"Cuba is like going to a whole other planet."
—Henry Louis Gates, American historian, film maker, Harvard University professor.
Part 2 in a three part series.
With people heading south to escape our Canadian winter, I am reminded of a trip in June 2016 to Havana, Cuba. For the first time during our three visits to Cuba, we focused our attention on Havana. The Iberostar Parque Central, in the heart of Havana, was our home away from home. For four days, we wandered the streets, enjoyed the sights and sounds and food of this Cuban city.
This post was previously published in 2016. Next Thursday, I will publish the last post in this three-part series about our stay in Havana.
Cuba is a country where the clock has stood still for well over fifty years.
In the countryside, many farmers used horses or donkeys to pull wagons as they went into town to run errands or to sell a few goods.
As we made our way into the city, little fruit stands appeared along the road where a few meager bananas or other fruit were offered for sale by individuals.
Chickens had the run of small yards and of the canteen where we stopped half way between Varadero and Havana. Animals tied in the fields looked like they were close to starvation.
Supermarket shelves in the city were bare or poorly stocked and we were told that the black market continues to thrive.
Tourists from Florida told us that they visit their Cuban relatives every six months or so to bring them toothpaste, medicine, and other vital essentials.
Not much has changed since 1979 when we first came to Cuba, and then again, since our second visit in 2004.
Below is the canteen in the countryside (our driver took us on country roads rather than on the major highway) where we stopped on the way to Havana. Locals came by for a few minutes, had a drink, and then left.
On the return trip to Varadero, at a different road stop along the highway, there was very little to buy.
At both stops, coffee and alcoholic beverages could be ordered, but not much else.
To visit this country is to see the collapse of Havana, a once beautiful city, into an apocalyptic shell of its former glory.
One can only truly get a sense of the ruination from a rooftop vantage point: this I had not done on my previous quick trips into the city.
But there are buildings that have stood the test of time and political upheaval.
The Bacardi Building gives us a sense of the beauty that Havana must have been in its heyday.
Built in 1930 by the famous rum company, it is a shining example of the Art Deco style (1925-1940) and a reflection of a time after WWI when Cuba became an escape from prohibition for wealthy Americans.
An important landmark in Old Havana, it was taken over by the Cuban government in 1960 when Bacardi Rum left Cuba after the revolution. It was restored in 2003.
For many years after it was built, the Bacardi Building was the tallest structure in Old Havana. Now it is just one of many high rise buildings.
Notice the nymphs on the side of the each of the pillars? the warm red and gold colours of the facade? and the tower with Bacardi’s bat, its signature logo?
Since our rooms faced this building, I had many opportunities to examine it closely. The embellishments of the red granite, the geometric patterns but especially the nudes on the exterior of the building are only a few aspects that make this building unique in the cityscape that is Havana.
And I could imagine women and men dressed very fashionably for a night out at the bar in the Bacardi in the 1930s. It must have been THE place to be and to be seen.
Men might have worn a fedora and double-breasted coat while women would have worn dresses with floral patterns and shoulders would have been accentuated with pads. Furs were very much in style and some women might have worn fur just to be ultra chic and sophisticated for their evening out on the town.
Can you tell that this wonderful building was hands down my favourite in old Havana?
In central Havana, the Latin beat joyously drowned out other city noises. Even the smallest of venues pulsated with the sounds of salsa, mambo, and cha cha cha among many other musical genres.
In one very nondescript building, we climbed a narrow stairway at the urging of a young Cuban woman. On the very top floor were three musicians playing Cuban music. How could we not stop and stay for a while?
And of course, we all took loads of photos of vintage cars. They are used as taxis and the Cubans favour them as much as the tourists do. We often saw taxis cram in one more local passenger...no seatbelt laws here it would seem. And Uber hasn't made its way into Cuba just yet.
But my favourite photograph was not of a vintage car. The photo below was taken with my IPad ( I know, REAL photographers will scoff when they read this) as we walked to Los Nardos Restaurant in the early evening rain.
The soft colours of the buildings and the reflection on the wet pavement convey the quiet mood of this area on that particular Monday night. The hustle and bustle of the city core did not extend to this section which was only a few minutes away from our hotel.
Los Nardos restaurant, in front of El Capitolino in old Havana, is a favourite among locals. The food was delicious and inexpensive, and the waiters were very attentive and friendly.
El Capitolino (below), a building just around the corner from our hotel, the Parque Central, bears somewhat of a resemblance to the US Capitol in Washington.
It is one of many lovely architectural treasures being reconditioned to its former grandeur in the heart of Havana. Once renovations are completed, it will again be home to Cuba’s legislative branch as it was before the revolution.
In my humble opinion, the charming Old World architecture remains the most appealing aspect of Havana.
There was always something interesting happening during our walks around old Havana whether it was the “statues” coming to life, or the men playing chess on the sidewalk, or watching the uniformed children as they made their way to their schools.
My friend and I, both retired teachers, curiously observed young children in their dark, claustrophobic classroom with its open façade on noisy Obispo (a pedestrian only street). There were no cell phones, no laptops, in fact, no computers at all in this little room.
In spite of all the distractions happening right behind them, not to mention the street cacophony, the students were completely focused on the teacher and on the lesson in front of them. Ahhhh yes, that is what teaching was like when we started our careers long before technology was introduced into a classroom of spoiled students. (see photo below)
During our wanderings, I often thought of Florence, Italy, and that Havana with its beautiful architectural details, and the life and movement in the downtown area, in some ways, reminded me of that particular old Italian city. Very delightful in so many ways.
Old pharmacies had been turned into museums and we marvelled at homeopathic remedies stored in exquisite jars and ledgers listing ingredients to cure various ailments.
We sauntered through open doors on calle Obispo, and discovered a lovely inner courtyard being used as an art gallery.
I had wanted to sketch local scenes but it was either too hot and humid or too wet (it rained buckets and we were soaked) to stay in one place for very long. I settled for photographs and used these as inspiration for my sketches of Havana..
But there was time to enjoy the music, the food, and the dancing, and drink a few cold ones. I couldn’t leave Havana without sampling a mojito. Cubans apparently prefer the Santiago de Cuba to the Havana Club rum although you wouldn’t know this from all the advertising everywhere for the latter rum.
I don’t know whether I will ever visit Havana again. It will likely undergo changes as relations warm between Cuba and the USA.
Time moves forward and eventually, so will Cuba. In the previous blog post about our past trips to Cuba, I included photos of hubby and me showing that time has indeed changed us.
Unlike Cuba, we will never be restored to our former glory. We are much like those many vintage cars in Havana with patches here and there to keep us together. Such is a life well-lived!
(a special thank you to hubby who contributed many of the photographs for this post and to JPS for the last photo in this post.)
Cheers to all of you!