It’s an oft repeated “fact” that Havana’s Capitolio Nacional is a copy of the United States Capitol in Washington, D.C.—but don’t believe a word of it! Though there are undoubtedly some similarities, the Capitolio is unique from the Capitol in many ways, and the designer himself cited the Pantheon in Paris as a primary influence.
A Bit of Background
To understand exactly where such a grand building came from, it’s necessary to understand a bit of history.
World War I affected the world in more ways than can be counted, but in Cuba it was mostly synonymous with one thing—sugar! As European beet fields became battlefields, the world turned to sugarcane for the source of its sweetness. This brought the price of sugar from under seven cents per pound to nearly 23 cents per pound, making even the average Cuban farmer rich and bringing in untold sums of money for the Cuban government. Hardly knowing what to do with this newfound wealth, the administration of Gerardo Machado decided to construct a government building of truly global scale.
Built over the course of some three years to the tune of about 17 million U.S. dollars, the Capitolio housed the Cuban Congress until the body was disbanded after the Cuban Revolution. Since then, it has primarily acted as home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology, though it’s now being refurbished with plans to house Cuba’s National Assembly.
The Building Itself
Perhaps the most famous feature of the Capitolio is its cupola, which at 92 metres in height is actually taller than that of the U.S. Capitol that it is often compared to. This was the tallest structure in Havana all the way until the 1950s, when it was finally surpassed by more modern skyscrapers.
Approaching the main entrance of the Capitolio, one must climb 55 steps flanked by impressive Italian sculptures and French-inspired gardens. The portico, defined by twelve granite columns in the Roman style, welcomes visitors as they pass into the main hall.
The main hall itself is defined by two features. The first, and more immediately noticeable, is the Estatua de la República (Statue of the Republic). Cast in bronze and gilded with 22 carat gold, the statue was crafted in Rome and shipped to Cuba in three separate pieces. It’s especially notable as the third-largest covered statue found anywhere in the world.
The second of the main hall’s important features is the replica of a 25 carat diamond found embedded in the floor. The original diamond was locked away after being stolen during the 1940s, but the replica is just as visually striking. This point marks Kilometre Zero for Cuba, the point from which all distances are measured.
Though the Capitolio is currently undergoing a massive renovation project, the first floor is still open to visitors on most days.
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Visitors to the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis in Old Havana, Cuba will be delighted by the history, artwork, and acoustics of the Basilica de San Francisco de Asis, which is home to the Museo de Arte Religioso and Camerata Romeu (an exclusive female orchestra). Catch one of the amazing musical performances or tour the convent to see memorials of notable people of the past and truly appreciate the grand columns and stone flooring in this Catholic Franciscan place of worship.
At the heart of a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and at the end of a short hike from Gran Piedra (Santiago de Cuba), Cafetal La Isabelica is an open air museum dedicated to Cuba's important coffee production. Learn how French farmers fleeting Haiti turned Cuba's south-eastern provinces into the main coffee growing region of the island.
The mystery hidden within its walls, secrets left untold until modern times, and its title as one of the oldest star forts in the Americas make Castillo de la Real Fuerza a must-see stop on your tour of Havana, Cuba. You'll love making your way through the paths to the centre of the fortress, which was originally built for keeping watch for invaders. At more than 400 years old, you'll have plenty to talk about when you return home after visiting this astonishing site and its impressive layout.
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