Saturday, August 11, 2012

Day Six: Finding my Franco-Cuban Roots

There was no time for more beach relaxation because yet another day started with an 8:00 a.m. departure time.  I wasn't quite ready to leave but when I realized the highway rest stops had sights like this I was willing to keep climbing on the bus.

Without a map of Cuba by my side I lost track of where we were driving, and just took time to enjoy sights you won't see anywhere else in the world.

And then came my experience with love at first sight.  Cienfuegos is the combination of everything I love about a place: it's old yet vibrant, bustling but full of peaceful garden squares, and full of buildings that make even Italy look just a little less divine.  And best of all, it's history involves stories of actual pirates.

"Cienfuegos" means "hundred fires," though I'm guessing the name has more to do with Revolutionary leader Camilo Cienfuegos than any beach bonfire tradition.  (Remember our pal Camilo?  He's the metal guy who hangs out with Che in Plaza de la Revolución in Havana.)  It was founded in 1819 and is the only city in Cuba that was founded by the French.  Somewhere around 200,000 people live here, and I'm jealous of every single one of them.

Downtown Cienfuegos felt more like a modern city than any other place we'd been in Cuba.  Locals and tourists crowded the streets, the store shelves were filled with more than a few goods to sell, and speakers broadcast a local radio station to those on the street.  People did not stroll here - there was a purpose to their pace and it made walking with a group more challenging.  (Not that I actually know this, since Afrodite and I rebelliously blazed our own path until we rejoined the group for the next official activity.) 

The buildings here are truly amazing.  Erik said the city is referred to as "romantic" because of all the domed buildings.  While I can't find a tour book that recognizes that claim to fame I can tell you without a doubt that Erik's right.  This place immediately brings to mind movie-like displays of young love and the extra detail on all the buildings only adds to the appeal.

I have a thing for both domes and spiral staircases, and there were more than enough to keep me happy here.

I snuck onto this one and climbed to the top hoping to find an aerial view of "my" new city, but alas! it just led to the roof where I could see nothing but more flat ceilings.

Rather than go into this theater as a group, we were allowed to wander in on our own to enjoy the amazing interior.  The Teatro Tomas Terry was the dream of, you guessed it, Tomas Terry.  He left behind money to fulfill his vision of a beautiful theater in Cienfuegos, and his family carried out the process of ensuring the theater was built.  Construction began in 1887 and the first event was held in 1890.   The official Cienfuegos website compares the theater to the Coliseum but that's a stretch - this is a small, beautiful theater with intricate detail on every wall, floor and ceiling.  Above the stage was an ornate decoration that reminded me of kids' books showing wind as a jolly old man. Unfortunately, my own picture of it did not turn out so it's one of the few things I have in my head that I can't transfer to yours.

We were lucky enough to be there for a dance rehearsal, and I sat in one of the prime floor-level seats to watch until the beauty of the city lured me back outside.

I had no intention of staying for the full concert of the chamber orchestra that was the next stop on our schedule.  The city awaited and there were more things to explore, but out of politeness I stepped into the small building where the musicians were tuning up their instruments.  I didn't even take a seat but got a prime ready-to-escape-at-a-moment's-notice spot leaning against a doorway toward the front of the room.  And then the music began, and there was no doubt that I would stay there for weeks if they'd let me.  This was the most beautiful music I have ever heard, and I've been fortunate enough to hear some pretty amazing concerts.

One of the songs played for our benefit - beautiful enough to make me cry through the whole thing, but I loved the Cuban compositions even better.

 It wasn't just the perfection of the music, though that was undeniable.  It was the people.  The passion they poured into their instruments made the audience feel invisible - this was not a performance for wealth or status, this was people who loved their instruments and their music enough to pour every bit of their heart into the performance. 

I love each of the photos I got but no camera could capture the essence of this amazing group of people.  The cellist who knew the music so well he rarely looked at the notes in front of him, instead closing his eyes to get lost in the music as he unconsciously kept the rhythm of the piece with small movements of his mouth.  The violinist who managed to have a radiant, heart-stopping smile even while holding that head tilt necessary to hold the instrument.  The pianist whose responsibilities also included percussion, and whose enthusiasm gave the appearance that this must be the first time she had ever heard the beautiful music.  The Russian orchestra leader whose life had been poured into this group, and whose talent had trained most of the musicians sharing the stage with her.  (I use the word "stage" lightly, since they just played on chairs gathered at the front of the room.)  The applause at the end of each piece was thunderous and I'm pretty sure every member of our tour group shared my dread that the next song might be the last. 

I was still standing at the doorway though I had absolutely no intention of leaving now, and my spot got even better when the orchestra launched into a cha-cha-cha and this delightful man left his violin behind and beckoned me to the floor.  In America, my mind would have been crowded with the realization that a whole room full of my new friends was watching and knowledge that I have never even tried to do a cha-cha.  But here in this magical place, the only thought I had was "awesome."

This was definitely the first time I'd seen dance be such a part of a chamber music concert, and I loved it.

Yes, it's still sideways - apparently I never learn.

The best news: if you're anywhere near the west coast of the U.S., you can hear this orchestra too!  They formed a partnership with Seattle's Northwest Sinfonietta, and after hosting a concert with Seattle's orchestra in Cuba, they will be performing in Seattle on October 5, 6 and 7 - click here for more information.  Even better - and I get chills when I say this - some of the amazing members of my travel group are putting the final touches on bringing the Orquesta de Cámara Concierto Sur to Tempe October 15th.  You'd better believe I'll provide details here - and to anyone who will listen to me - as soon as it's finalized. (The details are in!  Click here to buy tickets to the October 15 show.)

The music did finally come to a heartbreaking end and after surviving the mad rush to buy a CD of the orchestra's music (not an exaggeration - we all became competitors as we crowded around the small table with a small pile of CDs on it) it was time to reemerge into the bright Cienfuegos sunshine.  As I stepped out onto the street, church bells began to ring across the street.  Church bells have always been my signal of A Perfect Moment, but this one topped the charts.
Today was the one time on the trip that I was the one holding up the departure time - I hoped the bus would leave without me, but Erik's excellent ability to count to 30 meant I had to rejoin the group after all.

Fortunately, our time in Cienfuegos wasn't over.  It was time for lunch in this nice little shack on the waterfront.

The Palacio de Valle was built around 1917 by a man who died shortly after completing it.  It has a complicated and possibly raucous history - it was a casino before it calmed into the restaurant that it is now.  We lovingly refer to it as "Erik's house," a nickname that took no creativity since that's what he called it too.

It was another perfect day to rush through a good meal and skip dessert just to spend time walking around the palace grounds and neighborhood.  The bay surrounded the block, though part of the waterfront was blocked by gates protecting the area around the Jagua Hotel.

You are here.

The waterfront could not rival the beauty of the Malecón in Hanana, but it was quiet and wonderful in its own way - and I loved this loop with the graceful statue.

I was obsessed with these black and white striped curbs - the time and effort that must have gone into painting those!  I saw them all around Cuba but most of the time they were faded beyond recognition.  These were crisp and added quite a lot of flair to the landscape.

The long trip back to Havana gave me plenty of time to plan how to jump through financial and governmental hoops to get back to Cienfuegos. I have no idea when the plan will be implemented but at some point in my life, I will be back in that city.


  1. The most beautiful place!! Wow, what an experience. And, that violin player wasn't too bad I could have been there to see you Cha Cha!

    Aunt Sally

  2. Beautiful presentation. My mother and grandparents are from Cienfuegos. Originally from el Castillo de Jagua.

    1. Thank you for such a kind comment!

  3. I grew up in a small town in Cienfuegos province, about an hour away from the city. I waited for my school bus so many times right in front of the Tomas Terry theater.
    This post brings great memories.

    1. I sat across from the theater and just watched people for awhile, so it made me smile to have shared just a moment of that memory you have! Thank you for writing - it helps me appreciate wonderful Cienfuegos even more.

  4. Great and passionate description of a wonderful Cuban city!


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