We travelled from Trinidad to Havana by bus, on Cuba’s empty highways. They’re pot-holed and bumpy, but there isn’t any traffic. We booked the bus that left at 7am, hoping to get to Havana by lunch, but the bus didn’t turn up until 9.15. But, hey! this is Cuba.
Havana is a mixture of the breathtakingly beautiful, like this wedding cake building, recently restored
and the gut-wrenchingly awful. There are beautiful old buildings - Spanish, colonial, art-deco - but many of them are falling down.
There are gaps in the streets where some buildings have vanished and people are living in condemned tenements with cracked walls and dodgy roofs. Water pipes and electricity cables swarm up the front, snaking through windows providing supplies that can’t possibly be safe.
But there is also World Heritage money filtering in, and some of the more important buildings are being restored, like this beautiful building off the Vieja Square.
We hadn’t booked a hotel, as it’s low season here, but found that if you walk through the door you’re asked to pay double the prices quoted on the internet. The doorman at one hotel said, no problem, he had a friend called Pepe who has a casa familiares. Good room, air-conditioned, 25 CUC. Pepe came to collect us and here we are in a tiny room which has a shower cubicle in one corner, a noisy AC unit and a view out into a very real Havana street.
Pepe speaks no English and the notices pinned up have obviously been translated by Google. ‘Attention! Oily Staircase’ And ‘Please take care to dress in case of balcony’.
We checked out the Hemingway connection at the Ambros Mundo hotel, which has a beautiful roof garden with views over the city, but didn’t drink in the blatantly tourist-rip-off Hemingway bar. I found the Moderna Poesia bookshop, with lots of local authors, but no imported books at all. The best experience we had here was in the newly built Museum of Contemporary Cuban Art, opposite the Museum of the Revolution. It has ‘Granma’ - the boat that ferried Castro to Cuba - parked outside in a glass case. The paintings and sculptures in the galleries were stunning, but most of them date before 1956. Cuba used to have a vibrant artistic culture. Why do Communism and Art and Literature not go together?
Many Cubans are descended from African Slaves brought in to work the sugar and tobacco plantations. The fort at the entrance to the harbour still has the entrance used by the slavers and the guns that were used to defend against pirates. It is a grim place, once used by Che Guevara as his training camp.
The best experience was to sit in one of the squares, drinking the obligatory Mojito (they don’t do anything but rum and beer) listening to music. All the cafes have live bands. And often there was a Santeria consultant sitting at a table waiting for customers. Santeria is big here and seems to co-exist with Christianity very well. This woman was sitting right outside the cathedral.