After 3-Year Restoration, the Historic Gran Teatro Reopens in Havana

After 3-Year Restoration, the Historic Gran Teatro Reopens in Havana

After three years of intense restoration efforts, Raul Castro and other Cuban officials celebrated the reopening of the historic Gran Teatro de La Habana “Alicia Alonso” at a gala on Friday marking the 57th anniversary of the Cuban Revolution. Castro attended the rededication gala in the Gran Teatro’s Federico Garcia Lorca Hall alongside famed Cuban ballerina … Read more

In Conversation: Renowned Boutique Hotel Designer Discusses Cuba’s Hotel Future

In Conversation: Renowned Boutique Hotel Designer Discusses Cuba’s Hotel Future

The Cuba Journal selected the Hotel Saratoga as the 2015 Best Hotel in Havana.

Across the street from the Capital building and next to La Habana Vieja (Old Havana), the hotel offers ideal access to the best parts of Havana, day or night.

I had the pleasure of meeting members of the design team at the Mexican design and architect firm, Arquitectura de Interiores, the designer of the Hotel Saratoga during its extensive 2005 renovation. The firm’s President, Marisabel Gomez Vazquez, and Creative Director, Joao Lueiro (a Cuban living in Mexico), agreed to discuss the Saratoga and Cuba’s potential to impact the course of design evolution in the boutique hotel category.

The Hotel Saratoga is a wonderful combination of classical and modern in terms of design. Can you discuss how this came about, whether it was the goal at the beginning or did it result after working with the space? Do you feel like you were taking big risks at the time?

The Hotel Saratoga has a history of its own. Apart from being one of the first full-service hotels in Havana, quite luxurious by the way, it was also, during the 30’s, the watering hole for many in the bohemian-intellectual class in Havana. It was very common to find writers, actors and socialites spending time at the “Aires Libres”. This site, the long arched Portal at both sides of the main entry on the hotel, was made famous while the Anacaonas, the first Cuban all-women orchestra, were rising into stardom playing there. It is impossible to bypass these credentials. Once you get your hands in a project like this you can’t escape the spell. When we started the project it was intended to be a “One&Only”, so we knew it had to comply with the standards set by this brand. We also studied the history in a comprehensive manner and learned a good load of interesting facts. However we didn’t pretend to re-create the ambiance of the original property but to accomplish instead a new standard for the Cuban hospitality business based upon Cuban authenticity and our knowledge in contemporary requirements for the industry. The result is this mix of classical and modern features that made the property a success story from the opening day. Our biggest achievement was the acknowledgements from Cubans themselves; they felt it as a very consistent and respectful project. We as a firm visualize every project through their intrinsic values in all fronts, cultural, historic and market wise. This permits us to navigate all the different scenarios from the inside, not imposing our position but constructing it from the core. When a project like the Hotel Saratoga lands into our hands we always run into some risks, mainly from the cultural point of view, but we are well prepared to sort them out. In our creative process we have time allocated for establishing the common language, to listen and to understand. This opens the communication and everything is easier then.

In a sense, Cuba’s history is colliding with its future as culture and economics combine to create exciting possibilities. Do you see this historical circumstance producing more successful hotel concepts in Cuba that bridge the past and the future or classical and modern?

This is not new. Geographically and culturally, Cuba is a crossroads. It has been a hub for many centuries. Sometimes it has been natural, like when the colonial Spanish ships arrived first in Havana then went to Mexico and South America. It was named the Gulf Key for its strategic position. During most of the 20th century it was a commercial port of transit enjoying such prosperity that it became a magnet for immigrants from the former metropolis. And then, during the years under the influence of the socialist bloc, there was an influx of Russian, German, Czech, Hungarian and many more people from Eastern Europe adding, again, an unexpected layer of consequences. So Cuba is accustomed to the new and unknown and it has survived each wave. This moment brings a broad range of openings. The idea of exploiting the historic background makes sense in Havana and other cities with rich colonial architecture. But there are big prospects for contemporary, avant-garde design not only in Havana but in many places through the country. Cuba is a rather big market and there are a lot of opportunities for almost every concept.

Since the opening of the Hotel Saratoga in 2005, boutique hotels have emerged as a discrete hotel category with some of the world’s largest hotel companies forming brands around the concept. Yet few places in the world offer a backdrop like the architectural richness of Old Havana and the nearby neoclassical Vedado residential section. Do you think Havana could shape the future of the boutique hotel milieu as the concept spreads into places that lack the special features or the historical circumstance found in Havana?

Havana is a big city, yet it feels close and personal. It is something that happens in culturally rich cities like Mexico or Buenos Aires. If you can take advance on these characteristics you can create a boutique hotel. This is a convenient scheme for the large hotel companies to bring intimacy to travelers looking for a unique experience.

When I walk into the entrance of the Hotel Saratoga I feel acquainted with a sense Cuba’s history and also with Havana’s treasury of historical events – some of which occurred close to the building itself. Do you think this sensation can be duplicated in any physical location or is it fortified by a city’s own unique location and circumstance?

The scenarios can be duplicated however the feelings and authenticity wouldn’t be easy to replicate. You can create a copy of Venice, yet you will not go to Vegas to pray in San Marco. You need several factors to create something as authentic as the original: objective ones can be copied but subjective ones, those involving feelings are very hard to create out of the nothing. Thereafter, the actual feelings you have in Havana belong in Havana.

Do you have plans for more design and architectural work in Cuba?

It is our goal and desire. We are always looking for new opportunities to work in Cuba for the great development chapter to come; but, more importantly, we already have a love affair with the country and its people.

Cuba’s growing hotel pipeline is trending towards upscale offerings in the urban city center and in the all-inclusive category mostly in Veradero. How do you see this trend impacting the rest of the Caribbean over the next few years?

The well established markets and niche products are not going to be very affected, but the new offers will be harder to sell. While everything takes shape and the infrastructure gets updated there are chances for the minor players; after that, it will be difficult for them to compete because Cuba is very diverse and as a touristic product has a lot to offer in a single package.

A Walking Tour of Old Havana

A Walking Tour of Old Havana

There is no better way to experience the grandeur and history of Old Havana than walking through the many plazas and exploring the interiors of the many cathedrals and museums.

Havana, or what is considered Old Havana today, was founded in 1519 by the Spanish. By the 17th century, it had become one of the Caribbean’s main centers for ship-building.

Click here to see a legal Havana tour that you will love.

The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Old Havana a World Heritage Site in 1982.

Within the boundaries of Old Havana and its fortifications are located all the elements necessary to express what UNESCO considers Outstanding Universal Value, including Old Havana’s urban layout with its five large plazas and its harmonious ensemble of architectural monuments and traditional-style popular buildings from different periods in its history – and its extensive network of fortifications.

Old Havana and its fortifications do not suffer from adverse effects of development, though much of Old Havana’s structures are in disrepair due to decay, chronic neglect and the effects from natural elements.

Although it is today a sprawling metropolis of more than 2 million people, its old center retains an interesting mix of Baroque and neoclassical monuments, and a homogeneous collection of private houses with arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards.

The historic fortunes of Havana were a product of the exceptional function of its bay as an obligatory stop on the maritime route to the New World, which made military protection a priority. The extensive network of defensive installations created between the 16th and 19th centuries includes some of the oldest and largest extant stone fortifications in the Americas, among them La Cabaña fortress on the east side of the narrow entrance canal to Havana Bay, Real Fuerza Castle on the west side, and Morro castle and La Punta castle guarding the entrance to the canal.

Old Havana, which is defined by the extent of the former city walls, has maintained the pattern of the early urban setting with its five large plazas, each with its own architectural character: Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco, Plaza del Cristo and Plaza de la Catedral. Around these plazas are many outstanding buildings, including the Iglesia Catedral de La Habana, Antiguo Convento de San Francisco de Asís, Palacio del Segundo Cabo and Palacio de los Capitanes Generales.

Interspersed with this mix of baroque and neoclassical style monuments is a homogeneous ensemble of private houses with arcades, balconies, wrought-iron gates and internal courtyards –many of them evocatively time-worn. The complex system of fortifications that protected Havana, its port and its dockyard is comprised of the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña – one of the largest colonial fortresses in the Americas – on the east side of the narrow entrance canal to Havana Bay; Castillo de la Real Fuerza –one of the oldest colonial fortresses in the Americas (begun in 1558)– on the west side of the canal; and Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta and Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro guarding the entrance to the canal; as well as the Castillo de Santa Dorotea de Luna de la Chorrera, Torreón de San Lázaro, Reducto de Cojímar, Baluarte del Ángel, Lienzo de la Muralla y Puerta de la Tenaza, Restos de Lienzo de la Muralla, Garita de la Maestranza, Cuerpo de Guardia de la Puerta Nueva, Restos del Baluarte de Paula, Polvorín de San Antonio, Hornabeque de San Diego, Fuerte No. 4, Castillo de Santo Domingo de Atarés, Castillo del Príncipe andFuerte No. 1.

Source:  World Heritage Center, UNESCO

Old Havana is easy to navigate during the day, but it is not well-lit at night.  During the summer, walkers may want to avoid the heat of the day by exploring in the morning and late afternoon. Check out the Doors of Old Havana to see another interesting aspect of the island nation’s capital city.

Here is a selection of what you will find on a walking tour of Old Havana:

Images of Havana Under Construction

Images of Havana Under Construction

by Simons Chase

Anticipation in Havana has been building for years as US President Obama has steadily re-built a relationship with Cuba.  At the same time, Raul Castro, who took over as President of Cuba after his brother Fidel retired in 2008, has loosened restrictions for real estate trading by expanding permitted transfers to include outright sales.  Previously, transfers were permitted only in the case of cashless exchanges.

The US-Cuba relationship building has translated into a small but promising real estate building and reconstruction boom fueled by Cuban-American cash and domestic demand for housing.

These images were captured in Old Havana and surrounding neighborhoods including Vedado.