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Havana

Published in History Today 2008

Clive Foss enjoys the architecture of Cuba’s capital, with varied elements from every era of its past making an exotic mix.

Thank Fidel Castro for the survival of Latin America’s most elegant and well-preserved urban landscape. Havana has changed so little in the last forty years that it resembles a living museum of the years before the Revolution. The city is like a palimpsest, with each new layer covering part of the past but not obliterating it.
 

Havana is one of the oldest cities in the New World, founded in 1517 and flourishing as the base for conquering Mexico and organizing the fleets that took America’s treasures to Spain. Since wealth needed protection, the Spaniards built a series of powerful fortresses, one a century: in the sixteenth, the Castillo Real de la Fuerza on the harbour, the oldest colonial castle in the Americas, now the Ceramic Museum; in the seventeenth, the Castillo del Morro at the entrance of the harbour; in the eighteenth, the vast La Cabana (the biggest fortress in Spanish America), where a cannon was – and still is – fired every night at 9 pm, reminding the Habaneros that the city gates were closing. Not so appropriate now in a city where life hardly gets going by that time of the evening.

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