As we approach the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, two things strike me: firstly, I feel old (I was eight when she died, and vividly remember listening to the announcement on the radio in my parents’ room, then – in true ‘overly serious child’ mode, telling myself I would always remember where I was when I heard this monumental news. At the time, I also had a habit of standing up whenever I heard the National Anthem, believing it was an unwritten rule to do so, but that’s another story).
I wasn’t obsessed with her, but she was a constant figure in the news – a sort of Mother Theresa in Sloane Ranger gear, that we all felt we knew and partially owned a stake in. 31st August 1997 was unquestionably a day the world changed.
Secondly, London’s memorials to Princess Diana have missed the mark, meaning she lives on in public memory and contrived souvenirs (hello, Diana tartan collection) more than she does in specific locations. There are the famously tacky gold Diana and Dodi memorials inside Harrods, commemorating Diana and her partner, Dodi Fayed, son of Harrods boss Mohamed Al-Fayed – find the bronze statues (2005) and photographic tribute with artefacts (1998) tucked away by the Egyptian Escalator.
In Hyde Park, the Diana water feature was dogged with controversy on its 2004 launch, as people of all ages slipped over, and the threat of lawsuits loomed large. Today, it’s just another feature of the park, its significance lost, and the nearby semi-wild parakeets generating far more interest.
When I planned a trip to Havana a couple of years ago, and realised there was an inner-city Princess Diana memorial garden, it had to be on the itinerary, mainly because the connection seemed so obscure. What did Cuba have to do with a Capitalist princess?
Finding Princess Diana in Havana
The Jardín Diana de Gales sits in Plaza de San Francisco, off Avenida del Puerto, Old Havana. It was funded by the British Embassy, and uses Welsh slate, alongside stone from Althorp (the country estate where Diana grew up) in its memorial plaque. There’s even a little crown on top of the gated entrance. Strangely, the garden was designed and completed less than six months after her death: it was inaugurated in February 1998, by Havana’s official historian, Eusebio Leal, before the first Harrods memorial was ready.
According to the BBC World Service, Cubans admired the Princess for her humanitarian work. There’s a rumour one of Diana’s foundations had planned to sponsor a house for disabled children in Havana, but her untimely death meant the project never happened.
However, many Habaneros, and Cubans in general, can’t find a stronger connection between Princess Diana and their country, and remain bemused by this garden. The consensus from Cuban media and websites is that Diana worked on ‘sheltering and protecting the sick’ (as Habana Radio put it); her ‘beautiful social work’ for those with ‘fewer resources’ (according to Coralia Rivero Busquets, blogger at La Habana Vieja). Therefore, they can overlook the bits about monarchy, private property and capitalism, and just focus on her charitable achievements.
Exploring the Jardín Diana de Gales
The garden’s fountain contains the Totem sculpture by Cuban artists René Palenzuela and Alfredo Sosabravo: square chunks jutting out of a column, in a sort of periscope style. Along one of the gravel pathways, Juan Narciso Quintanilla’s marble sun sculpture represents Diana as ‘a light that triumphs over evil’ (the kind of stuff Daily Express readers would lap up).
I just liked how quiet it is. Old Havana, in all its photogenic glory, can be overbearingly noisy and crowded. Everyone wants a picture of the same doorway, the same cigar-chomping 90-year-old, the same band in a bar, the same bloke posing with dachshund puppies on a street corner and trying to charge you 5CUC. People want to take you on tours, send you to a certain shop, or flog you a priceless antique book. Thanks to the low salaries for every single job, and the separate currency for tourists and locals, Habaneros need to hustle. But here, you can be totally alone and silent, not moments away from a sales pitch.
My sister and I wandered around for ages, drinking in the trailing ferns, the ceiba tree from Brazil (I had to look that up – it’s known in South America as a palo borracho, or ‘drunken stick’), neat box hedges, cacti, and magenta bougainvillea. You can feel the humidity in the photos.
Our visit followed a trip to the Museo de la Revolución, making the contrast between communist propaganda and royal icon obvious. We then went to the Rum Museum, because… er, when in Havana, you should embrace Havana Club Rum.
I wouldn’t say this is an essential sight in Havana, but the Jardín Diana de Gales will suit anyone who loves unusual and offbeat attractions, needs some peace and quiet, or just enjoys a good bit of greenery. And, of course, to remember the unique and unenviable life of Princess Diana, from this unlikely vantage point, 20 years on from her sudden death, at just 36 years old. You may not have paparazzi hounding you, or hangers-on chasing you with incessant demands, but you may still need an escape from the rest of the world’s constant buzz, just like she did.