The streets were dark, the cobblestones ankle-twisting as we picked our way through the colonial town of Trinidad, Cuba. The tall barred windows typical of the 18th- and 19th-century houses revealed scenes of domestic life — a child, a dog, an old man in a rocking chair — and of the muraled and tiled walls inside. Doorways opened to restaurants and bars and the music that is everywhere in Cuba — the driving beat of Afro-Cuban here, the swing of salsa there, the lagging rhythm of son (rhymes with tone), the style made famous by the Buena Vista Social Club.
Trinidad is a town that time passed by, blessedly preserving the architectural charms of an earlier day. No roads connected this World Heritage Site to the outside world until the 1950s, so more than a thousand colonial buildings remain, their faded grandeur hinting at the slave economy of the sugar plantations that flourished here until the 1850s. No modern incursions mar the stone streets strewn with horse-drawn carts, pedestrians and a few cars and tourist buses.
But Trinidad is far from fossilized. Inside the stucco and frame walls of the former villas of plantation owners, everyday life thrives. Some now pulsate with the sound of music and the beguiling atmosphere of Cuba’s hottest tourist attraction: private restaurants called paladars. In a two-day visit to the south central town as part of a weeklong People-to-People tour, my group of 15 Americans took in the sun, flowering bushes, colorful facades, music and museums that make Trinidad one of the country’s most popular destinations.
Traveling to Cuba is much easier since President Obama resurrected cultural tourist licenses in 2011. My husband, Warren, and I had visited Havana in 2009 on the humanitarian license that then was required — which meant we needed to bring a suitcase full of medical supplies. Now educational and cultural tourism is allowed, and Americans are flocking to visit their long-forbidden neighbor. According to Reuters, more than 98,000 Americans visited in 2012, up from 73,500 in 2011.
Trinidad’s laid-back lifestyle
Trinidad, one of seven cities founded by the Spaniards between 1510 and 1515, is a frequent stop on the one- or two-week tours that are typical. After two days roaming its narrow winding streets and two nights soaking up its exotic sounds and tastes, I grasped the reasons why.
The five-hour bus trip was not one. I’d been excited about the idea of seeing the Cuban countryside but the mostly uncultivated fields punctuated only by rocks and cows proved monotonous. As we approached Cienfuegos, a larger city an hour northwest of Trinidad, orange groves, sugar cane and rice fields created a welcome order. And traffic picked up — in the form of horse-drawn carts.
On the rutty cross-country highway we saw few of the 1950s cars that lend their color to Havana. What we did see: people walking, riding horses, waiting for infrequent buses or riding ones crammed full. It was clear that having a horse and a cart was a bonanza.
After a quick stop in Cienfuegos, we finally rounded a hilly curve to see the ocean below. We passed coves that were sometimes deserted, sometimes dotted with thatched cabanas. In one cove, a man and his horse — both up to their necks — cooled off.
To my surprise, Trinidad wasn’t on the sea but was tucked against the jagged green Escambray Mountains. Our state-run resort-style hotel, Las Cuevas, was perched above the picturesque town. The staff greeted us with mojitos, which we quaffed on the terrace as the sun set beyond the bougainvillea and palm trees. A tiny dog with fur in its ears politely begged.
After downing a mediocre buffet of Cuban specialties such as roasted pork and rice (state-run, remember?), eight of us decided to brave the walk down the unlit, rocky streets to hear whatever music was playing at Casa de Música, one of three venues that offer live music every night in the town of 60,000.
Casa de Música is like Rome’s Spanish Steps crossed with a grotto. Listeners plunk down on stone steps above and below a plateau, where the musicians hold forth on one side and other listeners sit at bistro tables. It was 9 p.m. on a Sunday and people were streaming from the town below to listen to salsa, watch a fire-eater, drink beer and mojitos and, later on, dance.
“Why is there so much music in Trinidad?” I asked our American guide, Sage Lewis, who grew up in Minneapolis.
“It’s just a happy town where there’s lots of music and people live a pretty laid-back lifestyle,” he replied.
Architecture reveals the past
The next day we spent poking into the pastel-colored colonial houses and learning about the luxurious lifestyle of the plantation owners who built them. Just northeast of the town, the Valley of the Sugar Mills — also a World Heritage Site — held 56 sugar mills, which employed 14,000 slaves. One mill owner, the Cantero family, owned 6,100 slaves. Although plantation houses still survive, most families lived in villas in town.
Painted pastel colors and adorned with murals and second-floor balconies, villas frame the verdant Plaza Mayor. The Sánchez Iznaga mansion, now the Museum of Colonial Architecture, was built in the 18th century and has the typical three front rooms laid out along the sun-shading portico. As we entered, uniformed students from the local elementary school were drawing. Inside, the decorative wood beams and crystal chandeliers were stunning, and in the back courtyard we were surprised to find a series of loos and an 1890s innovation — a wraparound shower. The clay tiles on the roof gleamed in the sun.
The Palacio Cantero was even more sumptuous. Built from 1827 to 1830, it was later redone in the Neoclassical style. Now the Municipal History Museum, its many rooms rimming a generous courtyard tell the story of the plantation era.
The front parlor boasts a Carrera marble floor and original decoration by an Italian painter and is adorned by vases from Vienna and England. Limoges china and Baccarat and Bohemian crystal fill the cupboards, and a grand piano — delivered God knows how — sits in the dining corridor, where the family held musical concerts. The poor stood outside the door and listened.
Up filthy wooden spiral steps, the three-story tower offers a panorama of the town’s curving streets, rooftop terraces, iconic church tower, craft market in the alley below, distant ocean and nearby soft and mysterious mountains.
Sad to say, the architectural features that make such an appealing landscape had sinister origins. The characteristic metal bars on the tall windows of the houses allowed in cool air while protecting the occupants but also kept the house slaves from escaping. The towers were used to keep track of slaves, and the big bell we saw in the former stable sounded the alarm when a slave escaped.
Other villas housed other museums. The Museum of Archaeology is located in the Padrón house, where German scientist Alexander von Humboldt stayed when he visited Cuba in 1800-01 to record its geography and flora and fauna. The Romantic Museum, a showcase of decorative arts, is in the Palacio Brunet.
Both were under reconstruction, a massive undertaking in Trinidad and everywhere in Cuba, where the buildings of earlier times survive but are crumbling.
To our delight, Trinidad’s historic villas also house its liveliest attractions, the private restaurants called paladars. Our lunch was served in El Jigüe, an 18th-century villa with a facade covered in geometric blue and yellow tile. My table under an ancient arch offered a view up one of the cobbled streets to a crocheted sweater I bought that afternoon in Cuba’s typical retail venue: the front room of someone’s house.
Dinner — the highlight
Dinner that night, at Sol Ananda Paladar, was our Trinidad high. The owner, architect Lázaro Morgado Orellana, spent four years restoring the 1750s villa of Don Martín de Olivera. The front room and the bedroom were furnished as they would have been a hundred years ago, complete with the bed itself. The lintel over the tall window and arched sections of the walls of the dining room, where our group was seated, were left un-stuccoed to show the original construction. Chandeliers of varying styles hung from the decorative wood beams just like those in the architecture museum.
The owner “wanted it to be as much as possible as it was,” said the lead waiter. “He wanted to make you feel like you are eating like kings and queens.”
And so he did. The table was set with Carnival Glass plates and sets of polished silver, and the root and plantain soup arrived in unmatched antique china bowls collected by the architect-owner. The “wine room” was a bedroom where the bottles were arrayed on a bed surrounding a tower of glasses. After it was served, the wine was put on ice in delicate cut-glass pitchers.
The entrees — fish in green sauce, roast pork, chicken, beef and lobster — were delicious, and the ever-present music made a lovely addition. The Cuarteto Isla’s three male guitarists backed up a charming young woman who sang and played the bongo drums. Lewis said they’d developed a new sound and only did songs they had written — not the old saws like “Guantanamera” that we’d heard a hundred times elsewhere in Cuba.
We were all enchanted. “Can you travel?” Becky Hilstad, one of our group, asked the lead singer, hoping to entice the quartet to come to the States to perform.
“Maybe someday,” she replied matter-of-factly.
We snatched up the quartet’s CDs, went back out into the warm night and walked back to our hotel on the dark, cobbled — but now familiar — streets.
Linda Mack writes about architecture and design. Her book “Madeline Island Summer Houses” was released last year.