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Morning Market Cigar Booth

       This past week, I was lucky enough to take a stroll in Ybor City, one of the historic districts in Tampa and the state of Florida as a whole. Although the weather was undeniably steamy, I learned and experienced so much that I still would have enjoyed it even if the temperature was 5 degrees hotter. Ybor City is famous for the cigar industry that took root there in the late 1800s and early 1900s. It was founded by the illustrious Vincente-Martinez Ybor, a man of Spanish descent who fled Cuba for Florida in the years leading up to the Spanish American War (1898). Ybor basically invented the lucrative cigar industry in Florida; because Key West (where his initial factories were) was becoming too crowded, he relocated to Tampa, a glorified swampland. Florida cigars were valued because the tobacco leaves came directly from Cuba; they had the aroma of foreignness, and Americans loved that. According to the Bernini pamphlet I picked up at a restaurant, “By 1893, Tampa was manufacturing almost 90 million cigars a year.” The other aspect that defines Ybor City is its history of immigration. People all over the world—from Cuba, Italy, Greece, Spain, and Germany—flocked to this city because of the booming industry and cultural enclaves (i.e. the Italian, Spanish, and Cuban Clubs). Walking down the brick-lined streets of Ybor (with its black posts formerly used for horse carriages), I heard multiple languages including Spanish and French.

Vincente Ybor

       Big-boned roosters with caramel-colored feathers and lots of little chicks swarming around their mothers. This is the first scene I encountered when walking into the heart of Ybor City. Since I went there on a Saturday, the thriving Morning Market in Centennial Park (near 7th Avenue) was open, attracting many diverse and hipster patrons. The shops were unique, and I ended up purchasing a hand-woven pine needle basket and a painting from a bohemian philosopher who used flat shells as paintbrushes. I next visited the Ybor City Museum, a quaint and southern building that had a beautiful courtyard with more roosters roaming about in it. The museum was a hidden gem, and although it wasn’t the longest or most “cultural” museum I have ever visited, I appreciated the local history. I learned loads about the Spanish encroachment in Cuba, the founders of Ybor City, the importance of the cigar industry, and the multitude of immigrants who crowded the tenement buildings in the early 1900s. 

Ferlita Bakery Oven

 However, besides the blown-up shadow boxes and timelines, the neatest aspect of the building was the brick ovens in the back. This museum was formerly the Ferlita Bakery, an Ybor favorite that was burned down and rebuilt by an Italian architect in 1924. The best part was that when I stuck my head into the opening of the oven (which I probably shouldn’t have done), I could still smell the slightly dusty aroma of freshly baked bread and pastries. During WWII, the bakery feverishly made 5,000 loaves of bread per day to feed the starving soldiers halfway across the world…The museum also included a self-guided tour of one of the small wooden houses of a cigar factory worker. All I know was that whoever lived in the particular house I looked into was extremely religious. Jesus’ eyes followed my moves in almost every room; funnily enough, bottles of alcohol littered the front kitchen as well….

Italian Club

       Walking out of the tranquil courtyard of the museum, my mother and I made our slow way to 7th Avenue, the cultural hub of all of Ybor. Although few people were visibly walking in the streets (it was so dang hot!), I managed to snap a few great shots of city life. I first viewed the massive beige Italian Club, a place where Italian immigrants used to socialize, have dance halls on the weekends, and even offer doctor’s appointments with Italian physicians. I saw the Spanish Club as well (Centro Espanol), but the Italian building was much louder and patriotic (there were green, red, and white flags everywhere!). I also had the opportunity to socialize with locals—in one hole-in-the-wall crepe shop I walked into on a whim, I struck up the most interesting conversation with a Greek cook who had lived in Greece (he was from Rhodes), Paris, and now Ybor City. He had an air of raw culture, appreciation for the small things in life, and of authenticity about him. I relished every minute I was able to talk with someone so dissimilar from me. At the end of our conversation, he even gave me a free nutella crepe—I devoured every last bit of its deliciousness! I also enjoyed exploring the Bernini Restaurant; interestingly, their mascot was the crazed sculpture of “Damned Soul” that was created by Bernini in 1619. As some of you may know, I am OBSESSED with art history, particularly the styles of the Renaissance, Baroque, and Ancient Rome. Bernini (the sculptor of “Apollo and Daphne”, “The Ecstasy of St. Theresa,” and “The Four Rivers Fountain”) basically started the Baroque era in Rome, so finding a restaurant bearing his name and influence was pretty exciting for a geek like me. The interior of the building was stunning—a high ceiling with coffered decorations and many shades of indigo and cobalt blue greeted my eyes. I will definitely have to return to eat there. 

Crepe from Ybor

       I thoroughly enjoyed my two hour jaunt in one of the most historic and culturally rich cities in all of the United States. I felt like a true tourist; I went to the local museum, bought a Café Espresso cigar from the Saturday Morning Market to remember the city’s history, and even discoursed with seasoned locals. Overall, I would recommend visiting this place to all, but I would wait until the cooler months to explore every nook and cranny. 100 degree weather is simply too toasty for this chick—imagine smoking a fat cigar hand-rolled in Cuba on top of it.

Watch my Ybor City vlog here:

Look at the rest of my Ybor City pictures on Google+ here:

Ybor City