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Walk through Havana
It’s quite the experience in itself simply walking around Old Havana, or Habana Vieja as it is known locally, with every sense being put to the test at some stage or another. The old and crumbling buildings, sometimes sitting alongside beautiful colonials that are just starting to experience the beauty of restoration. Whatever their state, they were some of the most beautiful buildings ever constructed, and the raw appeal of future careful restoration, sympathetic to their own history, could easily be felt.
It all happens on the streets
It was a weekend so the back streets were crowded with locals. Many of them “live” on the streets during the day as they have such limited room inside their homes. The Cubans place family ahead of anything else, so these tiny living areas often house a number of generations.
If they aren’t playing, talking, conducting covert business or hanging out on the streets, they are sitting in the stairwell. A quick glance towards the front door will usually show the bottom two or three steps draped in people. Here they peel potatoes, mend shoes, smoke cigars, fix bikes….all in the doorway and on the footpath in front of their house.
They leave all of their rubbish in the street, which is fairly disgusting by the time the food and toilet waste has sat in the sun for a while! And with Cuba being subject to so much rationing, the garbage sometimes offers up too much of an opportunity to look for their own treasure. As a consequence, the rubbish gets spread all across the street.
So where are you from?
It’s clearly not hard to pick the tourists in Havana, and the touts, entrepreneurs and tricksters are always out in force. Once they’ve asked you their favourite question of “where are you from”, they have all the information they need to launch into your native language and to draw you into their conversation and lead you off to an Americano car ride, or secret cigar factory.
Amazingly, it’s always the “last day” or the “last hour” of the sale. Trying to sell an Australian more than 50g of tobacco is a wasted cause given our customs rules preclude any such purchase, but they tried as hard as they could. Even telling them we didn’t smoke didn’t stop them. Only a policeman rounding the bend of the nearest corner would cause them to scamper off and lay low until the next tourist came along.
Travelling in some countries exposes certain pre-dispositions to women and whilst I might not always agree with them, I understand that culturally these instances are literally worlds away from the environment in which I live and the behaviour I tolerate. However, I shall never get used to being hissed at by the local men. More of a long, drawn-out “psssst” really, but nonetheless it’s disconcerting, especially when wandering around on your own.
Here are some highlights of our time in Habana Vieja and Vedado. We walked to all of these places, from Habana Vieja along the Malecon, to the Hotel Nacional, then onto the Anti-Imperialist Plaza and through the back streets, admiring libraries, museums, amazing residential architecture until we arrived at our last destination, the Plaza de la Revolucion. From there, after walking in the Cuban heat for quite some distance, we jumped in a bright green Chevy for the ride back to our Casa. Tip – never pay full price. Haggle, they love and expect it.
An impressive building in the centre of Habana Vieja, it looks remarkably like the Capitol Building in Washington DC. It’s a lively area where many tourists spend time admiring the old buildings, and it’s also a great location to pick up a restored convertible to go for a ride.
The handsomest man in Cuba
We had a great encounter at the front of this building with the man from “the handsomest man in Cuba” book. My husband had been reading the book by the same name and one of the attractions for us in visiting the Capitolo Nacional was to revisit the place where the photo on the front cover of the book was taken. We had actually carried the book with us in the hope of finding the photographer. And find him we did. Positioned out the front of the building, with his old box camera, was the grandson of the man whose photo appeared on the cover. He was so excited to see the book and was so pleased that we had come to see him. Of course, we couldn’t resist getting a photo with him and the book.
This is the seemingly never-ending concrete wall separating the town from the Atlantic Ocean. Here, the ocean pounds into the wall spraying its foam and water on to unsuspecting people who have taken to walking too close or peeking their head over the wall for a closer look.
To the locals though, it represents an opportunity to have some family fun, with many of the kids sitting by the wall and waiting for the big waves to come and wash over them. For others, it represents an opportunity to have a much-needed bath.
Did you know Ernest Hemingway lived here?
The famous writer, Ernest Hemingway, spent many years in Cuba, and there are a number of landmarks in his honour. The first we visited was El Floridita, where he spent many hours drinking the equally famous daiquiris.
Of course, it was only right that we attempt to recreate history by seeing if the dacquiris were as special as the writer. So we pulled up a chair at the very busy bar, ordered a strawberry and pineapple dacquiri and became absorbed in the sounds and moves of the local band and salsa dancers. Nearby is the Hotel Ambos, Hemingway’s home of choice for about 10 years and now a public hotel.
While you are here, also order the national drink the Cuba Libre. Better still, you can easily make it back home with this recipe for a Cuba Libre Cocktail.
In Verdado stands the magnificent art deco Hotel Nacional de Cuba. This hotel was built in the 1930s and it’s easy to see how grand it would have been back in it’s heyday. Even now, it stands high on a hill, proudly watching over Cuba and making its elaborate presence known.
It’s been the place to visit for celebrities and a wonderful location for sipping on cocktails either in the cloisters of the hotel or in the various garden areas, offering views of the ocean. We couldn’t go past ordering a Mojito here and kicking back in the cane chairs in the cloisters.
The Anti‐Imperialist Plaza, which is a short walk from the hotel is a large area of concrete, showcasing a variety of buildings and monuments that continue to highlight the historical and ongoing conflict between the US and Cuba. The concrete platform is an area used to hold protests, rallies and other nationalist gatherings and was also used by Fidel Castro to address the masses.
Nearby sits a building that houses the US Interests Section. This heavily guarded building is the only US presence in the country since the embassy officially ceased to exist in the 1960s.
In front of the building is an area usually covered with 138 flags. Sometimes black and white, and sometimes the Cuban flag, they were erected by Castro in direct response to the use of an electronic signboard by the US in 2006 espousing human rights material. The flags blocked the messages and ensured that the relations between the two continued to be highly antagonistic. On the day we were there, the flags themselves were not flying, but you could still clearly understand their intent.
Around this area is a symbol of the freedom most of us have, and many crave. Each day, hundreds and hundreds of people queue in the streets, and in the front yards of houses, applying for visas, and having their paperwork organised, with a hope that they might be one of the lucky ones who are rewarded with one of the scarce temporary visas for travel to the US. Only around 20,000 Cubans receive a visa each year although this appears to be on the rise. Again, this made us realise just how much freedom we have, to go wherever we want, whenever we want.
Plaza de la Revolucion
Another monstrous area of concrete is one of the key places to visit in Havana. Building enormous concrete areas where the population could gather for national rallies was incredibly important to the Cuban government, and it is no more evident than here.
A tower and statute honour Jose Marti, a former president and key influencer in early Cuban politics. On government buildings around the perimeter, large iron sculptures of Castro and Che Guevera hang on the walls, each highly revered in Cuban history.