Travels with V

Cuba

Revolution and decaying beauty

Havana part one

Cuba is changing fast, and it’s hard to predict the future for this remarkable island nation and its sturdy people. Political alliances with foreign countries, sometimes their only lifeline, have disintergrated more than once, leaving the Cuban people with meagre resources and starvation. Yet in most of them there is still a strong faith in the Revolution, a national pride and at the same time a yearning for living a normal modern life.  

Five things not to be missed on Cuba:

 

  1. Best beach: Cayo SaetĂ­a. Though our driver said Cayo Santa Maria is the best, but we didn’t get to it this time. And no, Varadero is not our style.
  2. Best must-see: Viñales. Remarkable landscape, beautiful and magic. Caves with underground rivers, cigarmakers, lots of activities. And one of Cuba’s best paladars (see the blog!) 
  3. Revolution memorials in Santa Clara. It’s a hot and dusty town but Tren Blindado and even more so the Che-mausoleum is impressive and tragic. 
  4. Best food: Casa Sierra Maestra. Honestly not much of a competition. But Eva makes real Cuban farm cooking, which you won’t find in many places. 
  5. Best bar hang out: Camila’s in Cienfuegos. Sip on a mojito and relax on the floatbridge by the excellent restaurant. 

After a long flight, we land at last on José Martí, Havana’s international airport. It’s near midnight and we pass the immigration surprisingly quick and smooth. We carry our backpacks out into the hot night and accidentally fool the long taxi que outside. We spot taxis some 100 meters away in the darkness under a couple of trees, and jog up to them. But it’s some kind of place where taxi drivers take a break. One of them agrees to drive us, and we hear angry shouts behind us as we drive off.

We have booked a “casa particular” in Havana’s old town, and it’s so central that we can see the dome of the Capitolio if we lean out the window. A casa particular is a private guesthouse, but it’s like a small hotel, as most of them are. And they are always clean and comfortable. You’ll find them everywhere in Cuba.

After breakfast we set out to conquer Havana on foot. We have of course read lots about this historical city with its colonial style palaces and shining old yankee cars. But we are just the same surprised by some things that we encounter. For example we realize that a western tourist can walk around here unharmed by beggars and trixters. The only people that try to sell us something are very old and harmless. There’s one exception, a man that looks very much like Fidel, offering to be photographed with us. But that’s mostly a bit funny.

Havana’s "hanging gardens”

The buildings lining Havana’s streets and squares are often stunningly beautiful. But many are in very poor condition, partly abandoned and with floors open to rain and wind. Some quarters are just facades, supported by scaffolding. And have probably been like that for a long time, the scaffolding is totally overgrown with trees and bushes, looking like enormous hanging gardens.

It’s sad to see these once grand palaces crumble, even on the iconic promenade Malecón. The problem seems to be that the houses have no real owners, the tenants just pay a low rent to the state. Sometimes the authorities make a campaign to renovate a block or a building, but it’s too little, too seldom.

Cuba’s political adversaries like to speak about repression and dictatorship. But to a visitor things don’t look that way. People are very friendly, clamorous in a latin way. They love music and dance and are extremely patriotic. We don’t see a lot of police in the streets, in fact hardly any at all. We speak freely with both those who are against the regime and those who defend it. And they speak to us without looking over their shoulder.

We like the green square Parque Central, with the statue of  the great hero (no, not Fidel) José Martí, and the Great Theater, a baroque cream cake dream dominates one side. And close to it Hotel La Inglaterra with a nice outdoor seating. Perfect for a coffee or beer, watching Havana everyday life pass by.

After that we head east through crowded streets to Plaza de la Cathedral, and the old San Cristobal de la Habana church, often just called “the cathedral”. Not a huge construction and a rather minimalistic interior as in most Cuban churches. But the square is lively. In the shadows two voluminous ladies preside with cigars the size of arms, and tell fortunes.

And in an alley near the square we by chance find the paladar Doña Eutimia, which is probably one of the city’s best eateries. A paladar is a private restaurant (as opposed to the state owned ones) and those are always the best options in this country. In the state owned restaurants the service is at best slow and the food eatable.

At Doña Eutimia all tables are occupied and we are seated at one that we share with two young men from Denmark. The sun is shining from a clear blue sky, the food and drinks are terrific, and we’re having a really good time. We have heard that Cuba is definitely no paradise for foodies, and right now that seems exaggerated. Soon we will see that the rumours are unfortunately true. But with some exceptions.

Two men approach us with guitar and maraccas. We ask them to play the old classic “Lagrimas Negras”, a sentimental tune. And they willingly do.

In the next chapter we meet the Swede that runs the hippest paladar in town. And learn all about the revolutionary hero that disappeared.

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