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Santiago de Cuba - what's new in Cuba's second city

Santiago de Cuba - what's new in Cuba's second city

Famous for its hypnotising, percussive music, and its unique take on Cuban history, the city of Santiago in Cuba has had a makeover.

Founded by Spanish colonists in 1515, who laid a tangle of narrow streets, climbing up from the Bay of Santiago, the city pulled out all the stops for its 500th anniversary in 2015, and the sprucing up has made this city - 540 miles east of Havana - a much more attractive and lively place to visit.

And, since late last year it has a new "site" for visitors - the tomb of Fidel Castro - which authorities acknowledge has driven tourist traffic to the city.

And in 2018, look out for the second edition of Manana Cuba - a music festival, first staged in 2016, which introduced electronic artists to Santiago's folkloric musicians. The musical meeting of sounds contributed to the festival's stellar success.

Santiago's 500th birthday bonanza

Enramadas Street in Santiago de Cuba

Hurricane Sandy hit Santiago hard in the autumn of 2012, but the city began to repair and repaint, and the plants and trees in the plazas and streets sprouted again. For the city's 500th birthday, a traffic-clogged road, Enramadas Street, was transformed into a pedestrianised street; cool, 1950s shop signs got a brush of paint, and neon sparked back into life.

Santiago de Cuba - sign at the waterfront of the Bay of Santiago

Today, this boulevard is lined with shops, flower sellers, cafes and bars, and a new craft market in an art deco building, stretching all the way downhill from the Plaza de Marte west to the sea front. Along the waterfront, on the Bay of Santiago, benches, and a brushed-up promenade with the words "Cuba" in outsized yellow metal letters greet visitors taking in the refreshing breeze.

Plaza de Marte in Santiago de Cuba

A new beer hall down on the seafront Alameda Boulevard is also proving a big hit for sightseers taking a break from Santiago's heat. The area around the city's third main square, Plaza de Marte, is also being prettified.

Celebrating Cuban coffee

Fancy learning about that dark, bitter liquid pumped with sugar that Cubans love so much?

Cup of Cuban coffee in Santiago de Cuba

A small coffee museum has opened just off the main park with a neighbouring courtyard cafe - all cream parasols and tiled tables - a secret spot away from the more crowded city cafes. Before taking a tour of the museum, I sat down with a cooling passion fruit and mint tea.

The museum has opened inside a large colonial pile - Casa Dranguet - one block west of Cespedes Park inside the former home of plantation owner, Carlos Dranguet Thomas. Frenchman Dranguet, fleeing the 1791 Haitian Revolution alongside some 20,000-30,000 others, established his plantation in the fertile hills east of Santiago.

Coffee crops in Santiago de Cuba

A guided tour of this 19th-century colonial home museum reveals antique coffee makers, grinders, and a series of 19th and 20th-century decorated English, French, German and Chinese coffee pots, plus well-illustrated information panels. The CUC$2 entrance fee also includes an espresso from the cafe - just the ticket for boosting city exploration. (Museum Mon-Sat 9am-6pm, Sun 9am-5pm; Cafe Mon-Sat 9am-9pm.)

Today, the museum and city officials are working with the EU and a French-Belgian foundation to restore the early 19th-century "La Fraternidad" plantation in Songo - La Maya deep in the countryside, 56 miles east of Santiago. La Fraternidad plantation house will become a boutique hotel.

Museo La Isabelica, old coffee farm in Santiago de Cuba

The project - El Camino de Cafe - will also see coffee replanted, a botanical garden cultivated, and a restaurant opened. (The remains of the 171 French-run coffee plantations, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, can be seen at the Museo La Isabelica, and La Siberia, coffee farm ruins transformed into the Jardin Ave de Paraiso, very attractive, lush botanical gardens, both easily visited from Santiago.)

Art and Ceramic highlights

The Galeria Rene Valdes - the art gallery at Vista Alegre, Santiago de Cuba

In Santiago's elegant Vista Alegre, don't miss Galeria Rene Valdes. Housing an art gallery, and a collection of shops selling arts and designer crafts, it was established by the Caguayo Foundation, which promotes monumental works of art, and headed by Santiago artist Alberto Lescay.

Since it opened, the gallery has hosted shows by well known sculptor Esterio Segura, a collective exhibition of sculptures by 17 Cuban sculptors, and most recently a vibrant, bright show of 1960s and 1970s Cuban propaganda and art posters lent by the New York-based Center for Cuban Studies.

Posters in the Galeria Rene Valdes the art gallery at Vista Alegre, Santiago de Cuba

Confirmed 2018 exhibitions include work by artist Martha Jimenez from Camagüey, famous for her public life-size sculptures in Camagüey city, and Jose Villa Soberon, who fashioned the bronze Ernest Hemingway figure at El Floridita bar in Havana.

One of the gallery rooms, dedicated to bronzes, features works by Alberto Lescay, as well other artists working with the semi-precious metal. Cool, must-buy designs in the design store - Conga Arte y Diseno - include those by Fresko - T-shirts emblazoned with objects from the 80s and 90s such as a Russian knife, and an old Russian radio - updating their retro status with a fresh look on contemporary t-shirts.

Objects and t-shirts in the Galeria Rene Valdes the art gallery at Vista Alegre, Santiago de Cuba

Artist Agnes Fong creates alluring images of cityscapes, and fish and fruit with a light and fresh touch. Her cards - Tropicalismo Cubano - are on sale here. Luis Ramirez Jimenez, the mastermind behind DeKuba, an arts and design creative, has fashioned sleek white tilting porcelain vases and ceramics, selling alongside Alberto Lescay's ceramics - influenced by the African motifs of Cuban artist Wifredo Lam.

Nelson Dominguez' painted fans - including a black one painted with the face of Fidel - also feature, as do the fun colourful origami animals made by the Ajuria family (Avenida Manduley 304 between Calles 13 and 11, Vista Alegre, Mon-Fri 10am-5pm, Sat 9am-12:30pm).

Artist mold clay in his workshop in Santiago de Cuba

Close by on Avenida Manduley is new Casa de la Ceramica. Cuban artists use a range of techniques - raku, painted, and enamelled work - filling the exhibition space with unique ceramic sculpture, pieces, and plates. Highlights include abstract designs on work by Alberto Lescay, engraved black and white tile work by artists such as Israel Tamayo, and the outstanding beautiful work of Dennis Gallardo whose peculiar animal portraits on plates - a Zebra turned high heeled shoe, and a blue whale-cum submarine are for sale (Mon-Fri 8am-5pm, Sat 8am-8pm).

White tile plate in the Galeria Rene Valdes the art gallery at Vista Alegre, Santiago de Cuba

Back in town, the white and peach-hued embellished neo-classical San Carlos Club on the east side of Parque Cespedes has opened its doors for viewing the upper level. Marvel at the plush upper salon, the marble staircase, and objets d'art it has on display.

Parque Cespedes in Santiago de Cuba

Streets of cafe and culture

Head over to new community enterprise Proyecto Swing Latino opened up this year in an old colonial building in the historic old town. Headed up by Lourdes Esther Planas Silveira, she and her team have launched a clothes shop, cafe, massage parlour, and hairdresser for the city's pensioners - offering them tai chi and yoga classes at day break, too.

Santiagueros plaing dominos in ine of the city's squares

Visitors - by having a drink in the cafe where the city's old and young share stories together, or booking a massage - are directly boosting the community project. Young hairdressing graduates work here so hair cut prices are cheaper than elsewhere. The plan for 2018 is to serve food in the cafe, open an exhibition space, and rent two rooms to tourists. (Calle Aguilera 560 between Calles Barnada and San Agustin. Cafe 09:30-23:00.)

Chess Park and Care in Enramadas Street in Santiago de Cuba

Along Enramadas Street, visitors will find the new planetarium, digital advertising showing cultural events, the beautifully restored terraced ochre and black alfresco Chess Park and Cafe by architect Walter Betancourt where great live music bands now play at night; opposite is the newly opened Hotel Imperial, first built in 1914. Further downhill is the new arts and craft market, and an outsized cockerel statue which crows on a regular basis.

Pizza restaurant Ferropizza inside converted train carriage along the waterfront at Santiago de Cuba

Along the waterfront, check out quirky pizza restaurant Ferropizza inside converted stationary train carriages.

Fidel Castro's tomb

Fidel Castro's tomb

Cuba's 1959 Revolution leader died in November 2016 and his remains were interred at the city's 19th-century marble Santa Ifigenia Cemetery after his coffin processed down the island with a military entourage. The big rounded boulder in which his ashes were laid to rest was cut from the Sierra Maestra Mountains. A simple plaque on the front reads "Fidel".

Fidel Castro's tomb in the background Jose Marti's resting grounds

Fidel's tomb lies in front of that of Jose Marti, considered the Apostle of Cuba. Lines now form for people to process past and take the obligatory selfie. The cemetery, which used to charge an entry fee, has relaxed this rule.

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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