A week in Havana

Having cleared immigration at a snail's pace, and settled into our hotel with a welcome mojito and a burst of "Guantanamera", we decided to start our visit with a tour in a horse-drawn carriage around la Habana Vieja and Centro Habana. A young rogue named Rudi set about showing us the sights. I don’t think he missed chatting up a single pretty girl in the process. Cheerful, cleanly dressed and fun, Rudi was the quintessential Cuban tout. There’s no guile – “if you eat here, I get commission..” and when you decline there’s no malice, just a smiling “OK lady”. It came as a pleasant surprise that the locals were generally cleanly dressed and shod, and the streets of old Havana have been immaculately restored (this is very much a work in progress, paid for out of the proceeds from the Government-owned hotels and restaurants).

The prize site to our mind is the Museo de la Cuidad in the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales – C18th baroque and the seat of Cuba’s government for over a hundred years. The central courtyard is a peaceful enclave featuring a statue of Christopher Columbus and several strutting peacocks. The stables house an impressive collection of carriages and an ancient fire truck. On the first floor, there are some interesting artefacts from the colonial era, as well as a collection of marble statues, plaques and gorgeous French porcelain wreaths recovered from the Necropolis.

But the gems are on the second floor – some of the most beautiful rooms imaginable, with frescoes that are surprisingly feminine – garlands of roses intertwined with pink ribbons, set off by glorious Baccarat chandeliers and fabulous Sevres porcelain. The only Spanish parliament ever established outside Spain is here, superbly furnished in mahogany, as is the throne room. And the Governor’s quarters are equally lovely. The dining room, with walls adorned with examples of the taxidermist’s art (including a turtle) are a bit off, but the proportions of the room, running along one side of the building, are awesome (10m+x25m+). The bathroom is fantastic – his and her marble baths carved into massive shell forms. Mahogany is used liberally for shaving stands, bedheads, cabinets. Aubusson carpets. Whilst it’s grand, it’s also human scale and pretty. “Cuban Baroque” is certainly worthy of preservation.

Mojitos are the best thing to drink in Havana. Our new best friend, Ivan, the gorgeous barman at the Parque Centrale, makes the best we tried – full of fresh mint muddled in the glass, plus lemon, sugar syrup, sparkling mineral water and a dash of bitters (and Cuban white rum, of course) – it’s the perfect tipple at any time of the day or night. We stopped by the Floridita bar, supposedly the birthplace of the daiquiri, and famed as one of Ernest Hemingway’s haunts (one suspects he was a regular at all of old Havana’s bars). The daiquiri was a disappointment – sweet and weak.

Food is not a major drawcard in Havana, but it’s not as bad as we were led to believe. Apart from the obligatory pork and chicken (fried or baked) they do a nice line in shrimps and grilled lobster. We’d been told wine is hard to come by – not a bit of it. The choice is limited, but we were able to access perfectly acceptable (both in quality and price) sauvignon blanc and rose.

On our second day out, we lunched at the famed Criolla (Creole), La Bodeguita del Medio, known as the ‘B del M’, ‘reservations a must’. After our midday tipple (mojitos, comme d’habitude) at the bar adjacent to the cathedral, I slipped around the corner and asked the maitre d’ if he could accommodate us for lunch – ‘no problem’.

The ‘B del M’ would be called a rambling assortment of rooms, if any of them were large enough to justify the term. Every available wall or ceiling surface is scribbled with autographs of the clientele, provided they’re not already littered with photos of the rich and famous who patronise the place. We had an excellent lunch of fried pork cubes, spicy shrimp in tomato gravy and the standard rice and beans dish known as “Christians and Moors” (white and black), washed down with a respectable white wine and accompanied by fried green plantains.

We were sitting next to a young Norwegian couple, his parentage was Sri Lankan (from Galle) and she’d spent a couple of years living at Eden (NSW). We’d finished our lunch and were preparing to leave when the heavens opened. The makeshift mobile roofing was closed, and our charming host insisted we needed a second bottle of wine to tide us over until the deluge abated. No matter, the music was good (as usual), with a strolling group belting out Cuban classics. The deal is, they play a bracket, then touch the clientele for a donation, or alternatively one buys a CD for 10 CUCs (Cuban convertible pesos, loosely linked to the USD). We were rapidly accumulating a library of CDs.

We disabused ourselves of another myth – accessing money and changing travellers’ cheques. Firstly, there’s a tax on money changing, so you lose roughly 10% on the transaction, which means it’s far better to pay hotel bills using Visa or Mastercard (11% surcharge) than it is to buy travellers’ cheques in Euros or GBP then change them into CUCs. The Touro-guide-book industry has seriously buggered up in this domain. Also, despite the Cuban Consulate advising me that I would have great difficulty changing (brand) American Express Travellers’ Cheques in Cuba, the local bank changed them without turning a hair. And there was no problem getting money out of the local hole in the wall – complete with English language option. And the hotel had a Bureau de Change that was open at most convenient hours of the day.

But this is certainly a cash economy – we used CUCs for all restaurant transactions, even at the best restaurant in town, the Café del Oriente, an elegant little restaurant on the Plaza San Francisco (opposite the spiffing port building, built by the Italians, but never quite finished, in true Italian style) with excellent food. I had a huge plate of lovely garlic shrimp followed by a breast of chicken in a sauce of four cheeses with excellent vegetables. The Café del Oriente also sports a Jardin bar down the side street – a cool and leafy hideaway with fountains decorated with pink gladioli spikes (seems to be a fashion here) – just the place for a Cristale - the local Cuban beer - and a chat with the resident population of black and white kittens who delighted in napping on rocking chairs and scurrying among the tropical vines.

We walked everywhere – there are several main thoroughfares that are pedestrian-only and one comes across all manner of colonial beauties whilst strolling about – mahogany doorways, wrought iron balconies, baroque stone facades intricately decorated- it’s a real pleasure, but the contrast with the derelict streetscapes a couple of blocks away from the restored heartland is dramatic and salutary.

A nice thing to buy in Havana (apart from cigars and rum) is white cotton shirts. These sell at the Tacon street market and are decorated either with stitching or punched motifs and cost 10-12 CUCs (about A$16). For some reason I pocketed a set of salad servers, made from various indigenous timbers, with parrot- or toucan-headed handles. Some ‘friend’ will no doubt be the recipient of such treasure in due course. And I picked up a pair of musical sticks, as requested by Carol, for 3 CUCs (a bargain – they were 4.7CUCs uptown). Alison purchased several multi-wood vintage car models, which were quite attractive, then, on our return to the classical precinct, a pair of bronze killer heels for about $40.

On the wildlife side, apart from the occasional cats, the dogs were all cheery little caramel coloured bitsers who seemed to engage in a high incidence of public coupling, along with frantic efforts in becoming collectively unstuck. And a chicken walked past our table in one of the outdoor restaurants, raising only passing interest from the resident cat, who’d mastered the fine technique of extracting shrimp from tourists. From our cool table at the same restaurant, we were confronted with the shocking sight of a Michelin-man (Bibedum) sized black lady ambling past, her gargantuan torso squeezed into a lycra cropped-sleeves-and-legs bodysuit in a tropical print of yellow/pink/blue and green. Were there no mirrors in town when she purchased this monstrosity? How could the manufacturers have made anything so large? Unfortunately, neither of us had our cameras to hand to capture this apparition.

Back to the eating and drinking department. We tested the mojitos at the Saratoga Hotel – the newest and most upscale in town, which we’d rejected staying there because a) it was double the price of the Parque Centrale and b) our soon-to-be fellow travellers from the ship were lodging there. It seems we made the right decision, as our waitress at the bar immediately said “oh, you’re staying at the best hotel in town – much better than here – we keep having trouble with the water supply”. And the Saratoga is just that bit further away from the main attractions. The Parque Centrale was on every level a good hotel – spacious, clean (including excellent bathrooms), good service and public areas, great location, roof pool/garden – better than we could have hoped for.

The iconic image of Cuba is, of course, the 1950’s American cars. Throwbacks to the excesses of Cuba pre-Castro, they’re still on the streets in droves, and are in various states of (dis)repair. But there are some lovelies around – we spotted a fine model T Ford on our first day out and later in the week we discovered the parking strip for bygone vehicles on the western edge of the Parque de la Fraternidad, not far from the Capitolio.

We visited the Capitolio, modelled on its Washington DC cousin, but slightly taller and longer. Set into the floor beneath the dome, there’s a fabulous marble replica of a 25ct diamond; the original of which belonged to the Tsar of Russia and which was sold to the Cuban state by a Turkish jeweller….say n’more! But the centre of the ‘diamond’ is the point from which all distances from Havana are measured. Looming above is a massive and beautiful (female) Statue of the Republic, cast in Rome and covered in gold leaf, and it stands 7m tall!

The Capitolio was the only place where we felt set upon – the female attendant offered to take our photos at the entrance to the library, then demanded payment. We were having none of it and hurried away. Other than that, when staff asked for anything, it was usually soap (a commodity which is in curious short supply for the general populace). We came to realise that we should have pocketed a sackful on the way in.

Another revelation - the light fittings throughout old Havana are delightful - elegant and pretty and beautifully preserved in Art Nouveau or Art Deco style (and maybe Cuban Baroque).

The Malecon – a promenade that runs the length of the sea wall, from Old Havana to Vedado, the modern centre of Havana (which we never got to see, Habana Vieja consumed our week admirably) – is a must in the tourist-tramping-around itinerary, despite the fact that waves crash over its seawall and regularly flood the road, and the pedestrian crossings to get to it are non-existent, so it’s a take-your-life-in-your-hands decision to get there and back.

On the way back, we did another quick sortie through the Tacon market, but our wallets remained firmly zipped. We made a quick trip into the Barrio Chino – “the only Chinatown in the world where there are no Chinese” – but it didn’t entice.

Getting back to the cultural sites, we variously covered the colonial silver museum (and were fascinated by the massive tea services, particularly as we only managed to get any form of black tea on one occasion in out hotel), the Colonial Museum (lovely furniture, but we were implored by the lady guides to a) give them CUCs in exchange for “Che” pesos and b) give them soap (more welcome than a tip, it seems).

We also visited the Museo Nacional de las Bellas Artes, with a fabulous collection of Spanish colonial art. The Cuban gallery is huge and interesting and has some pieces I’d be happy to make off with, tempered by the usual dross that calls itself modern art.

Onward to the Museo de la Revolution y Memorial Granma, which is housed in the former Presidential Palace, the whole of which is undergoing much-needed restoration. The long history of the revolutionary movement in Cuba, from the mid-19C, is well documented here. To do the Museo justice takes a minimum of two hours, but much longer is required to absorb the detail and strategies of the numerous insurgencies. I loved it, taking into account the obvious flaw that the telling is bent toward the revolutionaries.

Still, it’s a graphic and compelling museum, with the added clout of having the motor launch ‘Granma’ in the gardens – the boat in which 81 revolutionaries sailed from Mexico to instigate an uprising in 1956. Far from surprising Batista’s forces, bad weather delayed the landing, then a navigational error delivered the boat onto the wrong beach at Las Coronadas. It was intercepted by a warship then the rebels tried to escape but most were shot down by Batista’s planes, or captured and killed. Fidel, his brother Raul and Che were among the 16 survivors who took refuge in the Sierra Maestra mountains and lived to fight another day.

Outside the Granma’s resting place stand some sugar harvesting machines that were primitively converted into tanks with understandably agricultural armour, and a missile launching device and missile from the 1962 standoff. There were also bits of the US U2 spy plane shot down in ’62, the pilot being incarcerated in Cuba for several years because the USA could not admit it had used spy planes and therefore could not diplomatically negotiate the pilot’s release! After all this activity it was time to find a cold beer, followed by dinner at the hotel’s rooftop barbeque on a balmy evening.

We hired a driver and guide and had a day touring in the Vinales region to the west, with its weird mogotes (limestone mountains), including a boat trip on an underground river - a total ripoff and the boatman expected tips on top of the crummy tour - no chance! The most interesting bit was taking photos of a snake in the cave while we were waiting to be sandwiched into the canoes. Then we had lunch at a nearby, palm-fronded touro-trap,involving music and dancing by one of those voodoo-like Afro-Caribbean sects. The lead trollop had a voice that could shatter steel, and marched around demanding money for a performance. I would have paid her if she'd promised to stop! One of her partners in crime stamped and caterwauled herself into a frenzy, hurling her skirts skywards to reveal light brown hosiery complete with holes which were difficult to disguise, given the black skin underneath. And the steel drums thrashed on relentlessly.

Our guide explained that, whilst he could have taken us to a wonderful local private restaurant for a lobster lunch, it wasn't government licensed, so couldn't provide the receipt he required for reimbursement of expenses. Alison and I went troppo! We'd have happily paid for lunch and foregone the voodoo lunch with all its bus-trippers! We also stopped by a roadside juice humpy where an entrepreneur calling himself Alberto Vitaminus attacked his supply of pineapples, grapefruit, limes etc. to serve up fabulous juices, consumed through a sugar cane straw, his only tools being a knife and wooden chopping board. I reckon he must be one of the richest men in Cuba, as this shanty seems to be a 'must' for every tourist in the region.

The Vinales region is a good two hours drive from Havana, and the road trip was full of interest. Firstly, at every crossroads or overpass, there’s a faux bus stop, manned by a yellow-vested marshall. His job is to flag down any passing motorist/truck and allocate local passengers who a looking for a lift along his route. It’s an innovative approach to public transport, and if a motorist refuses, they’re fined. We were exempt because of our tourist status. Secondly, our taxi had no seat belts in the back, so the driver and guide were protected up front, and we were relegated to the status of potential road-kill in the back. Thirdly, the police presence was high – apparently there’s a fine old smuggling trade along the highways, in cigars, lobsters and chocolate.

On the way out to the region, we’d stopped at a roadside café next to a tobacco farm. Surprisingly, we were asked if we’d like to visit the tobacco shed and, even more surprisingly, they had their own line of cigars for sale. A six-year-old tout offered to take our photos, while some kittens played with chickens on the front porch of the nearby hut. At the outdoor café, which was clean with nice facilities, we sampled freshly crushed sugar cane juice, but I’m not sure why.

The Tropicana is the most famous nightclub in Cuba, and perhaps the world, according to the blurb. It’s been going since 1939, showcasing stars of the calibre of Josephine Baker and Nat King Cole. The widow of a wealthy landowner decided to transform part of her estate into an outdoor nightspot with a restaurant and extravagant floor shows and lavish costuming. Not much has changed, and the Tropicana sits in the middle of its own forest.

We opted for the dinner-show combo, basically because seats are allocated on arrival, and so being two hours earlier than the show-only crowd gave us an advantage. The dinner was all that could be expected – crummy food and shocking service in a vast barn of a place. There were two drinks waiters for about 50 tables. After about half an hour, our waiter, a surly soul, brought our bottle of wine to the table, then disappeared without taking the cork out! We waited, and waited, then finally Alison snapped it and strode down to the waiters station and commandeered the offending servant. “I weel be weeth you soon” he spluttered. “Oh no, you’re coming now”, whereupon Alison frogmarched him to our table. The people at the next table took her lead and manhandled him into uncorking their wine as well.

We did have pretty good seats for the show – just a couple of tables back from the stage. And it was spectacular – scantily clad Cuban girls and guys – good music, singing and dancing, and some great acrobatic cum circus acts. As part of the ticket price, each couple were given a 1/3 bottle of dark rum. Some nibbles came by at various times. Luckily it didn’t rain, so a good time was had by all. And our driver was waiting for us at the end of the evening so we made a quick getaway back to the hotel – a smart move as the queue for taxis was horrendous.

On our last day we did the obligatory tour of a cigar factory – Partagas - rocking up for the 11am tour on our final day. Interestingly, all brands of cigar are made in each of the several cigar factories in Cuba, so aficionados who demand their preferred brand are dreaming! No cameras are allowed inside the main sweatshops, and the skills of the cigar rollers are wonderful. Each employee has a darg of 110 cigars per day, and gets paid a bonus for extra output. Even to our untrained eyes, it was easy to see who were the ‘guns’ – speed, dexterity and beautiful, even product. The tobacco leaves, particularly those used for the wrapping (which come from the Vinales region) are soft and elastic.

There were only 8 of us in the English tour, and as we were climbing the rickety staircase, I noticed the girl in front of me was toting a familiar-looking document clutch. So I asked her if she was Australian (yes) and if she worked for Yellow Pages (no, my boyfriend does). Turns out that the YP salesforce incentive trip this year was to the Caribbean, and these two had added Cuba onto the trip. So I introduced myself (the clutch she was holding had a 'CEO Club' logo on it, the program I introduced ten years ago), whereupon Dale (the boyfriend) went ballistic "you're a legend - wait till I tell XXX and YYY - they're always raving about how wonderful it was back then...". Probably all bullshit - he is a saleman, after all, but it made me feel good for a minute.

There’s a fine Saturday farmers’ market which runs along the main drag in front of the Capitolio, so we inspected all the produce on our way to check out the ship-bound crowd at the Saratoga. We’d decided to have lunch in the tapas bar, which was perfectly pleasant, and came across a couple of travellers from previous trips – Stella, still in high heels whatever the time of day (a widow who has tickets on her attractiveness to ‘gentlemen’, and an inflated opinion about the glory of her legs) and her friend Laura – a rather fierce creature whose husband had also made an early getaway from life. A thunderstorm passed quickly overhead and swamped many of marketeers.

Sunday morning we got up early, in the hope of seeing our little ship sail into port, which it did, right on time, and we have a lovely view of its arrival from Alison’s balcony.

We opted for lunch at the Café del Oriente – excellent – then, as we were catching the lift to board the ship we ran slap into Brian, the departing Captain – we’d been hoping to catch up with him but he’d been tied up at official functions the previous night (at the British Embassy) and with handover all morning.

The ship wasn’t sailing until Monday afternoon, so we had a pleasant time strolling around old Havana, collecting my clothes that had not been returned from the hotel’s laundry service, buying souvenirs and having a farewell mojito with Ivan. Thank you, Havana.

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