One afternoon I headed towards Padre Pico, asking myself what wonders this stepped street, the lookout point of the Tívoli neighbourhood, might have. Indeed, you don’t usually find a street shaped like a stairway, and this is not the only one in Santiago de Cuba. So, why am I unravelling Santiago’s maze in search of Padre Pico?
For its soul…
Ok, I know it sounds like cheap poetry, but it is unquestionable that this street has something metaphysical, a magnet for the outstanding things it attracts to its 52 steps, including different passages of the restless history of this land, cradle of patriots, musicians and sportspeople. When one reaches its highest point and the city opens up in front of your eyes, you feel it was worth the climb, and you will definitely return once and again.
The origins of Padre Pico
An urban frontier between the high and low zones of the old Santiago, Padre Pico Street was built in 1899 by the then mayor Emilio Bacardí, a man to whom we owe an interesting museum, complete with an Egyptian mummy, a beautiful Art Deco building in Havana and one of the most famous Cuban rums, a family trademark he inherited from his parents.
Until it was baptised with its present name –by the priest Bernardo del Pico Redin (1726-1813), Dean of the Cathedral of Santiago- this street had a long string of different names. It was known as Boca Hueca Hill, Amoedo Slope, Stone Hill, Leganitos Street and Corvacho Hill, after a Spanish man who had a shop on Santa Lucía Street.
People say that every step has a story to tell, some of a romantic nature, others quite turbulent and bloody. The funeral wake of Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, precursor of the fight for the independence of Cuba from Spain, was held between Padre Pico and Santa Rita streets. Only God knows how many troubadours have stayed up all night on its steps, pacing up and down, as the famous son song goes: “From the Tívoli to the Alameda”.
Precisely, this bohemian atmosphere is one of its charms. Many take it as the starting point to follow the crowds during the annual Santiago carnival, either to get to Trocha Avenue or to find the unending Los Hoyos conga, the closest thing to a musical earthquake you can experience.
Up and down, down and up
As a Cuban saying goes: “When going downhill, all saints help”. That’s why I went to the bottom of Padre Pico to make the inevitable ritual of going up and down the steps. Some people dash up the stairway, jumping up the steps in twos, to prove to themselves they are fit enough. They are the “champions” that get to the top with palpitations, puffing and panting, and the suffocation does not let them enjoy the experience.
I was not in a hurry and went upstairs slowly. I enjoyed the old colonial doors, the houses with large barred windows standing next to more modern ones, whose flat roofs seem to defy the older tiles that watch over Santiago long since. I stopped in every one of the 12 landings to look at different views of the city, and at the top I enjoyed the complete panoramic view of a city close to its 500th anniversary.
There I found a plate with a phrase by Father Pico: “It’s not enough to be good, one has to be good for something”. What am I good at? I asked myself. To tell stories, I answered and, self-contented as if I had discovered my raison d'etre, I started to make my way down.
Fly with your feet on the ground
Going to Padre Pico is not going to change your life, but it will season it with experience. To me, these places have the added value of stimulating my imagination to travel to old times. Of course, when I spread my wings this way I always try to keep my feet on the ground.
For example, when walking down the streets of Santiago you have to take it easy, have good legs, comfortable clothing and shoes and a bottle of water: the sunlight is very bright, the temperatures very high and there are many slopes and hills. You can always wonder why the people of Santiago are so proud of their hospitality, but it’s good to carry a map with you because the streets are narrow, steep and tangled.
In this heritage area there are as many impromptu guides as tourists, so many people will attempt to show you the city their own way, and will incidentally try to sell you some tobacco, a lunch or even their soul. There is no danger during daylight, but take care of your belongings, just in case. Don’t be afraid because the “nagües”, as they call themselves, are very “chévere” (nice) people.
By the way, I looked around the city for other similar stepped streets and found one on Santiago Street and another one on Virgen and Santa Rosa streets, but none gave me that “ledzeppelinian” feeling of going up a stairway to heaven, as Padre Pico did, where even I, with my natural storytelling vocation, found a story to tell…