Santiago is Cuba’s second city, but refuses to take little brother syndrome in its rivalry with Havana.
Indeed Santiago claims that it is rightfully the capital of the ‘new’ post Revolution Cuba. After all it was here that the first skirmishes of revolution took place in 1956 on that fateful July day of the botched attack on Moncada Barracks.The Sierra Maestra Mountains where three years later the band of July 26th Movement brothers led by Fidel, Che and Camilo Cienfuegos made their base to plot revolution, grow their numbers and take the fight to Batista, overlook the city and the spot where the Granma boat landed that brought the revolutionaries from Mexico is also in Santiago Province.
The blood of heroes was spilled on its soil both in Moncada and at Granma’s landing station – of 82 revolutionaries that had left Mexico, only 8 survived to carry on the battle.
When Batista finally realised his regime had lost and fled to the Dominican Republic on 1st January ’59, Fidel and his comrades rode into Santiago to pronounce victory to delirious crowds.
His victory speech from the balcony of city hall lasted three hours – nobody in the packed main square moved during the address.Furthermore, Jose Marti who is Cuba’s national hero for leading the 19th century campaign for the Caribbean nation’s successful fight against Spanish colonial rule is buried in Santiago despite being born in Havana. The remains of both great revolutionary leaders are buried at Santa Ifigenia cemetery just outside the city.
With all of this political history it is no wonder that Santiago’s residents are an extremely proud bunch and consider themselves a tad superior to other cities.
The rivalry between the Havana Industriales and Santiago, the two most decorated protagonists in Cuba’s premier sport of baseball, is also testament to this.
Since the league was revamped in 1962 into a regional league, Santiago have won it eight times and the Industriales twelve in its 56 year history (Granma Province won the title for the first time ever in 2017 during our January visit in a surprise the equivalent of Leicester City’s English Premier League triumph).
Santiago wears its pride and joie de vivre on its sleeve through being a city of music, art & architecture.
At its heart stands the main square of Melia Santiago de Cuba, home to the cathedral, city hall and iconic Hotel Casa Grande, amongst others. It is an architectural delight, well worthy of its UNESCO status.
Music is in the city’s veins. On our arrival evening a free orchestral concert was performed in the shadow of the cathedral. This was followed by a visit to the casa de musica where we witnessed son for the first time.
Son is the fusion of New Orleans style jazz and African tribal music that is synonymous with Cuba. We were treated to a couple in their eighties sashaying to the rhythm followed by more energetic couples sixty years their junior strutting their impressive stuff.
I will write more about this in a music & dance post soon, which will also include the terrific entertainment on show at Santiago’s Carnival Museum.
The museum is a smaller version of the superb one in New Orleans, well worth a visit, especially if you haven’t been to N’awlins or, no doubt, the one in Rio that I have not been to.
There is music everywhere in bars, restaurants and street corners. Just remember to swing those hips like the locals do!
The Bacardi museum housed in Emilio Bacardi’s former palatial home and featuring many of the possessions he collected from around the world, as well as the Museum de Ron (rum not Reagan) are well worth a visit.
Bacardi was nationalised after Fidel swept to power and the rum magnate and his family fled first to the Bahamas and then onto Bermuda where the empire still resides today.
The Bacardi recipe was also kept in Cuba with the local tipple known as Ron de Santiago. Locals claim this rum as the best in the world, with Havana Club of course claiming the same.
On our final evening in Santiago we took to the roof bar of the Casa Grande, paying €3 for the privilege which included a drink.
The panorama was spectacular, first giving a view of the whole city, the mountains and the sea, then later a fine sunset.
We had a fabulous time in Santiago-by-sea. Say it quietly, but I preferred Havana. There again, the capital city is hard to surpass in my opinion.