Published: August 13th 2008July 13th 2007
Friday morning, jet lag awoke us atrociously early, but at least it afforded us a leisurely breakfast in the lobby before we left to drive the length of the northern coastline of Havana Vieja and Centro. The 8km Malecón (seawall) built in 1901 by the then American administration takes you past several interesting landmarks of Cuba’s wide-ranging history - from the Spanish era (grandiose), through American (largely utilitarian), British (global-colonial), Mafia (oddly communistic) and Post-Revolutionary (predominantly poor examples of 1970’s architecture - little seems to have been built since then). Along the way we passed the US Special Interests Office
set up by Carter in the late 1970’s and the scene of laughably simplistic finger-pointing propaganda billboards from both sides of the ideological divide. Right opposite the building the “Anti-Imperialist Square” (known by local wits as protestódromo
), was set up during the Elián González affair
in 2000 to host massive nationalist demonstrations against the USA.
Inevitably, our first stop was a cigar
factory - built in the 1930’s and little changed since then - either in layout, or in the almost entirely artisanal production process (it brought to mind a Sumatran safety-match factory I visited about thirty
years ago). Workers are allowed to smoke as many cigars as they like during their shift, but are body-searched on the way out to make sure they don’t take a single leaf with them. Unfortunately we were unable to spot many virgin thighs and certainly no rolling of tobacco leaves on said body parts. We did, of course, make our contribution to the economy by buying substantial quantities of cigars in the shop attached.
Not far away in Havana Centro the vast Plaza de la Revolución is dominated by the splendid 140m-high José Marti
monument - Cuba’s highest building - inside which we ascended to the viewing platform for fantastic 360-degree views of the whole city. Surrounding the plaza are mainly Batista
-era government buildings of mixed architectural quality, although there is an oddly pleasing Che Guevara metal sculpture on the wall of the Interior Ministry building: ‘Hasta la Victoria Siempre’
We made an obligatory stop at the neo-colonial Hotel Nacional built allegedly with Mafia money in the 1930’s and which certainly has a colourful past. We browsed the interesting bar full of 1930’s to 1950’s American memorabilia, and then bought some tickets for a recommended jazz concert the
following evening. From here we took the road tunnel beneath the harbour to the sixteenth century El Morro castle that offers sweeping views back across the city of Havana. The tobacco shop here boasted what was said at the time to be the longest (21 meters) cigar in the world, recognised in the Guinness Book of Records. In the rarefied world of long-cigar-rolling, however, things must move pretty quickly as I read in May 2008 that the El Morro shop had just won back its record
(having lost it at some point in the intervening twelve months) with a humongous 45-meter stogie.
Returning to Havana Vieja, our (included) lunch was back at El Patio on Plaza de la Catedral. All the guidebooks say to have a drink here but to “skip the food” - and they are spot on. Also, don’t eat in the courtyard at a summer lunchtime - baking hot and completely airless.
After a siesta, we roused ourselves about five for further exploration of the old city that started with a mojito pit stop at the Hotel Ambos Mundos
whose rooftop bar has fine views and a good breeze. We then strolled along
the attractively renovated streets through Plaza de Armas, Plaza de San Francisco de Asis and Plaza Vieja. Outside the church on Plaza de San Francisco is a wonderfully homoerotic bronze sculpture of a benevolent Friar Junípero Serra and an almost naked (and seemingly well-endowed) native boy.
We were encouraged to see a number of museums, monuments and boutique hotels springing up in the renovated buildings, but there is hardly a shop to be seen anywhere...god knows where the old town inhabitants do their shopping.
On the northeast corner of Plaza Vieja we stopped in for daiquiris at the Café Taberna, an air-conditioned (very unusual in Havana) bar-café. Inside, a terrific quintet was playing irrepressible Cuban/Latino music, and a very talented couple was dancing salsa. A large group of Spanish students on holiday from Valencia were having a great night on the town and they even managed to get a couple of us onto the dance floor. Clearly the mojitos and daiquiris were beginning to kick in. There was a great atmosphere in the place and we were sorry to drag ourselves away.
“Music is always a
commentary on society.”
Retracing our steps we
almost randomly picked the restaurant at Hotel Florida, where more mojitos and pina coladas somehow developed into beers and a pleasant enough dinner. Later, arriving back at the O’Farrill, Lisa suggested a nightcap at the small hotel bar - and what a great idea it was! Shortly after we got our drinks a superb jazz quartet started up, segueing between contemporary jazz and Latin classics, and all done with great verve and modern interpretive style, accompanied from time to time by a versatile female singer. The music filled the tiny bar and was an absolute delight; an outstanding end to a great evening on the town.
I dragged myself out of bed around six the next day, for an early morning walk and to watch the city come to life. Down on the Malecón, soon bathed in a soft dawn glow, fishermen cast their lines from the wall or floated on rubber tyres in the water dangling hooks from short poles. In the old town a handful of businesses were showing signs of coming sleepily to life, but generally the whole city was astonishingly quiet; even at eight o’clock you could cross wide main streets with hardly a glance
for approaching traffic.
After breakfast we walked once more around some of the streets and plazas of the old city - spotting new gems and revisiting some from the previous evening. We stopped by the Ambos Mundos Hotel again to make the requisite pilgrimage to the small room 511 where Hemingway was a regular guest, and where he wrote much of “For Whom The Bells Tolls”.
After visiting the modestly interesting Havana Club rum museum and sampling some of their very smooth seven-year-old, we took our bus out east of Havana to the small fishing village of Cojimar where Hemingway kept his boat El Pilar
, and from where he and his captain Gregorio Fuentes made their frequent fishing trips. It is an agreeable spot but there is not much of interest other than a rather attractive small bust of Ernest erected by the local villagers a few years ago, and a tiny old 17th century fort that is now the local coastguard station. After a passable lunch at the pleasant waterside Las Terrazzas, we drove to the villa in the southern suburbs that Hemingway inhabited from 1939 to 1960
, when he returned to the US and bequeathed it
to the Cuban people. The Finca la Vigia and its contents have been recently restored and it all looks delightful, simple, homely and very comfortable indeed. El Pilar
is now undergoing a complete makeover in the garden and will look terrific when it is finished.
“All my life I've looked at words as though I were seeing them for the first time.”
Ernest Hemingway, April 1945
Back in central Havana we visited the Capitolio Nacional that was once the seat of the Cuban congress but now houses academic institutions. It is a massive civic structure built at the end of the 1920’s to closely resemble the Capitol in Washington, although the Capitolio is slightly larger and more decorative. Huge in scale and full of ornate detail, it is undoubtedly an architectural highlight of the city.
Beneath the 62m cupola, the huge Statue of the Republic dominates the main hall. This statue by Italian sculptor Angelo Zanelli was cast in bronze in Rome and assembled inside the building after its arrival in Cuba. It is covered with 22-carat gold leaf and weighs 49 tons. Standing over fifteen meters high, it is the third tallest statue under
cover in the world with only the Great Buddha of Nara and the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial being taller. Zanelli used a Creole Cuban, Lily Valty, as the model for his glorious sculpture.
Back at the hotel, David, Neil and I collected some hard currency from the safe and went to purchase more convertible pesos which we seemed to be getting our way through pretty quickly (must have been all the mojitos). Later, I asked to use the Internet at the O’Farrill and got my first experience of the Cuban run-around. Apparently I didn’t have “a card”, which they couldn’t sell me since the shop was shut, so they sent me to a small hotel round the corner where I was told that they “did have the Internet once, but not for several years now”. They in turn directed me to the Hotel Florida a few blocks away but there the connection was “down”, so I settled for a mojito at the bar instead. It would transpire that, in the ten days we would spend in the country, I would not once be able to check my email…
In the evening we drove to
the other side of the harbour to have dinner at La Divina Pastora just below la Cabaña fort
, enjoying a lovely view of the city across the water and a beautiful sunset. Afterwards at la Cabaña hundreds of locals and tourists gathered for the ceremonial firing of a cannon that has been going on for several hundred years to signify the 9pm closing of the old Spanish city gates. Oddly, the uniforms worn by the soldiers seem to be 18th century British rather than Spanish. There was a great atmosphere and a very big bang, and it was all over.
Late in the evening we went back to the Hotel Nacional to listen to the Havana All Stars band in the 1930 Bar - a couple of notches above a lobby bar combo in reality, despite a brief appearance by an octogenarian member of the Buena Vista Social Club. We took a cab back to the O’Farrill, had a final nightcap, and fell wearily into bed. Next ➤ ➤
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