Our Girl in Havana: The Antiques of Trinidad
‘Antique’ doesn’t have quite the same significance in Cuba. There is an abundance of antiquity in this country for many reasons, but certainly years of economic hardship and trade constraints contributed to a make-do-and-mend culture that has kept everyday items in circulation longer than in other places. Fifty-year-old American Buicks are passed down through generations patched up with Chinese parts and perfectly preserved dinner sets from the 1800s are still in daily use.
While the young of Cuba hanker after newer cars and faster electronics, for visitors it creates a unique aesthetic. The heavy Victorian furnishings stand somewhat staid and sober against the world of bright Caribbean colors and the constant stream of music. People call this country a time warp, but it’s unlike anything that’s come before.
The houses of ordinary people, surviving on a modest state-controlled income, may have a chandelier hanging above the dining room table that could be worth thousands of dollars back home. Not that it would do them much good - a ban on exporting antiques has preserved the country’s colonial stock from foreign pilfering with amazing efficiency.
With the tourist industry in the country booming, naturally proprietors and restaurateurs are aware of the appeal of their abuela’s best china, and nowhere is this more apparent than Trinidad, known as the Museum City. Like the Disneyland of Cuba, this picture perfect spot plays up to all our Cuban daydreams. The rows of houses are brightly painted, the streets are cobbled and by night, as the sunsets behind the palms in the church square, musicians take to the steps of Casa de La Musica to play while visitors and locals dance.
After amassing a sugar cane fortune in the 18th century, the town grew fat with grand mansions and decorative squares. But when the trade collapsed, it was abandoned, and remained a sleepy outpost until UNESCO awarded it World Heritage Site status in 1988. This saved it from the decay seen on the streets of Havana, and you can now lose yourself in a historical fantasyland.
The houses here are famous for their antique-laden rooms and there are more museums than anywhere else in Cuba. The former homes of the sugar-rich aristocracy have become shrines to the colonial heyday of the city, such as the impressive 18th century Palacio Brunet. Now housing the Museo Romántico, it was originally named after the daughter of Don Jose Mariano Borrell y Padron, one of the richest men in Trinidad responsible for much of the city’s finery.
But shelves of antiques can bore even the most enthusiastic. Eating amidst them is another matter. Restaurant Sol Ananda (#45 Frente a la Plaza Mayor) is a veritable museum in itself. Run by the same people behind famous paladar Sol y Son, they spent five years restoring a 1850s mansion - once home to the governor of Trinidad, I believe - to its former glory and packed it full of original European antiques. Eat at one of the two tables in the bedroom, and make believe this is your boudoir. They curated the entire building with incredible attention to detail down to the 1920s shoes stacked on the shelves of the wardrobe.
Another restaurant harking back to the city's illustrious past, Museo 1514 (#515 Simon Bolivar), will make you regret not packing your long gloves or top hat. The long dining table in the courtyard is especially atmospheric, and every place is laid to perfection.
But all of this can, at times, feel like a flight of fancy. A whimsy far removed from reality. As travelers we want to be part of the beating heart of any city we explore. So, go sit on the stone steps leading up to Iglesia Parroquial de la Santísima Trinidad on Plaza Mayor in a fading sunbeam; as the sky is slowly stained red, people will gather around you; a few musicians will start to play; and then the dancing will begin and will continue late into the night. This happens night after night, and has happened in one guise or another for as long as people can remember.
Tyler Wetherall is a freelance travel writer and editor. Follow her on twitter @tylerwrites.