Havana - Day 5

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February 18th 2018
Published: March 3rd 2018
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This morning started off with a walking tour. Normally this is one of the first things I like to do in a new town but Havana is a little more challenging for the DAT. We had found a place that offered tours a few days earlier but we decided to shop around. Note to self, this is a communist country, there is no point in shopping around because there are very few choices. We had a very nice guide, who’s name I forgot, so for the purpose of this blog we’ll call him Carlos.

We started the tour in Plaza Armas, which is apparently the exact location that Havana was started. When the Spanish pulled into the harbour and decided this looks like a good spot, they held a Mass under a tree and consecrated the ground. They kept the tree and built all around it. When it eventually died they replaced it with a fountain. I thought it was a nice fountain, Jo remained unimpressed. There are two former palaces in Plaza Armas. The one facing the harbour is the Former Presidential Palace where the presidents of Cuba lived after it achieved independence in 1902. To the left is the second in Command’s place and to the right is a series of shops, that was once the American embassy. Because the Americans “helped” Cuba succeed from Spain, their reward was the “Platt amendment” was written into the Cuban constitution. The Platt amendment meant that the USA could intervene in Cuba anytime it saw fit. Technically Cuba was free, but with the American Ambassador living right next door to El Presidente and keeping an eye on things. If you were wondering why Fidel got his knickers in a twist, that may have had a little something to do with it.

Fun fact; Cuba might be the birthplace of Women’s rights. In 1744 the Spanish Governor of Cuba Del Soto took ill after a battle (can’t remember if it was pirates or poms) He boarded a ship and was sent to Florida for a special treatment. It didn’t really work out, he died several months later. But for those months, his wife assumed the role of Governor. So, Cuba had the first female Governor. Unfortunately, it didn’t last. Once word came through that her husband had passed she dutifully boarded a ship and went back to Spain.

As we walked down to Plaza Vieja, Carlos, took us past the Franciscan church. This was the second church to be built in Havana. (The first one got burnt down by pirates) The church was used up until 1762 when the British successfully invaded Havana. The poms used their church for their own mass services. 11 months later when the Spanish traded the Cuba for Florida. The British left but the good Catholic Cubans felt their church had been desecrated so they built another one and the original church was repurposed. Out the front of the church is a statue of the Gentleman of Paris, who Carlos explained was neither a gentleman or from Paris. As young man the gent had been working as a valet when he fell in love with the house owner’s daughter. The father, determined this man was not to go anywhere near his daughter, made up a story that the gent had stolen something from them and the gent was sent to jail. The conditions were harsh and the poor gent lost his mind. When he was released he was homeless. But he was always so kind to the people that he met that they took care of him and gave him food. For their kindness he would always give them a gift, which usually consisted of a leaf or a piece of paper. He was such a part of the social landscape that when he passed the town historian paid for his burial in the Franciscan church and a local artist sculpted the statue.

Carlos also explained the conditions of the buildings to us. Many of the buildings look run down and decrepit, but standing right next to them will be a beautifully maintained building. For those who have been to Bangkok they will understand. The old town has been declared a UNESCO heritage site so the push is on do restore it to its former glory. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Cuba fell on some very hard times, referred to as the period especial (the special period) For the next ten years a period of austerity ensued, food was in short supply, public services were limited etc. It was during this time the town historian approached Fidel and suggested they restore the old town. Fidel agreed that it should be done but feeding people was more important to him. So he gave the historian the power to do the restorations but without public funding. The historian set about finding donations to start restoration works. Donations came from Cuba and from abroad. Around the town you can see dedications on buildings or art works that have been restored thanks to another country or city. The Historian was quite resourceful. Today as we walk around there is lots of construction going on as buildings are gutted and restored. Any that cannot be restored are converted into green spaces, which are in short supply in the city.

After the tour we caught a ferry across the harbour. There are two forts on the other side of the harbour, Del Morro and Forteza de San Carlos de la Cabana. We had been to El Morro with Doug to watch the cannon ceremony a couple of days earlier so I wanted to check out the Forteza. The Ferry pulled up at the El Christo de la Habana. (The statue that is not Christ the Redeemer) We weren’t terribly interested in it but we had to walk uphill and past it to get to the Fortezza so we took a couple of happy snaps. There are great views of Havana from the statue and we wanted to get a selfie from there but there were too many millennials doing the same thing and we couldn’t get a good view.

We made our way to the Fortezza which on the map looked like a five-minute walk, which it probably was but on a hot day it felt like half an hour. There were folks selling juice and soft drink on the way up the hill but what we really wanted was water and their prices were almost three times what you pay in town. So, we toughed it out and poor Jo nearly melted on the way to the Forteza. When we got there, we paid our entrance fee and a guide and as soon as we walked in we realised, we had already been here before. For the cannon ceremony with Doug. It appears I got our forts confused. Anyhoo, our guide, Levin, explained the history of the Fort, half of which we had already heard from Carlos. A few more details, during the Batista era it was used as a prison. After the revolution, Che Guevara used it has his headquarters. He also conducted some
El MorroEl MorroEl Morro

from Forteza de San Carlos de la Cabana
fairly dodgey “trials” of Batista’s henchmen that resulted in some rather rapid executions. After Che moved on the Fort returned to its prison status until about ten years ago when it was restored as a fort and is now a tourist attraction. There were not many tourists there during the day, maybe five or six including us. But having been there in the evening for the ceremony I know there will be hundreds there later tonight.

We didn’t actually make it to Del Morro. I felt guilty enough for making Jo walk through the heat to the Fortezza. But I did get some happy snaps of Del Morro and Havana city. As we left the Fortezza we decided to get a cab. Walking toward the carpark a man called out “tax ladies?” This is really common here, you can be walking down the street minding your own business and people will be calling out, offering cabs. We asked the price 10 kooks. Which was OK, but when he started walking toward his car we decided no. The old beat up hatchback looked like it was hanging together on a wing and a prayer. There was an official cab just a few meters away and we decided to ask that driver how much. The first guy said, “oh no he not working” Lie! The official taxi was working and it was only 7 kooks to get back to the city.

We finished the day with a late lunch and some drinks. We did a tour de bar in old town but eventually gave up around 10. Tomorrow – onto Trinidad.

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