The big place of arms is frozen in the heat of a late morning. At the corner, the music flows through the open windows of an old palace with blue-sky colonnades that erect the cupola of its strange mirador over the roofs of the city. In the room on the ground floor, girls, fair skin or gingerbread color in their satin dresses, dance with gestures of Andalusian for enamored parents. Placed under the stone staircase, between the Cuban flag and a greasy plant, the bust of José Marti, father of independence, is the only one to remain marble. On Saturday morning, in Cienfuegos, the Spanish dance school Lembranza gives a show in the old Ferrer palace converted into a house of culture. And there are in these moments of modest pleasures under the stucco and wrought ironwork as a summary of the history of this city which cultivates its particular charm in the south of Cuba.
Two hundred and fifty kilometers further north, Havana is about to celebrate its 500e anniversary in great pomp. More modestly, Cienfuegos celebrated its 200th birthday in April. And if the capital had to invent a mythical day of foundation (November 16), the provincial, she knows the exact date: April 22, 1819, when forty French settlers, led Bordeaux or Louisiana by "Don" Louis of Clouet de Piettre, a Frenchman in the service of the Spanish crown, met at the very spot of this place to distribute the lands of the houses and plantations around the Bay of Jagua, one of the most beautiful of the island . Shortly after independence wrested by the former slaves of Haiti (1804), it was necessary to avoid "contamination" and whitewash the Cuban colony.
Ten years later, the port city prospered with the sugar trade and was named Cienfuegos, named after the captain-governor of the island at the time. As for the Frenchman Louis de Clouet, he was vain arrogant, tyrannical, womanizer, the city cultivates its memory with pride: " He was a despot, but an intelligent capitalist who had negotiated the free entry of the flour he was trading. "says David Soler, professor of heritage history at the local university, one of the architects of the classification of the city by UNESCO in 2005, " the only one of the XIXe in the world to have this privilege ».
The romantic historian tells of this most important place of arms in the country, where the music kiosk and a tiny triumphal arch enthroned, framed by the former governor's palace and its imposing dome that looks like it was transported from Florence, by the Tomas Terry Theater, named after a Venezuelan rich man who exploited slaves and a "benefactor", or by this Ferrer palace built in the early 20th centurye century to stage the opulence of a Catalan merchant.
It continues along the streets drawn in checkerboard, along the paseo (the walk) and its colonnaded houses which offer two kilometers of shaded galleries to the sea. He learns to find the mixed ornamentations that make the architectural eclecticism, the palette of polychrome windows placed above the doors to soften as much as to play with the bright light of the Caribbean. He praises this city "Consistent and planned" between commercial activities and social functions, "Airy to promote public hygiene"far from the entanglement of other colonial cities. But we also think about what Wendy Guerra wrote in his novel Negra, of this "A city with straight streets and twisted brains" when "Blacks and whites did not borrow the same sidewalks".
The streets of today, the markets, the schools of course, are mixed, it's official, there is no more racism in Cuba Castro. Even if people explain to you that here, cleanliness, civic spirit and culture are more developed than elsewhere because the "pearl of the South" welcomes few of these emigrants coming from Oriente, the east of the island where the Black population is denser.
Less conspicuous than that of Havana, the historic center of Cienfuegos is not yet a museum. We would thank almost Trump and its renewed embargo that has ruled out cruise ships. The city is still Cuban with old-fashioned state shops where the repetition of the same article wants to give illusion of abundance close to a window of fashion of the most contemporary; with his Communist Party that shops in the same street as a five-star hotel; with its ancient cemetery of La Reina, where statues of angels and delicate young girls sometimes attend the un Catholic rituals of the Santeria or palo rides, Afro-Cuban religions.
On the paseo, the statue in the foot of Benny Moré, the child of the country who was prince of the mambo and the his cubano before the revolution, walking with a decided step under the stern look of Che that the propaganda panel says "Knight without spot and without fear" but we do not know if he had the sense of rhythm. At the entrance to my lesson, the promenade by the sea is José Martí who ruminates his aphorism in red letters, "The fatherland is made of the merit of his sons" while teenagers dressed like Yankees wear their clothes bocina, a huge portable speaker spitting the less moral lyrics of reggaeton.
Umbrellas and coconut palms
Here, along the bay, it's a bit like Florida before, from modernist villas to pastry-like palaces, to the Palacio de Valle and its neo-Moorish fantasies that dream of Alhambra and that mafia Meyer Lansky had wanted to convert to a casino. We are grateful to the revolution for opening these buildings to the public. Of course, most have become restaurants or hotels, the terrace of the former Yacht Club and its sunset accompanied by the orchestra are not within the reach of all budgets when the beer costs one fourteenth of the average salary. But on the small beach of the tip (Punta Gorda), the shadow of the rotunda, the volleyball net, the waves and ice cream of the merchant are to everyone. It's written in the constitution, the beaches of Cuba are theoretically " socialist property of all the people Despite the bans passed for fear of dissent leaks or the current "privatizations" tempted by some hotels.
But in Rancho Luna, "the" beach of Cienfuegos twenty minutes by car, it is the real country that, on weekends, benefits under straw umbrellas and coconut trees: ladies paddle in the turquoise water and chatting under an umbrella as umbrella, kids playing dominoes, antique rides turn into a noise of scrap, girls with the step of dancer will do the beautiful under the pergola where the rhythms of Latin rhythms while the boys play it rappers, a cup in hand since the heat does not discourage anyone to water the day of rum.
On the other side of the bay, accessible by ferry, the turrets and guns of a fortress of the XVIIIe century very well preserved, keep the entrance channel against the pirates of the Caribbean (a treasure of Francis Drake, says the legend, would always rest somewhere deep in the water). The ramparts dominate the dark green hillside where the history of the Tainos and Siboney aboriginals before the white man is buried. But we also see the remains of a nuclear power plant that Soviet friends have never been able to complete. At the foot of the fort, a small fishing community is waiting for May and the snapper season comes from the Gulf of Mexico, " the bullfight of the pargo ", Period of celebration and abundance. Saily, fisherman's wife, set up a table under the veranda for lunch of fish soup, lobster or grilled fillet. The "restorer", a sociologist by training, is also responsible for the museum of the fortress. Nobody has a job in Cuba.
Thus, in the evening, back in town and the "casa particular", Cuban version of the bed and breakfast, we share some rums with the owner and the cook of the excellent dinner. When she's not employed here, three evenings a week, Kryster teaches psychology at university, directs at the theater, writes poems or short stories. And the spirit of Cienfuegos floats in the sweetness of the night.
Our journalist made her report with the help of Voyageurs du monde.
In addition to a valid passport, the visitor must be provided with a "tourist card" to be collected from the Cuban consulate in Paris. All travelers must also provide travel insurance.
Air France provides direct daily flights to Cienfuegos from Paris CDG, from 566 euros. Air Caraïbes offers a direct flight from Paris Orly to Havana from 486 euros and a direct Paris Orly flight to Santiago de Cuba from 686 euros.
Travelers of the World is proposing an 11-day breakaway including flights to Havana, Cienfuegos and Trinidad. On the program, meetings with local personalities (artists or historian), night ride by American car in Havana with French speaking guide, entry to the Fabrica de Arte Cubano (FAC) … From 3 300 euros.
Casa Buena Vista Five minutes walk from paseo, on the street Arguelles, this old traditional residence with its long patio on which open the eight rooms is a very pleasant haven, as well by the neat decoration as by the quality of the simple but refined meals. The juices and fruits of the breakfast are a treat. From 85 euros.
Hotel La Union Located in the city center, this four-star (Cuban) is one of the institutions of Cienfuegos. A nice patio, a comfortably outdated decor, a perfect quality of Wi-Fi (rare in Cuba) … We preferred this establishment five-star foil that runs the same Spanish group a few steps. From 103 euros.
Camila's At the end of Malecon, the terrace, which seems to be placed on the water, is very pleasant. Zarzuela seafood, fish, squid or shrimp al ajillo (garlic, parsley, lemon juice and olive oil) and especially lobster, the dishes are good and generous portions. About 18 euros the dish.
La Roca del Sur In a villa close to the Malecon, Oscar Rodríguez and Manuel Campos have just taken over the restaurant to make it one of the favorites of the local population. A cuisine that cultivates the spirit and flavors of this maritime city with, for example, a fish fillet with olive oil, oregano and seeded tomatoes, simple but delicious. About 20 euros.
Club Cienfuegos On the Malecon, the former Yacht Club offers a nice terrace for a drink while waiting for the sunset. The orchestra does not forget any standard of the Buena Vista Social Club.
ArteModa It's not just cigars or rum. In a former bazaar of Avenidad 54, the pedestrian and shopping street, the designer Lourdes Trigo opened this boutique-fashion boutique that offers pretty outfits at prices that are pleasant compared to those practiced in Paris.