The thing that probably surprised me the most about Havana, Cuba was how fortified it is.
There was literally a wall that used to surround what's now considered "Old" Havana (or La Habana Vieja)—and although that wall now exists only in small pieces, the coastal part of Old Havana appears much as it did in its colonial era, when Spain had to protect it from capture and seizure.
I stumbled upon the Castillo de la Real Fuerza after wandering off from the Plaza de Armas—and I was shocked to find how undeniably medieval it looked.
Protected by a moat, this "Castle of the Royal Force" is considered to be the oldest fort in the Americas...
...completed in 1577, thanks mostly to the work of slaves and prisoners.
Spain still had control of Cuba back then—and it needed to protect its island from being further pillaged by French buccaneers. It ordered the construction of the fort but forced Mexico to actually pay for it.
Unfortunately, they built it just a little too small and a bit too far from the mouth of the harbor to protect much of anything.
From the upper story (which was originally used as barracks and storage of munitions), you can see
the Faro Castillo del Morro lighthouse, which is far closer to the seaside entrance to Havana's port, via the Canal de Entrada. (More on the Puerto de la Habana in a future post.)
In fact, the view is so good from up there that in 1634, Cuba's Governor Juan de Bitrián y Viamonte built a watchtower up there, topped by a bronze weathervane cast in the form a woman. He named it La Giraldilla, after a similar sculpture in his homeland of Seville, Spain. (The original is now protected in a museum, while a replica stands atop the watchtower today. You can also find her depicted on the labels of Havana Club rum.)
When the castle had proven its ineffectiveness as a military fortress once and for all, it was commandeered as a gubernatorial residence and then subsequently a national archive, a library, an art museum, a ceramics museum, and most recently a maritime museum.
As usual, I was more interested in the building itself than in its exhibitions and displays, so I climbed as high as I could go—delighted when the security guard allowed me into the watchtower.
"Just don't ring the bell," she said. I don't remember if it was in English or Spanish, but I knew immediately what she meant—probably because that's exactly what I would want to do, once I got up there.
From across the canal, you can also see the Castillo and Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña, which is the largest Spanish colonial fortress in the Americas. You couldn't accuse this one of being too small for anything.
Spain ordered this one to be built after the British attacked and took over Havana (briefly) in 1762. The Spanish wanted to make this massive fort absolutely impenetrable, and it worked—although not exactly in the way you might think. In truth, it was so formidable that nobody's ever even tried to invade it since is completion in 1774. However, that doesn't mean it didn't see its share of violence and military action.
Batista (the dictator overthrown by Castro and his fellow rebels) ended up using it as a military prison. After the Revolution, Castro's "Executor-in-Chief" Che Guevara moved in, commanding the torture and firing squad killing of Batista's officers and anybody else deemed to be a traitor, dissenter, or any other sort of "class enemy."
Despite its grisly and bloodthirsty historical context, the fort is now a tourist attraction.
You can visit the original chapel, which was built out of rough stone and masonry with a Spanish baroque facade designed by Pedro de Medina of Cádiz and contains an 18th century baroque-style communion table, relocated here from the Iglesia y Convento de Santa Catalina de Siena.
La Cabaña also houses an armaments museum and a museum dedicated to Che, but most famously it hosts a colonial parade and ceremony called cañonazo (which literally means "cannon shot"), which draws hordes of people every night.
El Cañonazo de las 9, as it's called, concludes with a historical reenactment of the firing of a cannon over the Havana harbor, every night at 9 p.m.
It's a tradition that dates back to the 18th century, when the gates of the city walls would close every night at nine o'clock...
...and be signaled by the firing of a cannon over the bay.
During the ceremony, while everybody else lined up along parapets and on rooftops, I took the opportunity to explore what was inside the walls of this fort, along the avenues between its many buildings.
Che's old office was there somewhere, as were the vaults that once stored gunpowder.
By the 16th century, Havana had established itself as a large port city; and by the 18th century, it had "the most complete dockyard in the New World," according to UNESCO. Between its shipbuilding industry and the fortunes earned as a requisite stop when sailing to the New World, Havana had a lot to protect from pirates and other colonial forces.
After the Revolution, despite having achieved independence, Cuba still had to strengthen its forces to fight against its worst enemy: itself.
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