martes, 16 de noviembre de 2010

San Cristóbal de La Habana celebrates its 491 anniversary

Flocks of people come in groups making a lot of noise; others come alone in a quiet pensive mood. Everyone gets in line. Havana is celebrating its 491 birthday and besides a diverse cultural program, the celebration includes a ritual that dates back as far as the cobblestone streets.

Alongside El Templete (a neo-classical monument erected in 1828) stands a beautiful and thick ceiba tree in the place where on November 16, 1519 the Villa de San Cristobal was founded.

The tree was highly revered by the natives who attributed it with magical-religious powers. People say that both the first religious ceremony and first town council meeting took place under its shade.

The custom has Havana residents going around the tree three times in silence, touching it, hugging and kissing it. On each turn they let coins fall, some to have their wishes come true, others to express gratitude for a miracle that already happened. Each person in line has faith that their desire will be satisfied. Each coin is a yearning and each November the hope of a country centers on this special place.

The current Havana area and its natural bay were first visited by Europeans during Sebastián de Ocampo’s circumnavigation of the island in 1509. Shortly thereafter, in 1510, the first Spanish colonizers arrived from Hispaniola, the island east of Cuba, and the conquest began.

Conqueror Diego Velázquez founded Havana on August 25, 1515, on the southern coast of the island, near the present town of Surgidero de Batabanó. Between 1514 and 1519, the city had at least two different establishments. All attempts to found a city on Cuba's south coast failed.

The final establishment, commemorated by El Templete, was the sixth town founded by the Spanish on the island, called San Cristóbal de la Habana, the name combines San Cristóbal, Havana’s Patron Saint, and Habana, of obscure origin, possibly derived from Habaguanex, an Indian chief who controlled that area, as mentioned by Diego Velasquez in his report to the king of Spain.

Havana moved to its current location next to what was then called Puerto de Carenas (literally, Careening Bay"), in 1519. The quality of this natural bay, which now hosts Havana's harbor, warranted this change of location.

Havana was the last of the first seven villages founded by Diego Velázquez. Old Havana was founded by the Spaniards on November 16, 1519 in the natural harbor of Habana Bay. It became a stopover for the treasure laden Spanish Galleons on the crossing between the New World and the Old World. The narrow streets of old Havana contain many buildings, accounting for perhaps as many as one-third of the approximately 3,000 buildings found in Old Havana.

Old Havana was destroyed and burned by the French corsair Jacques de Sores. The pirate had taken Havana easily, plundering the city and burning much of it to the ground. After limiting the scarce defenders, De Sores left without obtaining the enormous wealth that he was hoping to find in Havana. The city remained devastated and set on fire.

Since the incident, the Spanish brought soldiers and started building fortresses and walls to protect the city. The Castle of la Real Fuerza was the first fortress built; started in 1558, the construction was supervised by engineer Bartolomé Sanchez.

On the XVII century, Old Havana received two Royal Graces, when being declared Key of the New World and Safeguard of the Western Indies in 1634 by Royal Decree, and in 1665, when it was granted the right to use its own shield, including tree small towers, representing the Castle of La Real Fuerza, Morro and La Punta) that then defended the city.

Old Havana resembles Cadiz and Tenerife in Spain. Renowned Cuban novelist Alejo Carpentier called it "La ciudad de las columnas"(city of pillars). The city treasures big ancient monuments, fortresses, convents and churches, palaces, alleys, arcades and human density.

The Cuban government has undertaken enormous efforts to preserve and to restore Old Havana through the efforts of the Havana City Historian Office, directed by Eusebio Leal Spengler.

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