The ornate Palacio de Valle was once home to a wealthy sugar baron. The ghosts of Cuba’s past, when rich sugar barons built elaborate mansions and planted out vast estates, still seem to linger in the sultry Caribbean air, especially around the central Cuban city of Cienfuegos.
French settlers from America and Haiti founded a relatively young town in Cuban terms, Cienfuegos in 1819. As a result there’s a decidedly French provincial town feel about it and because of Cuba’s isolation for so long, the entire town is almost as it was in its 19th century glory days with few modern buildings to spoil its neo-classical facades and collection of palaces and public buildings.
Parque Marti, the heart of the city, is flanked by stunning buildings, including an Italian-style theatre where – in the early 1900s – world-renowned opera stars Sarah Bernhardt and Enrico Caruso sang, and a palace built for one of the region’s many sugar magnates. The entire old city of Cienfuegos is a UNESCO world heritage site and the square is an example of why it is considered a global treasure.
Cuba was once the world’s leading sugar producer – now it exports a mere two million or so tonnes a year.
Cienfuegos is also famed for its location on a bay that was once called the Pearl of the South. The first European to see it was Christopher Columbus in 1494. Today the sea still sparkles and the 19th-century palaces lining the narrow spit that juts into the bay are receiving some much needed restoration work. But, you do have to ignore the signs of heavy industry across the bay – a legacy of Soviet-era contributions, which include a now permanently mothballed nuclear power station.
Near the end of the spit is one of the most striking of the palaces. A rich sugar merchant Acisclo del Valle Blanco, who was one of the wealthiest men in Cuba at the time, built it. Begun in 1913 it took four years to build and the result is extraordinary as it combines Gothic, Venetian and neo-Moorish styles in the one construction. Senor Blanco decreed he wanted three towers, each of a different type, so the two-story arched and porticoed palace has three distinctive towers symbolizing power, religion and love. Dictator Fulgencio Batista, who was ousted by Fidel Castro, had planned to turn this confection into a casino but the revolution intervened and today it is a restaurant where you can roam through the dining areas, climb to the roof terrace to admire the towers and the bay and indulge in free pina coladas. Cocktail bars are an integral part of most Cuban sightseeing destinations. I glanced at the time as the barman handed me mine and discovered it was 10.30am.
Another beautiful legacy – the Jardin Botanico Soledad, more akin to what we know as an arboretum, was originally established by sugar plantation owner Edwin Atkins in 1912 as a sugar cane research centre on a corner of his plantation. He seemed to have become fascinated with tropical trees and plants in general and soon more than four hectares was filled with exotic vegetation.
Harvard University took over the garden in 1919. It is now the property of the Cuban government and is one of the largest botanical gardens in Latin America, covering about 90 hectares. The main drive through the park is lined with Cuba’s national plant the Royal Palm but there are more than 250 other palm species here, including one known as the pregnant palm because it has a swollen middle. There are massive fig or banyan trees, bamboo of prodigious proportions and splendidly exotic tropical flowering plants.
“There is a particularly beautiful flower over here I’d like to show you,” our guide said, adding what he hoped would be the clincher: “And when we finish at the information centre we have a cocktail bar.”
Of course they did, this was Cuba.