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A walk around Remedios on its 500th anniversary

A walk around Remedios on its 500th anniversary

Tiny Remedios, a sleepy town rich in Spanish colonial architecture and mysterious legends, celebrates its 500th anniversary this summer. The party starts in June and will continue until Las Parrandas, the town's annual famous Christmas Eve carnival.

Established on the coast as Santa Cruz de Vasco Porcallo, and named after Spanish landowner Vasco Porcallo de Figueroa, the town was moved inland in 1578 following a pirate attack and renamed San Juan de los Remedios.

Remedios' history is entwined with the frightening story of the threat of hundreds and thousands of demons. Remedios' early wealth had been built on trading contraband with pirates who were regular visitors to the north coast of Cuba. But a 17th-century farm-owning priest Joseph Gonzalez de la Cruz, along with local landowners, whose profits were plummeting due to the illicit trade, denounced the contraband deals as heretical.

Walking around Remedios - Map

The priest, supported by local landowners, whipped up a Satanic storm, telling the townsfolk that 800,000 demons living in what's known as the mouth of hell – the Boqueron cave – in the folds of the Hill of Tesico, on the outskirts of town, would see that Remedios would rot in the fires of hell if the townsfolk did not move away from the coast. It's reported that the priest carried out hundreds of exorcisms on the inhabitants. Not all the Remedianos were convinced by the religious hysteria but those that were persuaded by the harbingers of doom founded the city of Santa Clara in 1689, an hour south of Remedios.

Cuban ethnographer Fernando Ortiz wrote History of a Cuban fight against the demons based on Remedios' history. This was later immortalised in a film of the same name by Tomas Gutierrez Alea in 1972.

Start your walk in the main square, the Parque Jose Marti [1] built in 1852, under the pretty pastel pink bandstand before heading into the 17th-century church, the Iglesia Parroquial de San Juan Bautista (Church of St John the Baptist) [2], considered one of the 30 top architectural wonders of Cuba (open Monday to Saturday 9am-noon, 2-5pm). Ochre-hued and quietly handsome on the outside, its interior is magnificent. The vast, flamboyant 22-carat gold baroque cedar wood altar is the standout (ask for the lights to be turned on to get a good picture). The painted wooden Mudejar coffered ceiling features a curious illusion: facing one way there appears to be a painted line of tulips but turn and face the other way, and the image appears to be the face of Jesus. Note also the painted pineapple on the roof – thought to be left by Cuban workers who farmed the fruit.

Single female visitors should take note: local girls approach the statue of Saint Anthony, tie a knot in his robe, and make a wish for a boyfriend.

After leaving the church (visitors enter and exit from the rear), note the striking wrought-ironwork on the grand building opposite which bears the imprint of the lyre [3], a noted motif in central Cuba. Head right, and across the road to the bright and breezy Driver's Bar [4], a local watering hole papered with newsprint from the Cuban Communist Party daily, Granma. After reviving coffee or beer, at the long curved wooden bar, head west to the crumbling porched Casa de la Cultura [5], the former Casino Espanol, topped by Carrara marble busts depicting figures from classical antiquity. It's also home to the studio of artist Reynier Luaces Gonzalez who paints intriguing miniature portraits on recycled wood.

Head west down along Calle Jose Antonio Pena and on the corner of Calle Maceo is the airy and inviting Casa del Ajedrez (House of Chess) [6]. You're welcome to head in and sit down and play a game at any of the tables set with a board game and chess pieces. Inside, the back wall depicts a portrait of Jose Raul Capablanca, the father of Cuban chess, and the world chess champion for much of the 1920s.

Head further west and then take a right (north) along Calle Antonio Romero. On the corner here, facing Calle Independencia, is the local Restaurant Colonial [7] serving food in local Cuban pesos (CUP or moneda nacional). This place has a really interesting history. In the entrance are the remnants of Dutch tiles embedded in the wall and, at the back of the building, off the courtyard, are some of the first hot shower tanks in the city which were used by the slaves of the house. (Staff might show you the shower room.)

The house was built in 1863 by the Seiglie family and restored in 1949-50 by wealthy Remediano philanthropist Eutimio Fallo Bonet, who dedicated time and money to restoring much of the town's architectural wealth (including the 1940s restoration of the church); Bonet lived here while overseeing local restoration work.

Head east up Calle Independencia taking a left on the corner of Calle Antonio Maceo. Here you'll come across the architecturally eclectic Banco Popular de Ahorro building [8]. Note also the attractive architectural accents on the street corners around here – ironwork lute designs.

Walk east up Calle Pi y Margall back to the square and then north along Calle Maximo Gomez passing the attractive 10-room Hotel Mascotte [9] on your left. Formerly a private home and the headquarters of Spanish government officials during the 1868-1878 War of Independence, it is now a small boutique hotel from Cubanacan Hotels.

Take the first right (east) along Calle Alejandro del Rio and up on the left you'll see the new location of the Museo de Parrandas [10] at no.74. The museum celebrates the annual carnival which sees two districts in town compete in size, pomp and flair in parades (comparsas), vast, colourful illuminated structures in the park (known as trabajos de plaza), music, dancing and fireworks. The riotous celebration kicks off at 8pm on Christmas Eve and runs until day on Christmas Eve.

Turn left (east) after leaving the museum, and you'll emerge into a small tree-bound square with a statue of Liberty, unique in Cuba, and known as the Monumento a los Martires de la Patria (Monument to the homeland's martyrs) [11]. The Carrara marble statue was erected in 1906. This Cuban ‘Statue of Liberty' dons the Phrygian cap and sports a machete.

Behind the square is the honey coloured sorry ruin of the Iglesia de Nuestra Senora del Buen Viaje (Church of Our Lady of the Good Voyage) [12]. Legend relates that fishermen recovered a statue of the Virgin Mary from the sea in 1600 and transported it by donkey to the town. The donkey pulled up short of the church and wouldn't budge and so the statue spent the night in the simple home of a local man. The next day the image was moved to the parish church and erected in a shrine as part of a ceremony to honour the sacred image but, mysteriously, the next morning it was found installed, again, in the humble home of the local. The image was again removed to the church but bizarrely spirited back to the local man's home. After funny business was ruled out by the town's leaders, the locals concluded that the Marian image obviously preferred its first home and erected the church of Our Lady of the Good Voyage in her honour on the site of the local man's home.

Round the top of the square, on its eastern side, is the Museo de la Musica Alejandro Garcia Caturla [13] currently closed while the neighbouring building, once known as La Ilusion, is being converted into the Hotel El Camino del Principe [14]. The music museum has a striking courtyard dotted with pink neoclassical columns and peppered with flourishing date palm. The half-moon windows (medios puntos) of the courtyard feature clear glass and the mamparas (colonial half doors inlaid with glass) are striped in green and blue glass.

Finish your walk by either heading to sit on the benches with their wrought-iron decoration – embedded with the lyre motif – under the towering palm tree shade of the Parque Jose Marti, or ordering a beer at the handsome El Louvre [15] with its wooden bar, blue wooden ceiling and brass lamps, which has been serving drinks to the townsfolk and visitors since 1866.

Remedios in a nutshell

Remedios, with its faded pastel columns, and low-key atmosphere, is perfect for those wanting to escape the crowds of busy Trinidad and kick-back on the gorgeous white sands of Cayo Santa Maria just to the north of town. Remedios is free from the hustle and bustle of its more popular neighbour to the south but no less appealing for those looking for off-the-beaten track charm. Of course, Remedios does an about face in December with its riotous carnival celebrations, Las Parrandas. Look out for our future blog post on this extraordinary colourful and noisy event.

Claire Boobbyer

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Claire Boobbyer

Claire Boobbyer

Cultural Explorer

A self-confessed wanderluster and devoted culture lover, Claire writes about her frequent travels...

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