victims of the War of Independence and a simultaneous yellow-fever outbreak. What I liked about the cemetery was that, those who wanted to be buried in their family tomb or just not in the large mausoleum for those who fought in the War, were still honoured. They had two flags standing by their graves to ensure they got the respect they deserved. The cemetery includes several great historical figures in its grounds also. The most prominent of which is José Martí, who is housed is a spectacular (and rather large) marble mausoleum. Incorporated into the decor of the hexagonal structure was representation of all the provinces in Cuba and his casket is positioned so as to get some sunlight everyday. This is a response to him saying that he would not like to die as a traitor in darkness, but he would die facing the sun. His casket is guarded around the clock and there is a Changing of the Guards ceremony every 30mins. Given the military connections me and my boyfriend have, and being really quite proud of our own Changing of the Guards ceremony at Buckingham Palace, we were scrutinising the poor 16/17 year old men/boys. They didn’t quite live up to our standards, but given the heat and the pressure they were under we forgave them (except for the one chewing gum)! The whole ceremony was brief, but executed well with some nice music. It was worth watching just for the experience.

Next it was back towards town for the last bit of education. Though on the way we stopped off at the Plaza de la Revolución of Santiago de Cuba. It was pretty spectacular, with huge spikes coming out the ground with a large horse statue with a modern interpretation of Antonio Maceo. The Plaza is positioned at the junction of two huge roads, so it’s pretty difficult to miss as you head into the city! We didn’t stop by in the small museum under the giant mound – there’s only so much you can take in!

Santiago de Cuba - Plaza de la Revelución
Santiago de Cuba – Plaza de la Revelución

So, after the short stop in the Plaza we headed to (arguably) our final cultural stop of the day: Cuartel Moncada. This is the site of Santiago’s famous Moncada barracks, a grand building built in 1938. It is also known for one of the greatest failed putsches in history in 1953. On June 26th 1953, Fidel Castro (who was not well known at the time) led over 100 revolutionaries to the building to storm Batista’s troops at what was Cuba second more important military garrison. Let’s just say that it didn’t go well for Castro and his revolutionaries. Many were killed and Fidel and his close circle fled to the mountains and left the rest to (unsuccessfully) fend for themselves. This was due to a messenger that got killed, a message that was never received and resulted in one huge cover up. According to the guide in the museum, Batista’s surviving troops repositioned bodies and changed the uniforms of the troops in order to relieve themselves from any blame and claim self defence. The guide in the museum had a story that was not to be argued with, one of our group mentioned that it’s a bit different to something else she read and it was met by a lot of defence and the proclamation that this was the ONLY version of the story that was correct. If I’m honest, it all seems a bit sketchy and I’d be interested in going back to the museum in maybe 10-15 years time to hear the version of events being recounted then. But hey, maybe I’m just cynical.

Finally, lunch time! Yay – we went to the posh hotel in the main square again. This time we sat downstairs for some quick food and…a REAL full fat AMERICAN red can of Coca Cola. My gosh, I had been craving this for so long and ice cold, it tasted so good. I hadn’t had any ‘cola’ for the whole holiday, I couldn’t even drink any of the cocktails with a ‘cola’ base because it just didn’t taste right! [not that important in the grand scheme of things, but I remember the excitement!]

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