It was here in fact, right across from this esplanade which “habaneros” also call "La Plaza de las Palomas" (The Pigeons Square), that you would once have found the dock to which millions of immigrants and travellers arrived to Cuba. The old Customs building still stands in place, although it has changed names and is now known as the Cruise Terminal, and the same applies to many other vintage architectural gems like the Church and the Convent of San Franciso de Asís, "La Lonja del Comercio" (House of Commerce), various coffee shops, galleries, restaurants and small boutique hotels, to name a few.
The old gate to Cuba
The area surrounding the San Francisco de Asis square was the one piece of Cuban land that many immigrants coming from Europe and Asia first set foot on, when they finally made it to the Americas. During the times of the Spanish colony, this quaint square that stood so close to the harbour was a buzzing hive of oxcarts, merchandise bags, sailors and travellers who quickly took shelter from the heat in the surrounding cafés, or who freshened up their sweaty brows in the square´s centric fountain, still in existence and fully functional.
The previously mentioned Franciscan Convent was built during the mid-16th century, together with the esplanade it faced and which was already famous for its public market, its shady gambling and other not-so-holy attractions. The monks, sick of the noise and the sins, protested against this and much to their delight, the market was eventually relocated.
Chroniclers say that the place was full of gambling tables during the so-called "San Francisco Fairs". The nearby "Café León de Oro" (the Golden Lion Café) had the first wheel of fortune in Cuba, the whereabouts of which still remains unknown.
The surrounding area was soon filled with mansions and new public buildings. Over time, the place went into a sort of lethargy, until it was brought back to life in the 21st century, mostly thanks to music after the Minor Basilica of the Franciscan Convent, was turned into a concert hall.
How to get there
Whether you choose to walk down the cobbled streets of Havana’s Historic Centre, or get there from the comfort of an "almendrón"(classiccar) down the Avenida del Puerto (Port Avenue) or the Alameda de Paula (Paula Boulevard), a visit to the "Plaza de las Palomas" turns into a nice tour with an attractive reward at the end.
Sometimes, on my way there I stop for a refreshment at the elegant "Café del Oriente", while other times I prefer to sit outdoors on a terrace, the Parisian way, at "Café Mercurio". When my stomach cries out for more than just a coffee, I pop into "El Jardín del Oriente" (The Eastern Garden) for more affordable prices. If I crave sweets, I walk down "Amargura" Street for one block to the Museo del Chocolate (Chocolate Museum) where they offer exquisite truffles and a never-disappointing chocolate shake.
A sculpture that brings good luck
Across from the "Carmen Montilla" Gallery, at the entrance of the Minor Basilica, a man was perpetuated in bronze in a walking pose, as if he’s about to give the next step. It’s a life-size sculpture of "El Caballero de París" (The Gentleman from Paris), a beloved madman who used to wander around Havana and whom the city still fondly remembers. Like every other tourist or passer-by, I had a picture of me taken next to this famous popular character, and following the ritual, I rubbed his forefinger, for they say it brings luck…
By the way, the bell tower of the basilica can be accessed as a viewpoint. The view from there is definitely worth the effort of climbing the narrow stairway to the heaven of the Basilica, from which point you can take in the whole bay, the hills of the town of "Regla", the Morro Castle and the Cabaña Fortress, as well as some of Old Havana’s most picturesque and tallest buildings. For quite some time, this used to be the city’s highest point.
Art and pigeons - the square’s true masters
The square acts a like a calm(-ish) pool where all the busy streets of Old Havana converge (tourists, hustlers, bystanders and ordinary Cubans). One of my favourite ways to get there is by walking down the Obispo Boulevard; always full of surprises and options. On every corner, there’s music; in every balcony, there’s a story; on every sidewalk, you’ll find colour…
Here art takes over the streets. It can come from a workshop, a gallery or on the stilts of the "Giganterías" Musical Troupe (a group of performing street artists). Despite the explosion of art everywhere, people still get fascinated by the pigeons. Many take pictures, others feed them, children chase them, but they never fly away (not too far off anyway). They are so used to living around tourists and noise that I had to wave my arms around energetically to make them fly off, and then take the opportunity for an artistic shot that captured them mid-flight.
My advice is that you make it here with some seeds, or buy some at the site. Then you’ll see how they instantly approach you and come to rest on your hands, your arms, shoulders (or even your head) to get their reward. You’ll get a winning snapshot, no doubt! My one final piece of advice: no matter how hot it might be when you visit: don’t ever drink water from the fountain…
For many, many years, the San Francisco de Asís Square was the first glimpse of Cuba immigrants got when they set foot on the New World. An essential attraction in Old Havana, this is usually a busy site. You’ll come across locals after classical music (or a spot of good luck) and tourists exploring its architecture, its cafés, and the abundance of art at hand. Don’t miss the lookout in the Church’s bell tower, the flurry of pigeons and the sculpture of "El Caballero de Paris".