Crossed by a few meagre rivers, Havana has some famous bridges, but none is so picturesque and singular as the oldest pass between Vedado and Miramar, close to the mouth of the forested Almendares River.
As it usually happens during my urban walks, the destination is just an excuse to enjoy a walk full of wonders. The "Puente de Hierro", although unbeknownst to most people, can be the starting (or ending) point to seeing the contrasts between the Vedado neighbourhood, with its old, once grand mansions split into individual apartments, and the pretences of Miramar, battered by saltpetre and beaten by the relentless pace of life.
The "Puente de Hierro" has withstood –stoically, I must point out- the passage of time and the strokes of modernity that Havana received during a short-lived period of bonanza: it has remained an engineering relic of the old days when trams rattled on through the streets and river yachts lined the banks.
Finding the "Puente de Hierro" is quite easy, as it sits close to the brick chimney beside the "Fabrica de Arte Cubano" (FAC), a former warehouse-turned-trendy-concert-hall-and-art-gallery that organises top shows, "house" parties, music performances, and which also includes a small theatre where plays are staged and low-budget films are screened. The ideal place to wrap up a long walking journey full of discoveries…
Architectural and gastronomical temptations
There is a lot to see around the bridge. For example, the elitist Fifth Avenue, lined by embassies, consular offices, foreign firms and jogging snobs is a kilometre-long street, that takes after its Manhattan namesake. Alongside it you’ll come across vintage charms like the Fountain of the Americas; a four-faced clock tower imitating the strokes of the Londoner Big Ben; the Jesús de Miramar Church (the largest catholic temple in Cuba), and an eccentric mansion with green tiles built by a former presidential butler that bears more ghosts than treasures…
Near the bridge, there are several popular restaurants like El Aljibe (The Well), where some say they prepare the best roast chicken in Cuba; the Toros y Tapas (Bulls and Tapas) bar, the only place in Havana where they serve free tapas, or El Cocinero (The Cook), just below the above-mentioned brick chimney, a place where the menu is well worth each item’s price and where Katy Perry enjoyed a private party during her time in Havana.
A one-of-a-kind Art Factory
One day I woke up asking myself the peculiar story behind this factory, and later looked at this big brick tower, once a cooking oil plant which now produces… art?! As I was saying earlier FAC (whose initials stand for Cuban Art Factory in Spanish), stands very close to my destination, a project led by Cuban musician X-Alfonso, which integrates music, visual arts, performances, "house" parties and a small theatre.
Down its halls you can come across the least expected artists, such as the lead guitarist from Red Hot Chilli Peppers and the most defiant of Cuban alternative musicians. Across from the tower, the former “posada” (rooming house for rendezvous) at 11th and 24th Street, reminds us of a time when entertaining a "love affair" was not that expensive, at least not in terms of money.
These are merely two symbols of a neighbourhood known as "El Fanguito", noted by its crumbling slums, still standing by some miracle and the sheer stubbornness of its dwellers, who are used to the river’s unpleasant smell. Do not venture through its streets if you aren’t fond of strong emotions. In any case, there isn’t much more to see around there.
Besides FAC, you can also enjoy good live performances and plays at the nearby "El Ciervo Encantado" (The Enchanted Deer) located in a former bicycle manufacturing plant. Going down the street, you might be pleasantly surprised by the sight of a Moorish pergola, the age-old "Torreon" (turret) de "La Chorrera", and the popular Malecon…
In short… Why make it to the bridge?
Brought over from the United States in 1910, for many years this bridge served as the only way to access the booming district of Marianao, its residential areas and reef beaches. Located at the end of Línea Street, people say it was quite a spectacle to see how it swung around to allow the passage of boats coming in and coming out of the Almendares River.
After over a century of service, it was meant to be demolished, but instead it was restored, upgraded and reopened for cyclists and walkers, like me, to make their way from Vedado to Miramar and viceversa.
The best way to get there from Vedado or Miramar is to take a taxi to the "Tunel de Línea" (Línea Street tunnel), get off at either end and ask someone about how to get to the "Puente de Hierro". It’s almost impossible to miss it because it stands very close and its characteristic river smell gives it away.
When one arrives there, it’s hard to imagine it used to be the only way to cross the Almendares River, in a city called the Key to the New World. Traffic is very light, consisting mainly of pedestrian and bicycles.
Crossing the bridge takes only about a minute, even if you stop to enjoy the view of the outdated dockyards and the esoteric offerings. Why visit it anyway? If seeing a more than a-hundred-year-old engineering work is not enough for you, then do it for the magic of stepping back in time, the excitement of crossing the gate to a no-longer-existent Havana or a possible Havana…it makes no difference.
While you’re at it, you can also try following the locals’ tradition of sealing their love with a padlock and tying it to the bridge, much like in the fashion of the Parisian "Pont des Arts". Of course, Havana is not Paris, the "Almendares" is not the "Seine", and padlocks are still too expensive for many Cubans who fall in love far too often.