Cienfuegos: Palacio de Valle
Province of Cienfuegos, Cuba
The palace of a sugar baron, an icon of Cienfuego coastal city. Merchants like him built this city.
This palace is a museum but at the time of our visit, in January 2019, it was uncurated. There were no labels or explanations to be found and no guides either. Admittedly, restoration work was still ongoing. Interestingly, that is what makes this palace a real house. It is not the house of the ghosts of the sugar baron. It is easy to imagine real people in their rooms, as nothing has been added to the house, and nothing changed, which is what museums usually tend to do.
There is a seafood restaurant inside. Your museum ticket will allow you to tour on your own, and it includes a cocktail drink on the rooftop terrace, where you can listen to live salsa music. The entry fee was about 5CUCs; this may change after the restoration is completed.
The PeopLe: The sugar barons
So who were the people who built and owned this palace? Let's start with a name.
Palacio de Valle means Valle's Palace. Sometimes you see it translated as the Palace of the Valley but it is a palace that was built and owned by a merchant whose surname was Valle; hence it is more appropriate not to use the literal translation.
The city of Cienfuegos, like Havana, was a distribution centre for merchandise imported from other countries and it attracted many merchants from abroad. The strong group of merchants controlling that market were a few Spaniards from Asturias, who had established themselves in the region since 1840. Among them were Alejandro Suero Balbín and Acisclo Del Valle Blanco. Balbín and Valle created a partnership in 1902. They dealt with import and export, commissions of all kinds, banking operations, insurance, warehouses and maritime docks, farms for the storage of goods, railway lines, sugar cane farms and mills.
Balbín started first in the town of Ciego de Avila where he dealt with timber exports, clothing stores, a hardware store, groceries; cattle-breeding. He had a bakery, making the famous Balbín cookies, ordered throughout the country. In Cienfuegos, you can find Balbín's former residence, a baroque house, which has been turned into a luxury hotel called Hostal Palacio Barón Balbín.
The story of these two immigrants is fascinating. They both searched for a new life and good fortune in Cuba, as they knew they could not find any fortunes in their own small villages. Valle left his village in Asturias (in Spain) when he was 17, after his father died. He left for a new life together with his two brothers. Balbín was even younger, 14, and he left his small village with only 1,000 pesos in his pocket.
And they both built a huge empire in Cuba. Del Valle started working for Castaño Intriago company, a large commercial and banking house in Cienfuego. He became the President of the Spanish Colony, of the Ciefuegos Yacht Club and had positions in the Hunters Club, the Asturian and the Explorers Club. He married Amparo Suero, the daughter of Alejandro Suero Balbín. The rest was history. The land where the palace stands was a wedding gift from his father-in- law, Don Balbín.
When de Valle died in 1919 (at the age of 54), the company came into Balbín's hands but by 1920, due to the great losses suffered through sugar speculation, the firm was forced to liquidate the company to pay the debts. From then on, the palace took on a life of its own. In 1922, de Valle's widow and the children moved to Spain. The Palace was abandoned and it became the Hunters’ Club for some time. Then the property was taken care of by María Llano, who took advantage of the proximity to the sea and the house served as a bath spa for wealthy Cienfuegos families. In the 1940s, the Society of Instruction and Recreation Club rented out its rooms as a social venue and used its accommodation for its athletes.
In the mid 50s the house was to become a casino (hotel Jagua was built next door for that reason) but the Revolution stopped that. Instead, in 1959 the Rolando Escardó School of Plastic Arts was located here. The House became at some point the property of the city (de Valle's wife donated it) and the Ministry of Tourism financed its restoration and in 2000, it was declared a National Monument.
The FOCUS: The palace itself
It was built in five styles: Spanish-Moorish, Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and Mudejar. I can't possibly describe all the artefacts and decorations of the house so let's just suffice with a brief summary. The building has two floors, a roof terrace with pergolas and towers, which is reached through a metal spiral staircase and a basement, where the servants' rooms were located.
Downstairs you will find the entrance hall in Gothic style, with ogival windows (with a pointed arch) and coloured glass panels. A large restaurant and a small reception room are situated here, with an amazing ceiling in gold, white marble floors and pink marble skirting. The music and games rooms, built in the French style of Louis XVI, have ceramic floors, as does a small sewing room. The office of Don de Valle has doors with beautifully carved initials. The dining room is in Mudejar style, imitating the famous courtyard of the lions of the Alhambra in Granada. There is no access to the kitchen or pantry. Note the cast bronze on the railing of the main staircase.
Outside, at the entry door, there are two sphinxes of Egyptian style (head and chest of a woman and the body and legs of a lion).
The upper floor has eight bedrooms and living and study rooms. The staircase leading to the roof takes half of the upper floor, or so it feels. It was certainly given enough space. There are three towers on the roof: Roman Gothic (it represents strength), the Taj Mahal (it symbolizes love) and the Arabis tower, which represents religion. A gazebo overlooking Cienfuegos Bay is also located on the roof platform.
There are decorative objects here and there, such as vases of Italian and Chinese porcelain. All the materials were imported; Carrara marble, Italian alabaster, Venetian and Grenadian ceramics, Spanish ironwork, Talavera mosaics and European crystals. It may be worth noting that the precious mahogany is from Cuba.
The Mystery: the architectural chaos
I have been trying to understand why this house has such a mixture of styles. All Cuban merchants were building lavish houses; that was common practice, but this one is executed quite boldly. DeValle clearly employed artists from different countries and perhaps gave them artistic freedom to mix the styles but the question is why.
I tried to find some answers and came upon the old stories about this property. The construction of the original house on this land is tied into the arrival of the Spanish José Díaz, who baptized the place with the name of Amparo, in the year 1527. He was friendly with the local Indian Taino people and maintained a good relationship with the tribe of Siboney. He fell in love with the indigenous girl Anagueia and built a palace of Moorish style for her. Moorish architecture is the Islamic architecture of North Africa and parts of Spain and Portugal. However, his native wife was fearful that the elegant mansion would attract the misfortunes caused by Mabuya, the evil gods. After all, it was very unusual for her. She burned the building to its foundations. I don't want to imagine the fury of her husband.
In the 19th century, Barcelona merchant Celestino Caces bought the Amparo estate and wanted to build a recreational house in mudéjar style (a blend of Moorish and European styles, a hybrid movement unique to Spain). His dreams could not be fulfilled although I could not find the reason for his failure.
At the end of 1906, the property was acquired by del Valle and he decided to keep the name because it coincided with that of his wife, Amparo Suero del Valle.
Knowing the full history of the land where the property was built I wonder if de Valle used such a mixture of styles deliberately, as if he wanted to incorporate the Moorish style of the house that José Díaz originally built, and the mudéjar style that Celestino Caces wanted to employ. As if he wanted to fulfil everybody's dreams. I also wonder what influence his wife had. What was her preferred style that de Valle added to the mix?
Although I find such a mixture of styles a bit too much, even a bit kitschy, it is at the same time captivating. Moving from room to room is like moving to different countries and even civilisations. Maybe he had that in mind for his children, to excite their curiosity. And maybe he just wanted to bring the rest of the world to his own house. It is also possible that he had no good taste and just wanted to show off, although I doubt this option.
Don't miss: the drinks on the terrace
It is really the best moment of the visit. Have a cocktail (present your entry ticket), listen to Cuban music and admire the view of the calm Jagua Bay and a small peninsula called Punta Gorda. That way you can feel the house, its beauty its location, its heritage.
The link between the city and the sea is an identity element of Cienfuegos and you can feel it here. Once the land of rich sugar barons, now the park at the end of the Punta is favoured by youngsters. We could hear their music (reggaton) from the roof of the palace. My son got a music treat too. It was his birthday on the day of our visit and the Cuban band invited him to play with them.
How to get there:
There is a direct bus from Trinidad to Cienfuego, operated by Viazul, four times a day. It takes about an hour and a half. The same company operates buses from Havana. For other options, see my post Cienfuegos.
The Palace is at the end of the malecón, where the boardwalk turns to Punta Gorda (Fat Point), the end of the peninsula.
MIX and Match
Just walk about old Havana, plenty to see.