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Splendid Havana – A Must Visit On Your Bucket List

Tehnaz Dastoor

My husband and I decided to take a trip to the island of Cuba and spend a few days in Havana, its capital city. From the moment we landed in Havana we found the people to be extremely friendly and the city is about the safest place in the western hemisphere. We took a stroll on the 5 mile esplanade (their equivalent of the ‘queen’s necklace’) at 1am, and not only was the area full of young people celebrating life, but vigilant police patrols kept driving past to ensure our safety.

The first things you notice about Havana are the vitality, life, music, dance, laughter (yes children, adults, youth all enjoying themselves throughout the day), its history told through its museums and buildings, its rich cultural heritage, its varied food and of course, its plethora of classic American vehicles! You get the feeling of being transported back to the 1950s with horse-drawn carriages skirting the streets, large tree-lined boulevards, vendors selling their art work, children roller blading with their parents watching over them, lazily slurping on ice cream. The European-styled city is clean (for the most part) and truly magnificent.

We chose to stay at an Air BnB rather than one of the fancy hotels to get a better feel for the local culture through our host Alfredo, and took his recommendations for sightseeing and dining options. This was perhaps the best decision which we made as we had some superb meals throughout our stay in Havana and in fact enjoyed every minute of our stay in the country.

Our accommodations happened to be in a beautiful apartment with high ceilings, stained glass windows and a fabulous view − the premises previously being the home of the 4th President of the country at one time!

On our first day, we decided to walk about town and the architectural splendor and diversity were a sight to behold.  The architectural styles reflected Cuba’s colonial past and ranged from Spanish, Greek and Roman, French, Neo-Classical to Art Nouveau, Art Deco and a variety of other eclectic influences. What immediately became apparent was the fact that some spectacular and beautifully-maintained buildings were juxtaposed next to rather run-down heritage properties and there was a lot of construction of newer developments, especially hotels, taking place throughout the city.

Our first stop was the Museum of the Revolution. This neo-classical building was the Presidential Palace until 1959. The museum’s Cuban history exhibits range from its war of Independence against the Spanish occupiers to the period of the revolutionary war of the 1950s and the country's post-1959 history. Most of the exhibits here focus on the efforts of President Fidel Castro, his brother Raoul and Che Guevara in their revolutionary war in the interior of the country. There are a number of firearms and historic photos on display as well as a life-size statue of Che Guevara and a huge revolutionary mural. What is noticeably absent in Havana is that there isn’t a single statue of Fidel Castro anywhere around and no one is aware of where he is actually buried!

We spent the rest of the day getting acclimatized to the new culture and surroundings and leisurely walked around for hours, wandering through the boulevards via smaller by-lanes and when we were totally exhausted, walked back to our apartment, changed for the evening and went to enjoy one of the many excellent meals in walking distance.

Our restaurant was called La Makina and as we sat on the terrace, a small party from the Honduras, celebrating their friend’s birthday occupied the table next to ours. Soon everyone was up and dancing to the accompaniment of music and my husband enjoying a scotch with his Cohiba (the finest Cuban cigars) for the first time.

On the following Sunday morning, we decided to visit Old Havana (established in 1519), and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We walked into the Havana Cathedral where a mass was being conducted and a large congregation participated in the sermon. Walking through the Heritage Site we were lucky to have been part of a carnival with dancers on stilts performing on the cobbled streets, clowns and jesters playing with the children and some old-world-styled bands playing just the kind of jazz and big band tunes reminiscent of the Havana you normally see in the movies.

Source: Wikipedia

The other attractions of Old Havana include the Castillo de la Real Fuerza, the Castillo del Morro,  the Museum of Fine Arts, the Capitolio Nacional, the Great Theatre of Havana and the El Floridita Bar to name a few.

A great way to spend the day is to take a walking tour through this area, stopping to grab a bite when hungry or rummaging through some of street vendor’s stalls. We found a terrific street market with old magazines and books, war-time medals and soviet memorabilia, revolutionary propaganda and Hemingway novels at the Antigua Casa de Justiz y Santa Ana.

However, wanting to get a better sense of the history of Cuba and a more in-depth knowledge of its capital on the next day we took a two and a half hour carriage ride with our English speaking guide through the old city. We visited the Jardín Diana de Gales, a lovely garden, with a fountain, sculptures and tress, inaugurated in 2000 in tribute to Princess Diana. After spending a few quiet moments here, we headed to La Boleguita Del Medio – the most famous bar in Cuba thanks to its patron Ernest Hemingway. It is always filled with tourists, jostling with each other for their famous ‘mojitos’. The walls of the bar are filled with celebrity autographs from non-other than Salvador Allende, Fidel Castro, Nicolás Guillén, Harry Belafonte and Nat King Cole too. We then headed towards the famous Hotel Santa Isabel, which had housed ship-owners, artists and businessmen and was converted into a hotel in 1867, and is one of the better properties to stay in. Enjoying our ride on the waterfront we soon stopped at the Plaza de San Francisco de Asis’ where the remains of some of Cuba’s best known intellectuals are buried in a seemingly unofficial graveyard. The Jardin Madre Teresa de Calcuta is located here with a lovely life-sized representation of Mother Teresa sitting on a bench. From here we were escorted to the Havana Club Museo Bar where you can get a lesson on the makings of the famous Cuban rum and taste as much as you like when touring the premises.

Source: Cuba Absolutely

We also visited the Sacra Catedral Ortodoxa Rusa which is the only Russian Orthodox Church in the city. The majestic building with its white domes stands out architecturally from the rest of the structures surrounding it. Besides the Church is the city’s natural harbor and promenade and a number of the old warehouses have now been converted into restaurants and shops and you will find the city’s largest arts and craft market here.  We shopped for hats and leather bags among other things and you may be able to get yourself a good bargain here. Outside you can also catch the sight of some very large cruise ships anchored at port with thousands of tourists descending upon the city throughout the day.

As we ambled along the water’s edge we stopped and had a late lunch at the Ciclo Cuba, a small bistro in the verandah of an old building, with large arches. We had chilled margaritas, salad and some delicious soft shelled tacos.

After lunch we decided to walk further and enjoyed ourselves ambling along admiring the beautiful buildings, gardens and monuments the city has to offer. Finally, we decided to head back to our residence as we had an early dinner evening with the best show in town to catch − the Buena Vista Social Club.

For those not lucky enough to have ever caught this act – it is a once in a lifetime experience! We arrived early at the restaurant-cum-theater as we had booked a dinner special prior to the show which included 3 drinks and a 4 course meal to begin with. Once the show began our attention was glued to the variety of singers, dancers and musicians who entertained us for the next two hours. The show began with these amazing violinists wowing the audience with their skill and soon the dancers took to the stage accompanied by the musicians in the background. However, it was the 85 year old Portuondo with her stage presence and deep voice that held the audience’s attention and got us to our feet with songs like Besame Mucho and Veinte Anos. Singers and musicians kept joining the band on stage and this variety act even got my husband to come up and perform for everyone! What a perfect way to end a dream vacation.

The next morning we were packed and ready for the airport. Wilfredo accompanied us to our taxi and as we drove through the town for the last time, we couldn’t help admire the joie de vivre of people all around us as we wistfully paid our final tribute to a life-altering experience called Havana.

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