cuba heritage .com - Cuban History, Architecture & Culture
Plaza de San Francisco
San Francisco Church in San Francisco Square
The Old Stock Exchange or Lonja del Comercio
The Plaza de San Francisco is the second oldest square in the city. A square of some sorts existed here before the first Franciscan convent was built in 1591 and gave the square its name. Once, for a brief period of time, the square was renamed for King Fernando VII and it avoided another bizarre naming in 1947, when the mayor of Havana proposed calling it Plaza de Key West in honor of the nineteenth-century Cuba freedom fighters based in Florida.
The Plaza de San Francisco faces onto the Avenida del Puerto and Terminal Sierra Maestra where the cruise ships dock. In one way, this side open to the sea gives it the feeling more of an open space than a true plaza. This is one of the few great ports in the world where the harbor is at the heart of the city. You can virtually step off the boat and have a drink at the Dos Hermanos bar favored by Lorca. To arrive by sea must be the best introduction to Havana. To arrive by sea must be the best introduction to Havana. Many visitors have written ecstaatically about the approach to the harbor, through the narrow mouth with the formidable Morro castle and lighthouse towering on the cliffs to the east and the houses getting closer and closer until the prow of the ship almost touches them.

Colonial Havana enjoyed a constant round of fairs and saints` days and it was in this plaza on October 3 that the fair of San Francisco took place. The square was covered in stalls selling various wares, but the main focus of the occasion, ironically in view of the saint it honored, was gaming.
The habaneros` well-documented love of gambling made this fair the most popular in the calendar. Tables were set up for various dice-games and lotteries, and one of the surrounding houses, the Leon de Oro cafe, was apparently the first place in Cuba to introduce roulette tables.
Nowadays, the plaza has more the feeling of an elegant drawing room. It is entirely pedestrianized and two of the smartest cafes in the city spill parasolled tables onto the square on the corner where the Loma del Comercio, a neoclassical trading center built in 1907, has been restored as offices for foreign firms. There is a discreet Benetton store among the houses along Calle Oficios on the west of the square, one of the only examples so far (outside the hotels) of global retailing in Cuba. In fact, the whole square is reminiscent of the typical piazza in Italian towns, with the central fountain, the Fuente de los Leones.

Dominating the Plaza de San Francisco is the great church and monastery whose construction was begun in 1719 and was then remodeled in 1730. The bell tower, at 125 feet one of the highest in the Americas, has miraculously survived the tropical weather, only losing the head of the statue of Saint Francis that topped it to the devastating hurricane of 1846. When the British occupied the city in 1762, they requisitioned the church as their place of worship, since when it has had less exalted roles, even acting as a warehouse for military equpment. The adjacent monastery functioned as such until 1841. Nowadays the church is one of the city`s most important concert halls, and a wonderful venue it is.
For many years San Francisco was the most fashionable church in the city and during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, most of the nobility, governors, generals and commanders of the fleet were buried here, as is Velasco, the brave defender of the Morro castle against the British.
San Francisco was the stating point of the Via Crucis procession which departed every Lenten Friday for the stations of the cross ending at Plaza del Cristo.
by Claudia Lightfoot, from her book Havana
Article ID 307
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