Published: January 15th 2012January 15th 2012
PHOTOS ! ! ! I think, at this Picassa link: You may have to copy and paste to your internet browser(Explorer , Safari, or whatever)
Well Wednesday morning and another nice buffet breakfast in the sunshine on the patio. It really is quite nice. Anyhow, today was our first day on our own so to speak after our “orientation” tour of Old Havana with our guide Anna Lise yesterday. Before we ventured out on our own though we had another orientation to attend with the tour operator. Basically it was an hour to tell us our transfer to the airport in Veraderro was 5 hours before the scheduled departure of the return flight on Monday. So that means our return trip will begin at 2:30AM Monday morning. Didn’t have any other plans for that time of the morning so “what the heck”, might as well go for the bus ride. Besides it will be time to come home. The rest of the tour operators orientation was taken up with the selling of various tours of Havana offered by them. All seemed a bit overpriced but that made no difference because we are more “travelers” than tourists and generally prefer to make our own adventures and tours.
After the orientation, which had some interesting moments listening to what the other people expected and wanted, like where to find markets to buy fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables we were off on our own adventures. (Why would someone want to be buying fresh fish? I don’t think this hotel has housekeeping rooms) Anyhow we had decided we would head off for the beach, or ocean front which is about 3 blocks away. There really is no beach, just rocky ocean front lined with high-rise hotels. Along the way we saw a redevelopment project ( Bungalows Alborada) of 165 bungalows, that looked more like townhomes. Certainly this project will be aimed at the tourist market considering it is located among the beachfront hotels.
So the trip to the beach wasn’t very inspiring and it was off to plan B. During the earlier orientation there was a brief mention of a Hop On / Hop Off bus and we had just happened to notice there was a stop pretty much where we were. So onto the bus we went for 5 convertible pesos. Pretty much the same cost as a cab to Old Havana but a much more circuitous and interesting route. We passed the stadium used for the Latin American games a couple of years ago, Revolution Square, the Jose Marti memorial tower supposedly on the highest point in Havana and the nearby Necropolis de Colon, a huge cemetery. I had thought that the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris was huge but compared to the Necropolis it is tiny. This cemetery is HUGE !!
From this area the bus more or less headed directly to Old Havana and we ended up “hopping off’ at the capital building, El Capitole, which looks strangely like the White House. Across the street is another large building of architectural interest. So here we were in a part of Old Havana that was totally new to us and now where to go and what to do.? It seems there is an App, “Havana Walking Tours” that Heather had downloaded to her phone so we decided to follow one of the tours that covered the Capital district. The tour took us to another Jose Marti memorial opposite the Hotel Igleterra another example of the wonderful architecture of Havana. Further along we were at the Granma Yacht which was used to transport the revolutionary leaders from Mexico to Cuba.. From here we just wandered along making our way to the Ambos Mondos hotel, supposedly one frequented by Ernest Hemmingway who Cuba seems to have adopted as one of their own. The hotel has a rooftop terrace lounge but on the main lobby floor is a really nice piano bar which is where we chose to have a refreshment or two. The piano is a nice change from the loud traditional Cuban music.
After a brief stop for “bevies” we decided to see what we could do for an early dinner since we wanted to catch the 7:30 return shuttle to our hotel. It wasn’t hard to find a place because like many places in Europe there are many “touts” on the street trying to lure you to their restaurant. For some reason we picked a fellow who kept telling us to just follow him, the food is good, prepared by his mother and sister, as he lead us down a lane “where angels would fear to tread”. We followed him into one of the many buildings in major disrepair, apparently inhabited by a number of families but finally ended up at his family restaurant, Pallador Gonella. Not a place most people would find without a guide but the food was good. Even as a few sprinkles of very light rain began to spatter down. After our meal we made our way back to the hotel Ambos Mondos to pass a bit of time before we had to catch the shuttle bus.
As we left the hotel it began to rain a little bit more than it had earlier. I’m lying. It didn’t rain. It was a DELUGE !! In moments the streets were full of water to ankle level. We took refuge with a number of other people in one of the University buildings. We had a bus to catch and walking 50 feet would be like drowning. Just in front of us was one of the bicycle rickshaws and we negotiated a deal. At least the driver was good humored about it and we all laughed as we dodged the waterfalls of water pouring off the buildings. He delivered us to our bus stop where a bunch of other persons, looking like drowned rats, were waiting for the bus. Our bus was supposed to arrive at 7:05 but a number of us found refuge in the Palace des Artisanal which closed at 7:00. Fortunately they allowed us shelter until the bus arrived. Late, at 7:30.
Thursday and half way through our time here we decided it should be a bit of a day of rest and vitamin D collection around the pool. Nice and warm, clear and sunny, so very different then the end of our yesterday and a type of day where it wouldn’t take long in the sun to turn lobster red. So after breakfast it was a couple lazy hours in the sun. Then we decided to take the afternoon shuttle to explore more of Old Havana. The buildings that have been maintained, mostly the churches, and those other buildings that have been restored are beautiful examples of architecture from the 18th
century and some even older. And they use such bright and vibrant colors! Orange and lime green seem to work here but I don’t think I could see those colors in my home. Maybe you need the size and scale to make it work.
The only thing that was on the “to do’” list for today was to dine at Palador Decameron which Heather had found rated as #3 in Havana by Trip Advisor. (They really do have some good information). About dinner time found us negotiating a taxi fare from downtown Old Havana the palador which was about half way back to our hotel. The first offer was 10 convertible pesos, (which was way too much), and in time we settled with the taxi driver reluctantly accepting 5 pesos. About 20 minutes later we arrived at Palador Decameron in a well maintained and restored 1956 Chevrolet 4 door sedan. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a 3 speed column shift ! The suspension on this car was in good shape too and the ride was smooth. Obviously the driver knew someone who did upholstery well because the interior was immaculate.
Anyhow, the palador. Trip Advisor was right. This establishment was as good as any 4 or 5 star fine dining establishment in the Vancouver area. The décor was attractive and comfortable including a large collection of antique pendulum wall clocks. The servers were knowledgeable about the menu which also included a fine selection of quality wines, liquors, and liqueurs, and they were also polite, and discrete in service. The menu included a sea bass dish that I which was very good, in quality, taste, and portion serving. You don’t leave here hungry. Heather had a pork dish, and both meals were accompanied with black beans and rice. Whoever said Cuban cooking is bland and lacking in spices must have forgotten to tell the folks at the Decameron. Nicely prepared, tasty, with subtle [VAC1]
It was a very nice ending for another good day in Old Havana.
Friday morning found us continuing to stock up with Vitamin D around the pool before we took the last shuttle bus in the early afternoon. On the list for today was a visit to “the market”. Mercado San Jose, actually. We found it at the harbor waterfront in a large old warehouse with a number of old steam engines on display in front of it. Despite its size the market is nothing to write home about, although that is pretty much exactly what I’m doing, isn’t it ? A vast collection of the cheapest, and most junky junk that I have seen collected under one roof. It seems there will be no little gifts or remembrances of Cuba coming back with us for anyone. I wouldn’t even give this stuff away to beggars.
The one positive was that the market had a large indoor BBQ where we had our lunch for the day. Although we had both ordered grilled chicken I rather think we ended up with the grilled pork. But it was tasty and very good.
Before we had gone to the market we had completed the first task on our list at an old cathedral across the street from the market where we bought tickets for an early evening concert of Saturday. Our guide, Anna Lise, had told us the acoustics in the cathedral were outstanding. When she showed us the cathedral we saw a poster for the Saturday concert, and had decided “ what the heck “, and besides it was something a little different to do. We’ll see about the acoustics.
After leaving the market we found our way to Obispo (street or avenue, or whatever), which pretty much runs in and East / West direction from the water to the Capital buildings. It is also the most completely restored street in Old Havana and is pedestrian only. Lots of old and new shops, but nothing to cause the pesos to be leaping out of my pocket. The building restorations were nice though and we found a little shop, El Naranjal Cremeria, where I finally found a GOOD cup of coffee. Strange that in a country the produces coffee it seems difficult to find a good cup of coffee. El Naranjal is located right at an intersection so we spent some time over coffee doing one of my favorite pastimes, watching people. Most interesting it was.
At the end of Obispo we were again in the Capital area and took refuge from the crowds, scammers, and hawkers in the upscale Hotel Saratoga just a couple blocks from the Capital building. A beautifully restored building with a nice mezzanine level bar. After a brief respite it was a quick walk to the shuttle pick-up spot and back to the hotel. It was interesting to notice on this walk the deployment of police as darkness descended. Pretty much two police patrolmen at each intersection.