Reina Cemetery 2

Reina Cemetery

SYNOPSIS:  About the French and other Colonizers, a theater, two cemeteries and a few other things of note in Cienfuegos.

Our AirBnB’s location is perfect.  We are one block away from the pedestrian shopping boulevard leading to the Central Plaza and we are kitty-corner from the Prado, the most famous thoroughfare of Cienfuegos leading to the Malecon and the Punta Gorda.

But before exploring what is going on today, I thought it fitting to talk about those who are dead by now.  Cienfuegos owes its 2005 UNESCO status to a cluster of well-preserved colonial homes built most likely by one or the other of the 116 (or is it 137) French settlers who came here in 1819 from Louisiana in the US, and from Bordeaux.  They started this town.  The city commemorates some of them through large marble monuments lining the Prado.  If I could, I would provide you with more information, but I don’t have google.  You probably have no idea what that means unless you try it for a week, or a whole month if you want to feel my full pain!

Historical information is scarce around here.  This may have to do with the strange Cuban’s sense of humor, of loving to leave their counterparts in the dark, or it may have to do with the socialist economy; which means that nothing much is available when and where you really need it.  Expecting something like that, I jumped at the opportunity to buy some maps of the cities we were going to in a dusty, mostly empty bookstore in Havana.   There is no chance you would find these maps in the actual cities.  We would be completely lost without our American guidebooks (Lonely Planet and Moon Guide) which are pretty much the only source of information we have.

The French brought their know-how and their drive.  Italians, British, and Spanish followed.  Some of them came penniless but with their European and military advantage, turned entrepreneurs, sugar barons, bankers and who knows what else. The locals provided the cheap labor on whose back these colonialists got rich, super rich.  So rich, in fact, that at least one of them, a Venezuelan named Tomas Terry, seemed to have felt a bit guilty and built a theater for the town in 1887 which bears his name and stands unchanged to this day.  It is the coolest thing to sit in one of the old wooden fold-down chairs, arranged in a rising circle facing a slightly tilted stage.  A three-tiered balcony wraps around, making a total of 900 seats.  The fixtures, the furnishings, the amenities — all date from the late 19th Century.  Yet, world stars and ensembles like Enrico Caruso or the Bolshoi Ballet, have performed here.  The ceiling is painted Italian style and a carved head of Dionysus is watching over it all.  If the ticket clerk had not tried to rip us off — collecting money without receipts and overcharging me for the use of my camera — I would mark this the highlight of the town.

Most of the other rich guys only built mansions and palaces for themselves. Under the Cuban Revolution many of these seemed to have been appropriated by the government, and today they house the local TV and radio station, sport and private clubs, restaurants, hotels, art galleries, cultural centers, university or government offices, etc.  Many of them decayed over time. But with UNESCO status comes UNESCO money which seems to have found its way to some of the buildings already; they stand in pristine condition, renovated, and freshly painted in the so typical local pastel colors.  A feast for the eye.  But much needs to be done.  There is no end to the photo ops in the center of town and all the way down to the tiniest tip of a peninsula called the Punta Gorda.  Even in their dilapidated states, actually particularly then, these villas are fun to look at.  Idiosyncrasies such as corrugated roofs, or makeshift doors are unavoidable and have their own charm as much as they indicate the still dire situation of Cuba.

The most outlandish of the villas ever built anywhere must be the Palacio del Valle.  What started in 1917, as a modest house of a trader turned into a gaudy, yet fascinating imitation of Moorish architecture down to the Arabic writing (if that is Arabic at all!).  Today, a restaurant is housed in the main floor.  The roof terrace can be accessed via a spiral staircase.  We enjoyed a sunset with a drink up there feeling rather transported into 1001 Arabian Nights.  What else could these people do with all their money?

Well, they could make sure they would set themselves apart in death as well.  In 1837, the older of two famous cemeteries in Cienfuegos was founded; the Cemetario La Reina, a district of Cienfuegos.  A nondescript wall and gate lead into a compact, spectacular cemetery.   Quartered by avenues, graves seem to have been put on top of each other, certainly way above ground; an anomaly due to the high water table in this area.  Spanish soldiers are interred in the squares lining the wall of the cemetery.  The wealthy commissioned graves are decorated with statues, leaving a legacy even in death. 

Our delightfully charming, and entertaining, self-appointed guide Carmen told us that photography was not permitted — wink wink — she was willing to turn a blind eye as long as I was shooting from the hip.  Needless to say, the quality of the images suffered.  And once again I had to ask myself why this rule?  For what?  Who can enforce this in the days of smart-phones?  And who would come running after some tourists who are not accompanied by a guide?  Why not charge an honest photography fee?  It did not make any sense.  But I won’t expect rules to make sense any longer.  Not in Cuba.

Reina is the oldest cemetery, but another cemetery was opened in 1926, the Necropolis Tomas Acea.  It holds the record for being the largest one. It is also the more active and current one for local residents.  It is called a garden cemetery but unless some source of water is found there — not even the toilets flushed (!) The “garden” feels more like a desert filled with white stone monuments.  One single strip of green sprung up along a seemingly haphazard path.  It must have once been a stream, long overgrown.  Tomas sports a gigantic Greek facade and some pretty pretentious tombs.  But it also shows the local funerary traditions of family graves with small movable book or stone blocks indicating the various individuals who are buried here.   That is a style I have not yet seen elsewhere.  And with that I will conclude my entry on the dead in Cienfuegos.  May they rest in peace.

Good night.

4 comments so far

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  1. Have finally, miraculousy found my way on to your blog and there you are on yet another amazing journey exploring Cuba – do so hope you have found a beer buddy!
    You are never far from the conversation when Burma is on the agenda and we have often wondered where else you have wandered?
    enjoy you travels
    x Rowena & Ted

    • So good to hear from you! I hope you are traveling far and wide as well. Stay in touch! ET

  2. You do love your cemeteries. Somebody could do a whole paper/book on the cemeteries you visited in various countries…from Cuba, to Israel to Mali etc. etc. Hmmmm…what think you?

    • Got to look death in the eye as long as you still can. 😉 ET