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Published: November 27th 2018
The Viking Star
On Saturday morning we awoke to find that we were sailing into Santiago de Cuba harbour. We watched from our balcony as the morning sun glistened on the water and the green hills drifted past. The sight was interrupted though by a large power station spewing out brown smoke from it’s chimney covering the distant mountains with a smoggy haze. The harbour is very large with a narrow entrance and it is easy to see why the Spaniards chose this place to build the colony as it is well protected, especially by the 16th
century fort overlooking the entrance. We docked about 10am and again we could watch all this process from our balcony on the port side of the ship. Our tour was not leaving until 11-45 so we had plenty of time for breakfast and to prepare for a day ashore.
We disembarked from the aft lower deck and walked the length of the ship to a small building. Here there were several Customs officers ready to inspect our passports and visas. Then we were assigned bus 15 which we quickly found amongst the thirty or so parked nearby. Our guide was Freddie, a tall Cuban man with a
Shrine of Our Lady of Charity
very American accent. He rambled on about Cuban religion, history and culture as we drove thirty minutes into the surrounding mountains. Our destination was El Cobre, a former copper mining area where there was a church built as a shrine to Our Lady of Charity who is the patron saint of the area. She supposedly appeared to a local girl and they built a church on the spot. Inside, though not remarkable in architecture, prominent people including Cuban Olympic athletes have left artefacts in dedication to her. The most outstanding of these is Ernest Hemingway’s Nobel Prize medal.
From there we returned to the city. Our first stop was next to Revolution Square. Here there is a monument to the leader of the revolution against the Spanish which created the Cuban Republic in the early part of the 20th
century. It is a large space, where the pope held his outdoor Mass when visiting .Then it was on to another place of revolution, the army barracks where Castro and his followers attacked to start his bid for power. It is a yellow crenallated building and they were preparing to commemorate the anniversary of Castro’s death. It is now a
Old Copper Mines
school. The bullet holes are clearly seen in the walls. We then arrived at an attractive square where we finally got off the bus to start the walking section of the tour. The square contained some beautiful, if somewhat rundown, colonial buildings, mainly in Neoclassical style. On a side street was the Jesuit school which Castro attended as a young man. There were also the ubiquitous 1950s cars, lovingly looked after. Freddie told us that people have to supplement incomes here and his father, who is a doctor at the local hospital, uses his car as a taxi after his work finishes.
We walked along the main shopping street which was filled with people . Fletcher said the shops had many more goods in them than in 1991 when he had visited Havana. More colonial buildings, many now painted bright colours, lined this pedestrian mall. One of these painted a vivid blue was a cinema, originally owned by Paramount pictures. We finished in the main square where on one side was the Cathedral and the other the City Hall. They are gradually restoring all these buildings. We had some free time but not enough to go exploring on our
Inside the church
own so we stayed in the square where many beggars kept asking us for money or food. They are hard to ignore, but give to one and you have to give to all. We went back on the bus and returned to the port where we perused some of the small stalls selling souvenirs. Fletcher, of course, found an elephant! So, another one to add to the collection. Back on board the ship we stopped at the bar for a cold beer and a sandwich as we had not had lunch. Then it was back to the cabin to recover.
That night we went to The Restaurant, the main dining room on the ship We had a pleasant meal there. We were chatting to a couple at the next table whom I though were German. It turned out they were Aussies from Melbourne but originally from Switzerland. Makes a change from the mainly American crowd.
Sunday was an At Sea day. We took our time in the morning and had breakfast at the World Café, the Buffet on the 7th
deck. We then proceeded to Deck 9 which is the sports deck for the first of our Shuffleboard
Another altar in the church
challenges. We played three games and I won 2/3! At 12 we went to the Explorer’s Lounge for the quiz and met up with the two sisters. We got 9/15 which was second overall! After lunch we retired to the cabin for some reading and relaxation. I then went to listen to a talk about Ernest Hemingway in Cuba which I very much enjoyed. We then had a Shuffleboard rematch which Fletcher won, making it one-all. Finally, we had drinks in the Atrium listening to Anastasia and the strings duo, Pascal and Isabelle before heading to The Restaurant for dinner. Fletcher and I both ordered Sirloin with Roquefort sauce, done medium rare. While mine was perfect, Fletcher’s was very rare. He summoned the waiter who agreed to take it back. When the second was brought it was also “blue” so was returned and finally the third was cooked to how he ordered. Much amusement from us and tables around.
Monday morning we woke early as we arrived in the harbour at Cienfuegos at 6am. Our tour was leaving at 8-15am so we had ordered breakfast in our cabin which came at 7-20am. This time we had anchored in the
harbour so had to be tendered on shore. We met in the Star Theatre by 8-15 and when our tour number was called we proceeded to the small lifeboat used as the tender. It was a beautiful day, sunny and warm and the trip in was exhilarating as we sat on the top deck. After passing through Customs we were assigned to bus 14 with Luis, our local guide. We were driven to a large central square, where we alighted and walked across the street into the centre. Here the buildings were less run down but still beautiful in the neoclassical style. One of the buildings we saw was the Toms Terry Theatre, evidently very famous as Caruso and others have performed here. The main church in the square was under restoration and we were shown a map of the settlement which depicted the harbour and the town. The parliament building was also here, very impressive, topped by a large red dome. There was an imposing gazebo and other magnificent buildings which had been private homes of the rich colonials who once thrived here.
We walked from there to the centre of the city where we strolled along a
pedestrian mall. Luis took us inside some of the shops, particularly a women’s dress shop. The owner is the most lauded fashion designer in Cuba. The inside of the shop was impressive, being once a British colonial building with magnificent floor tiles and columns. Inside the food shops we saw that some of the basic goods were astronomical in price, the result of the US embargo on importing goods. At the end of the mall we stopped by a statue of Benny Mores, one of the most famous singer/songwriters in Cuba, founder of the Buenavista Social Club. We then reboarded the bus and were driven to the cigar making factory. Mainly women work here and we saw how the tobacco leaves are deveined and sorted into various grades, then how the women roll them and stack them before adding the final outer leaf. They are expected to roll at least 135 a day and are paid for more if they can exceed that. Their pay, though, is about 400 pesos a month.
Back on the bus and we were driven along the harbour to a very speccy building, the Jagua Hotel. This is built in Spanish/Moorish style with intricate
The fort which Castro atacked
carvings and patterns. We were given a free Rum and Cocacola and then had a half hour to explore the building. The restaurant in the garden was beautiful and a small suckling pig was roasting on the rotisserie. We climbed to the roof terrace and had a beer while listening to the jazz band play. Very enjoyable. From the top we could see along the bay and the various other buildings, such as the yacht club and other houses which are used now as small hotels. But soon it was time to return to the bus and the ship. Again there were market stores at the docks. I wanted to buy a nice blouse but there were none my size. We spent our money on a wooden figure much like the ones we have from South Africa and on a baseball Cuban cap.
The highlight of the day for me was the sail away. We went out on the front deck as we sailed through the harbour. It was late afternoon with the setting sun low in the sky. There was champagne and music blaring from the loud speakers. We sailed through the narrow headlands, and watched the various
In the square
islands and buildings ashore. They played appropriate music such as Pavorotti’s “Time to say goodbye” and U2’s “Beautiful Day”. What a way to finish a memorable day.
We again had dinner at The Restaurant. This time we had some interesting conversation with a Canadian lady and her American husband who are no fans of Trump. A nightcap in the bar and then to bed. Gee, life is tough
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