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Published: June 14th 2010
Do my ears look big in this?
Where are you from? England. Ah………….England………Manchester? I have a friend / brother / sister in Manchester, can you help me get to Manchester? The secret army of Cuba nationals - all funnily enough living in Manchester - expanded by the hour during our time in Havana, but it made a change from the constant cigar hustling. We put it down to a good opening topic of conversation for the English - possibly derived from an exposure to those big nights of UEFA Champions League (that we were assured by one conversant were screened on Cuban TV), as we as a nation aren’t really that well versed on baseball!
The abiding memories of Cuba will be property in need of a serious visit from more than Changing Rooms, 1950 something American cars and the hustling …….a ride in a horse buggy sir………one hour around all the city….. all the sights and we finish in a very good restaurant and (to keep you cool), I have an air conditioned horse! There are hustlers and hustlers and the air conditioned horse man was a good one, having even upgraded his game to include a business card …………. just in case you are interested,
his name is Raul and he won’t be far away from the NH Parque Central!
The formalities at Havana International were a lot less painless than the old eastern bloc, the luggage was out and waiting and within 10 minutes later the air conditioned taxi (as opposed to horse) was speeding towards the centre. Sunday afternoon was bizarrely quiet, with only a few other road users affording the luxury of petrol and the main road heading for the Revolution Square seemed to have been a construction of a more ambitious time. Revolution Square was deserted except for the vultures circling overhead ….. yes, you have read that correctly…..vultures! The Havana of the imagination was in view in another 5 minutes - buildings of varying ages all in an advanced state of decay - before we arrived at the complete other end of the spectrum at the NH Parque Central. The reviews of Cuban hotels make generally scary reading, but have no such fears with this establishment. The Nacional has the history and there is some debate as to whether the Parque Central is truly 5 star, but it is more than adequate by most standards and it lives up
to it’s central name with a commanding view from the roof top pool area over the Capitol Building and the Old Town areas - the flight crews clearly haven’t made the choice to stay here on their stopovers by pure luck!
The sights of Centro and Old Town Havana are literally on your doorstep and a bit tired after our early morning drive to Gatwick and subsequent transatlantic flight, we satisfied our initial curiosity with a stroll down Obispo to the Plaza de Armas in the late afternoon sunshine. The first building of note or significance on the corner of Obispo is fittingly enough a bar………. El Floridita. The bar found fame and continues to live on the fact that Hemmingway was prone to taking in one too many dacharys in the said establishment - but given that this fact (substituting the said cocktail for a different one) applies to half the bars in central Havana, it would be an expensive business to visit them all. It also makes you wonder how he fitted in any creative writing, as he seemed to be either out drinking, pissed or sleeping it off. The first section of Obispo is flanked by
Blue signifies Government ownership
shops, some of which were probably described as selling the better class of goods in town 50 odd years ago and all of which now seem to be struggling against the blockade to fill their displays whether you have hard currency or not. The street runs towards the harbour area and opens out into the Plaza de Armas, which during the daytime is the centre of Havana book selling with lots of stalls selling an array of Che and Fidel publications and memorabilia to the passing visitors. In the absence of any football and resultant badges, I contributed to the local economy by bargaining hard for 2 pin badges from the immediate post revolution period.
The city districts of relevance to most visitors are broadly split into Havana Vieja - the old town, Centro and Vedado. We concentrated our meanderings initially in the old town, which is old though not necessarily in any worse condition than anywhere else in Havana. The two states of repair appear to be falling down and fallen down. There is clearly a programme of building maintenance, but there doesn’t seem to be a significantly different starting point whether the building was constructed in 1830
or 1930! The lack of raw materials of construction are undoubtedly the issue. In one department store we ventured into, one prize product on prominent display was a collection of 20 or so bags of cement on the ground floor ………….. turn left at the two rotating fans, past the Chinese toys and you will find cement just across from the Antonio Banderas perfume section! What would Mary Portas make of it all?
The highlights of the old town or at least the points where most gravitate are Plaza de la Cathedral and Plaza Vieja. Cathedral Square is probably more appealing on a night, when the bar opposite ……… yes you guessed it, frequented by Hemmingway on a regular basis ………. spills out across the cobbles. Plaza Vieja is more picturesque and features the Camara Oscura building in one corner with it’s rooftop views across the city and harbour. Your admission money ………..at a comparative bargain 2 CUC (and it is one that doesn’t seem to add an extra for the use of your camera)…….. also features a demo of the telescope lense across the city skyscape. The opposite corner of the Square is occupied by what could be
Plaza de Armas
The centre of bookselling in Havana
the best bar in Havana……….. a brew pub no less! OK so it’s not going to be CAMRA Pub of the Year, but it’s an acceptable refreshment and let down only by it’s service that is a bit on the haphazard side (especially in the evening).
The Centro area is dominated by the Capitalio Nacional i.e. what was the Parliament Building. If you think that the look is a bit familiar, it’s not a surprise to find out that it’s a close copy of the Capital Building in Washington DC built at great expense and started in 1929. It doesn’t house Parliament anymore……..most decisions are probably controlled from one office these days … and so you can take a tour for more of your holiday CUCs to see the grand interior. The other main building in the vicinity of Parque Central is the Gran Teatro, where theatre and ballet is performed. The two tier pricing really kicks in for the admission here and it was 25 CUCs. It never stopped Oz in Auf Wiedersehn Pet, but we don’t like ballet anywhere near enough to fork out £20. Aside from the hustling, the two tier currency system is the big
downer in Cuba. As a visitor, you have to spend Convertible Pesos and you are not in theory allowed access to Pesos Nacional. The Convertible Peso (CUC) seems to be linked to the US Dollar in terms of value, but US Dollars are illegal and there is a “levy” to change them…………..are you still sitting comfortably at this point? A CUC therefore equates to 0.9 of a US Dollar and a Pound Sterling gets you no more than 1.3 CUCs. A CUC is worth 24 Pesos Nacional, so back in the real world this makes most things far from a bargain. When we were sat in our bar overlooking the water paying 1 CUC for our Cristal beer, it was effectively paying 24 times the going rate!
In the street immediately behind the Capitalio is the Real Fabrica De Tabacos Part Agas cigar factory, so don’t waste your money going to see cigars being made elsewhere ……. just wander across behind the Capitalio. It’s an expensive tour for Havana at 10 CUCs, but you can’t take your camera in (or any bags which you have to check) so there are no extras. The behind the scenes look at cigar
The view from Camara Oscura
making shows all the stages from sorting the leaves to making the boxes for the finished product. If you have an interest in steam trains, check out the “graveyard” just to the right of the building which the old guy on the gate is more then happy to show you around for a small gratuity.
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