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Havana’s milestone anniversary heralds wider revitalization

Havana has long been beloved for its time-capsule charms: Wander down the cobblestone streets, admiring the mix of colonial, baroque and art deco architecture, and the candy-coloured vintage cars (now wheeling around as cabs), and the past feels vividly present. As Cuba’s iconic capital celebrates its 500th anniversary, the sense of rich history endures — but there are glimmers of newness and change, too.

Havana was born as San Cristobal de La Habana on November 16, 1519, and the spot where the first mass and town council were held remains the site of a deep-rooted tradition. On the eve of each anniversary, Cubans line up for hours to circle the ceiba tree — considered sacred — planted beside the El Templete monument.

Especially this momentous year, the ceremonial rite is practically mandatory. “People from all over the country and all over the world come here,” explains Manuel Alejandro Pozo Calvo, a Havanatur tour guide. “We do three rounds of the tree and ask for a wish,” he says, “because this wish is guaranteed.”

Beyond this age-old ritual, special events in honour of Havana’s 500th have been rolling out all year long, including art exhibitions, theatrical performances and other cultural activities. At the end of October, a one-kilometre stretch of bustling Galiano (also known as Avenida de Italia) was set aglow with new art: a constellation-themed light installation called Planetario. Donated by the City of Turin as an anniversary gift, the starry sight will remain until 2021.

Festivities in Havana peaked with the official nighttime celebration on November 16, when the streets buzzed with energy. It seemed practically the whole city came out to see fireworks sparkling over El Capitolio(the National Capitol Building), or to watch the open-air concerts jamming late into the night.

But the impact of Havana’s milestone will last far beyond the birthday bash: Ultimately, the occasion provided a pretext for ambitious city-wide revitalization, meant to benefit not only tourists but also residents. “I just went to a friend’s house and saw a group painting his façade,” says Calvo. “I asked, ‘Do you hire somebody to fix your house?’ and he replied, ‘No, this is part of the 500th anniversary renovations.” Calvoexplains that Havana’s Office of the City Historian has sent teams of specialists around to spruce up key areas.

Restoration work has been done on everything from green spaces and roads to hundreds of historic sites, including the Palacio del Segundo Cabo and Gran Teatro de La Habana (Grand Theatre). Among the most prominent projects, El Capitolio went through a multi-year revamp inside and out, with gold plating on its towering dome as the crowning touch.

Heritage hotels have also been brought back to life, some popping up as the city’s first luxury properties. The upscale Iberostar Grand Packard opened last year, for example, reviving a once-abandoned building that dates back to 1911. Similarly, near El Capitolio, Kempinski’s soon-to-open Gran Hotel Bristol will turn acentury-old building — its original white exterior intact — into swank accommodations, complete with panoramic rooftop views of Habana Vieja (Old Havana), a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And steps from the historic quarter’s ancient churches, fortresses and palaces, SO/Paseo del Prado La Habana, a high-end design hotel with a prime address overlooking the Malecón seaside esplanade, has just opened.

The arrival of these sleek hotels herald an emerging modern side to the city — but they also signal growing demand, as more and more travellers come to discover Havana’s allure, both nostalgic and new. Learn more at holasunholidays.ca.

As originally published in the Toronto Star.