Two labourers perch high atop scaffolding. With no safety equipment, they chip away at corroded metallic support for the three virtues. The pure white Carrara marble statue forms part of the massive main gate. Havana's prized Cementerio Cristóbal Colón entranceway is 22.5 metres tall. It was sculpted in 1904 by Cuban artist, José Villalta Saavedra.
Inside the gate, more workmen employ hammer and chisel on the ornate Valdes family crypt. One burnishes aged sections of wrought iron with a power grinder. Sparks scorch the already-oppressive 34°C air. Another briskly whisks dirt from cement curbs followed closely by his partner who slaps on white paint.
Despite the apparent lack of decorum, I observe two small separate funeral processions slowly proceed along
Avenida Colon to the Capilla Central, a round-shaped chapel built in the late 1800s. It's literally dead centre of the 140-acre (57-hectare) cemetery. Inside, amidst frescoes painted by Cuban artist, Miguel Melero, a rotund priest in a white tunic, perfunctorily presides over brief ceremonies.
Named for Christopher Columbus, this cemetery is one of the largest in the world and certainly one of the most ornate. Built from 1871-1886, it was designed by Spanish architect, Calixto de Loira, based on the layout of a rigidly symmetrical Roman military camp. More than 500 major mausoleums, chapels and family vaults, many intricately designed, house the remains of notables such as Ibrahim Ferrer, singer and musician and Ruben Gonzalez, pianist, both members of Cuba's celebrated Buena Vista Social Club. Also interred here are Major League Baseball players, Dolf Luque (pitcher) and Armando Marsands (outfielder) as well as former Cuban president
Jose Gomez and many other military, cultural and academic icons.
Prior to Havana, I thought New Orleans' graveyards were exceptional; here, I encounter an eclectic mix from Roman temple to Egyptian pyramid to a medieval castle, styles ranging from classical to art deco. Some headstones and ornamental sculptures are works of art. So striking is the necropolis with its 20 kilometres of pathways, that it was declared a national monument in 1987.
I stare in admiration, examining one of the largest, most elaborate, and certainly the tallest, monument in the necropolis. Designed by architects Agustin Querol and Julio Zapata, the Firemen's Monument (Mausoleo de los Bomberos) is dedicated to victims of a commercial store fire on May 17, 1890. Inverted torches, branches of laurel and winged hourglasses reflect the temporal nature of life.
Toward the rear of the cemetery I encounter the Martires del Asalto al Palacio Presidencial, an avant-garde memorial of shiny metal flags built in 1982. It honours students killed during the 1957 attack on President
Batista's Presidential Palace, a year prior to
Che Guevera's dramatic capture of Santa Clara. This forced
Batista to flee the country and allowed Fidel Castro to quickly consolidate power in 1959. Across the main avenue in complementary fashion, sits the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionatrias Monument built in 1955, a large pantheon that houses Cuban heroes of the Revolutionary Armed Forces.
Of one million tombs housed here, the most visited grave is that of La Milagrosa or "The Miraculous One" located at the corners of Calles 3 and F. It's the grave of Amelia Goyre de Hoz, who died on May 3, 1901 while giving birth to a son who also died and was buried in the same coffin at the feet of his mother. When the sarcophagus was later opened, the baby was reportedly found cradled in the mother's arms. La Milagrosa is revered by Cubans as an unofficial saint who protects children. Many women pray to her in hopes of pregnancy. The grave is always decorated as it is today with flowers and hand-written notes.
The cemetery's restorative work is surely a microcosm for urgently needed architectural renewal throughout Havana. The city's seemingly endless assembly line of faded, beleaguered buildings, in better days, once prompted novelist Ernest Hemmingway to declare Havana second only in beauty to Paris. Nevertheless, as a stunning attraction that combines history and art, Havana's Cementerio Cristóbal Colón ranks second to none. It's a tourist "must-see" when visiting Cuba's capital city.
Mike Keenan writes for QMI Agency (Sun Media) Canada's largest newspaper publisher, printing 44 daily newspapers as well as a web portal, Canoe.ca. Besides regular columns for the St. Catharines Standard, Welland Tribune and Niagara Falls Review. Mike has been published in the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. His work is found in QMI published dailies such as the Toronto Sun, Ottawa Sun, Vancouver Sun, London Free Press, Calgary Sun, Winnipeg Sun and Edmonton Sun.
If you go
Churches & Synagogues: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Churches_in_Havana;
The cemetery is located at the corner of Zapata and 12th streets, a 15-minute walk from the Plaza de la Revolution, one of the world's largest city squares, dominated by the Jose Marti Memorial with an imposing 109-metre tower and an 18-metre statue.
Entrance fee: $5 CUC (1 peso = $1.08 Cdn.) Open: daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m.
I stayed at the Melia Cohiba Hotel in Vedado, close to the Malecon. Tel: (53) 7 833 3636, Price per diem: $173 Cdn.
Meals in restaurants are reasonably priced, but for a taste of genuine Cuban cuisine, try one of the city's many paladares, small restaurants located in homes, regulated and licensed by the state. You can chat with fellow diners and your hosts. This website reviews the top five:
Take in a floor show at the refurbished Hotel Nacional de Cuba's Cabaret Parisién, noted for colourful dancing and Cuban music. In the bar area, you will recognize photos of famous guests such as Winston Churchill, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner and Johnny Weissmuller. Located at Calle 21 and O, Vedado, (53-7) 836 3564.
At the elegant Parque Central Hotel, within walking distance of the Plaza de la Catedral, the Capitolio building and the Gran Teatro de La Habana, enjoy a Mojito. Take the elevator to the roof-top classic Greek-style swimming pool, where you will enjoy panoramic views of the exquisite architecture below.
Ride in a bicycle taxi that will transport you off-the-beaten path to experience authentic Havana. When you tip the driver, be prepared for a handshake.
Walk along the Malecón, Havana's winding seawall where locals cool off in the evening. Havana is safe, and Cubans love Canadians.