Robaina's plantation

Friday 21 October 2016

Cienfuegos (Cuba) A Must See

                Cienfuegos the city is the capital of Cienfuegos Province. It's located on the southern coast of Cuba about 250 km from Havana and has approximately 150,000 inhabitants. They call it 'La Perla del Sur' or The Pearl of the South. Translated Cienfuegos literally means "one hundred fires". Although the bay itself (today the third-largest port in Cuba) was developed during the 16th century, the first Spaniards didn't settle here until 1819. Shortly afterwards the city was settled by French immigrants from France and Louisiana influencing much of the architecture that still exists today. Many of the streets still retain their original French names. Cienfuegos was one of the last settlements to be established by the Spaniards during the colonial era. The city was first named 'Fernardina de Jagua' in honor of King Ferdinand VII of Spain but eventually was renamed Cienfuegos after the Captain General of the island at the time. The colonial or touristy part of the city is pretty compact, I was able to walk it quite easily. We stayed at the Hotel Jagua and was able to walk from there along the Malecon to Prado and then to the historic center in a reasonable amount of time. If you have ever considered visiting this city I would strongly recommend it, it's very underrated and has a tremendous amount of things to see....and if you get bored, Trinidad isn't too far away.

Sites of interest:

Teatro Tomás Terry:
Opposite the Parque Marti at Avenida 56 y Calle 27. Construction began December 19, 1887 and finished sometime in the next year with the theater open for business in November 1889. Commissioned by Terry Thomas, one of the wealthiest men in Cuba (the world) at the time. He died in Paris before construction began but his children honored his wishes and construction went forward. Enrico Caruso had sung here during it's glory years. At the time of it's construction, it was one of the largest theaters in the Caribbean with a capacity of 1200 people. The theater is still used today for performances. There's a fee for entering just to look around.
Telephone: (53) (43) 51 3361 e-mail:

Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción Cathedral:
This church located opposite Parque Marti with it's neoclassical facade & two bell towers is also known as the the Cienfuegos Cathedral. The original building was inaugurated on April 15, 1833 when the town had a population of just over 3000 people. The building has had some expansions and improvements in 1850, 1852-61, 1866-69 and 1869-75 finally being declared a Cathedral in 1903. The Cathedral is considered part of the historic center which was made a World Heritage site by UNESCO in 2005. Open to the public.

Palacio Azul Hotel:
This mansion, designed by the Italian architect Alfredo Fontana, was originally built as a private residence between 1920-21. Through the years it's been used for various purposes until finally being converted into a 7 room hotel in 2004....each room is named after a flower. All the rooms come with air conditioning, and satellite TV. It's located to the side of the Cienfuegos Yacht Club at Calle 37 #1201, right in front of the Malecón of Cienfuegos, just 10 minutes from the city center.

Palacio Ferrer:
The Ferrer Palace in Cienfuegos, built between 1917-18, was for a brief time the home of merchant and landowner José Ferrer. Enrico Caruso stayed in this house in 1920. I'm not sure whether or not this building is open to the public yet. It has been under renovation and I read somewhere that it's slated to be reopened as the Casa de La Cultura in 2018 offering tours for a small fee to whoever wishes to visit. The views from the top of the building are majestic. Located on Ave. 54 esq. Calle 25.

Clotilde del Carmen Rodriguez Lopez:
Clotilde del Carmen Rodriguez Lopez designed and made the first flag of Cienfuegos.

Necrópolis Tomás Acea:
The cemetery (one of two in Cienfuegos), a National Monument since 1986, opened it's neoclassical gates in 1926. The Garden Cemetery is 2km east of city center along Ave. 5 de Septiembre. It's named after Tomas Acea, one of the wealthiest families in Cienfuegos at the time, who donated a great deal to the construction of the site. Within you'll find a monument to the cienfuegueros who gave their blood in Africa during Cuba's contribution to African liberation.

Yacht Club Building Punta Gorda:
Along the Cienfuegos Malecon, next to the Palacio Azul Hotel, lies the Cienfuegos Yacht Club. During the first half of the 20th century, the surrounding Punta Gorda area, dotted with Art Nouveau style mansions, was home to the wealthiest inhabitants of the Cienfuegos. Today most of those mansions have been converted into hotels. The marina is actually working and providing services to those who wish to charter a boat of varying sizes for daily or weekly excursions (fishing). I found it to be leaps and bounds better than the Marina Hemingway in Havana.

Benny Moré:
Bartolomé Maximiliano Moré (1919-1963), better known as Benny Moré, was one of the most famous Cuban singers of his time. He was born in Santa Isabel de las Lajas in the Province of Cienfuegos. He died in 1963, an estimated 100,000 people showed up to his funeral.

Colegio San Lorenzo:
On the Plaza Jose Marti, this building was constructed in the early 20th century and opened it's doors in 1929. The wealthy Nicolas Salvador Acea (of the cemetery fame) left part of his estate to the creation of two schools that were housed within the college dedicated to underprivileged children. A Unesco World Heritage Site.

Casa Verde:
Avenida 58 #3709  e/ Calle 37 y 39
Another one of those mansions on Cienfuegos' Punta Gorda that's been converted into a boutique hotel. The house was built in 1920 and originally called Chalet Masonry. In 2009 it was reopened as Hotel Casa Verde after being restored by the Gran Caribe hotel chain. The hotel contains only 8 rooms one of which is a suite. I had the opportunity to visit and can tell you the rooms are quite spacious, all with flat-screen televisions and working air-conditioning. Your stay includes breakfast provided in one of the common areas. The back of the building that faces the waterfront has a bar with a seating area for the guests...sometimes there's live music. The hotel is owned by the same group that owns the Hotel Jagua across the street and guests of Casa Verde may use it's pool.

Hotel La Unión:
Calle 31 esquina A-54
Since it's inauguration in 1869 the hotel has housed many important historical figures. this is one Cienfuegos' oldest hotels. However, after the revolution in 1959 it ceased to operate as a hotel and so began it's deterioration. The hotel was eventually shut down for restoration and reopened in July 2000. With 49 rooms (2 suites, 11 junior suites & 36 double rooms), this is considered a mid-sized boutique hotel. You couldn't imagine that this centrally located building just one block from the main square (Parque Marti) was built on farmland that was once owned by Don Tomás Terry. Each room has a balcony and satellite TV and the hotel has a small pool and rooftop bar/restaurant with a wonderful view of the city. However, it's not cheap, the price I found listed on the internet was from CA$184 for a Standard Room.

Palacio de Valle:
Calle 37 esq. a 0
This wonderland of a mansion is located in Punta Gorda near the end of the Malecon, practically in the parking lot of the Hotel Jagua where we stayed for a week. The picture below was taken from the balcony of the hotel. It's only a few minutes from the downtown area. I say wonderland because you don't know what the heck they were thinking when they built this thing; Gothic, Moorish, Romanesque & Baroque influences are all mixed together. Construction on the palace began in 1913 and it took Italian architect Alfredo Colli 4 years to complete at a cost of a million and half pesos, which at that time was considered the most expensive building project of the century. French, Arabic, Italian and Cuban artisans worked with marble, alabaster, brass, glass and ceramic imported from Spain, Italy and United States. The materials used were of the highest quality, even precious woods from Cuba. The building has two floors, a roof and a basement and is surrounded by a beautiful fence with gardens and potted ornamental plants within. The entrance boasts a Gothic style white Carrara marble staircase and to the left you'll find a seafood restaurant that has a bar on the patio with a splendid view of the bay. I don't remember the food here being that great (average) but it was run by the Hotel Jagua and the only place we knew on our first night there. There's usually someone playing the piano and on the night we went someone was singing along. It was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO and today it's also used for cultural events & is home to the National Heritage Memorial of Cienfuegos (museum).
                The house owes its name to Acisclo del Valle Blanco, a Spaniard from Asturias, a wedding gift from Amparo Suero’s (his wife) father, when they married. It was completed in 1917 but Acisclo died only 3 years later in 1920, he left everything to his wife and 7 children. She abandoned the house in 1922 when she left for Spain with the children. It was the Hunter's Club for awhile until the Revolution of 1959 when it became an Art School.

Colegio San Lorenzo

Statue of  Benny Moré Along Prado

Statue of Jose Marti in Parque Marti

Arco de Triunfo Parque Jose Marti

Punta Gorda Open Air Gallery Sculpture Park (above and below)

Prado (above and below)

Casa Verde Hotel

Yacht Club Building Punta Gorda

Yacht Club

Palacio Azul Hotel

 Colegio San Lorenzo

 Teatro Tomas Terry

Statue of Clotilde del Carmen Rodriguez Lopez

Catedral de Cienfuegos

Pedestrian Promenade in the city center  

Hotel La Unión

Punta Gorda looking towards the city center

 Palacio de Gobierno de Cienfuegos

Parque Jose Marti

Ferrer Palace

Nuestra Señora de la Purísima Concepción Cathedral (La Catedral de Cienfuegos)

Palacio de Valle (Punta Gorda)

Cienfuegos Malecon

Yacht Club

Wednesday 19 October 2016

Emiliano Nelson Guerra (Guayabera Maker for the Famous) A Chat

                Emiliano Nelson Guerra is much more than a shirt maker for important personalities. Yes, it's true, he's made the traditional Cuban garment for the likes of; Sting, Harry Belafonte, Danny Glover, Hugo Chavez, Usher, Prince Albert of Monaco and Fidel Castro himself to name a few. But he has also helped return the Guayabera to national prominence in respect to heritage and usage. He has worked hard through the years to change people's attitude towards the Guayabera by giving it elegance and using the Cuban people's pride for country by attaching the label of Nationality to the work he was creating. It has taken Emiliano almost two decades to get to where he is today, to get the Guayabera to where it is today. While speaking with him I noted that his enthusiasm for the project he started so many years ago had not diminished and it seemed to me that he has remained humble. His storefront is a small affair and his work space out back isn't much bigger with barely enough room for his humidor....yes, Emiliano is an avid cigar smoker. You could walk by the front of his shop and not know it, if you didn't have the exact address. I didn't come to him with the sole purpose of talking with him for the Blog, I also came to purchase a Guayabera for an event that was taking place in the near future. His merchandise is by no means inexpensive but I can assure you that the quality is superior to anything else I've seen and will be regarded as a dress suit when worn in Cuba. Below is the loosely translated version of our conversation.

How many hours a week do you work here in your shop?
There is no set time for me because I always have work to do. Sometimes I start early in the morning and it gets to be midnight and I still haven't finished everything I have to do.

Have you ever been asked to do house calls?
I have all sorts of customers...Diplomats, Businessmen...but they all come here to see me.

Are you still involved in the physical production of your guayaberas or do you employ others to make them while you occupy yourself with the designs?
At the moment I'm involved in every aspect of production. Unfortunately someone I had helping me has fallen ill and I have yet to replace him as it's difficult to find a person of the caliber to produce a quality guayabera. I've tried to create a school for women who are interested in this kind of work. I've been looking for a location with the help of the government but it's been difficult. On one occasion I even talked with Eusebio Leal, director at the Office of the City Historian, he knows my work. I was telling him how great it work be to be able to do my work in a larger space within the old city, maybe he could resolve my problem. However, he wasn't able to find a solution either.

Is this the first space you've owned or run your business out of?
I have rented other spaces in the past.

Which guayabera is harder to make, men's or women's?
Women's are always a little more difficult, the garments are longer and a little more detailed.

With the change that's been happening in Cuba with more tourist and Americans coming to visit, has the guayabera increased in popularity?
I believe so, I've had many Senators come in that were from the US as well as people from Tampa, Florida, including reps from a fashion magazine wanting to buy some Guayaberas for one of their issues.

When you began making Guayaberas were your designs so different from the norm?
When I started making Guayaberas they had fallen out of popularity. I was working for a place called "Cubana" at the time, they talked to me about doing something with the Guayabera. This was 1991, knowing that the Guayabera wasn't popular I decided to do some investigating. I went to the library to search for whatever information I could on the Guayabera. I discovered that in the past the Guayabera held an importance in the manor in which Cuban's dressed. This enthused me and made me want to begin this project. In the beginning, besides the traditional Guayabera, I had ideas to construct with different designs. I left the company I was working for to go out on my own but left some of my designs behind by mistake. They went ahead and used those designs with no recourse from my protests. My only option was to make more designs, better designs....that inspired me to move forward. Around 1999 I present my designs at the first Habanos Festival in Havana and the Association for Artisans took notice. My pieces drew a lot of attention and were shown in various Cigar Magazines. After this time it was like a revolution had begun regarding the way people viewed the Guayabera and a more Artistic approach began with it's design and construction. Places were setup at that time to teach people how to apply these finer points of tailoring to existing styles of clothing in Cuba.

So before this time the Guayabera was viewed as something of a lower quality, something everyone wore...and you elevated it a higher level?
After the revolution there was a movement to breakaway from the past & unfortunately the Guayabera was one of the casualties. For one thing, no cloth to make the garments was entering the country and secondly, the Guayabera was used by the government before and they wanted to breakaway from that tradition. At the time I was asked to intervene, anyone and everyone wore a guayabera and it was thought to be something of lower quality. Restaurant workers, bathroom attendants, street cleaners.....and other such people wore the guayabera, the general populace would feel uncomfortable if they would be caught wearing one on their leisure time. Also, the government security detail wore guayaberas and nobody wanted to be compared to Fidel's bodyguard. All these little things slowly chipped away at the use of the garment among the general population. This is the attitude that existed when I accepted this project and I did it because it was something close to the Cuban culture, I wasn't interested in the politics of it all. During the years 1991-92, we decided to do frequent radio programs talking about the guayabera and have a contest about it....because we had to find a way to make the youth interested or at least listen to what we had to say. It was a lot of work, we did some television programs as well. I write songs and wrote one with a guayabera theme. In this way I kept working and creating new things and slowly the guayabera began to increase in popularity. There was a time when a dominant force was working against the guayabera but it began to be heard once again...nobody knew of it's origin and people began to take notice and ask about it's relation to Cuba. All these things that were going on at this time motivated me to make my guayabera. A turning point was when the government decreed in 2010, that the guayabera would be the formal state attire to be wore by all officials during gatherings. This meant that all foreign dignitaries would be obligated to buy a guayabera when when coming to Cuba.

When did you start using the different colored fabrics?
Almost from the beginning I was using pastels as well as the traditional white and beige...using, yellow, pink, light blue....the original color of the guayabera is beige. Beige is the original color of the cloth itself and it's why it's considered the original color.

What about the stronger colours like Red and Navy Blue or the Cuban Flag on the back?
The one with the flag was done for a Cuba musician who was making a record at the time, Isaac Delgado. The album was going to be called SuperCubano and Isaac had asked me to make a guayabera for him to wear for the cover. When I saw the title of the album I thought what's more Cuban than the Guayabera & the Flag, let me unify the two elements....this was back in 2011.

From the moment you take someone's measurements, how long does it take to make a garment for one of your customers?
Depending on the design, a traditional one could be made in one day.

And a woman's?
A little longer.

I read somewhere that at one time, when you had workers, you produced 80-100 pieces per month. Is that true?
Yes, when I had 2 people working for me that's more or less how many we would make.

Is there a season when more are sold?
Yes of course, when it's high season for tourism is when we sell more....but things have changed with the increase in tourism, we no longer depend on the seasons. Also, I have a few pieces placed in hotels (for sale) like The Nacional and all this adds to the increase in sales. Recently the singer Usher came into my shop and bought everything I have, he cleaned me out, left my store empty.

Have you ever been off the island for personal or work reasons?
Unfortunately not for work reasons. About eight years ago I was in Jamaica for an event that was part of a cultural exchange with Cuba, Jamaica later sent one of their designers to Cuba. This was the only official reason. The rest of the times I've traveled for personal reasons.

What fabrics do you use in the production of your garments?
Cotton or Linen for now. Someone in England is incorporating linen with bamboo...I'm looking into that.

Nelson Guayaberas
Calle Villegas #22
e/ Tejadillo y Empedrado
tel. 7 861 2058
cell 5 263 9554

Guayabera by Emiliano Nelson