Train (Habana 51)

Next week’s Havana post covers transport, but neglects to mention trains, yet as you will know if you read my Mambi post I was aware of a rail infrastructure.

So why the oversight?  Well firstly as my travels were confined to the city I had no need to investigate further, which is a pity really as major train stations often have something of interest photographically, even if they’re not all like Grand Central.  Havana’s main station, Estación Central de Ferrocarriles is no different; it’s architecture has earned it the status of being seen as a national monument.

I blame my guide-book to some extent; it’s only mention of the station being purely functional when discussing how to get to Havana.  And then there’s the location.  None of my meandering routes around the city took me to that locale, and though I was unknowingly close when I visited the cigar factory, warnings from taxi drivers about the area prompted me to head in familiar directions rather than explore randomly.

The location though does have some history attached to it.  This wasn’t always the site of the main station, the original outgrew it’s capacity and a bitter dispute arose in both government and the people as to where to locate the replacement. Ultimately a duel to the death resolved the matter and the new station was built on land formerly used as an arsenal.

The old station was actually in the grounds of the Capitol building, which is doubtless why I came upon this surprising collection there.  In a fenced off piece of waste land, in the shadow of Capitolio’s dome, I found these old locomotives and a couple of men overseeing them.  They encouraged me to take pictures of course, as it allowed them to demand a few pesos in return, but as they spoke no English I couldn’t find an explanation for them being there.  It puzzled me for some time but now I know.  Time for an update Rough Guide!Havana-3



Son (Habana 50)

No, not as in a male child.

Son as in the style of music that originated in Cuba of which Salsa is a derivative.

Cigars and rum may be obvious Cuban exports, but when the Soviet Union collapsed the country lost a vital source of overseas income.  Tourism was encouraged as a means of generating replacement funds and so naturally they turned to an example of domestic culture that is know the world over.

When Ry Cooder came calling and encountered the Buena Vista Social Club roughly a century after the style originated (from blending two different Rumba traditions) a phenomenon was created with both a best-selling album and accompanying film catapulting the members of that band to international recognition.

And now it seems that every bar has a band.  Every conversation with a Cubano references the Buena Vista Social Club.  Everyone knows where they used to play or has a connection to this musicians.

Of course you must take it with a pinch of salt, but it does give the place an amazing vibe.



Santería (Habana 49)

Culture is permeable.

Take a set of values and beliefs and transplant them into a new setting and watch how they change and evolve in unpredictable ways. Disney learnt this when they launched Euro Disney Resort in 1992.  In my experience the employees in Florida have always been positive and proactive.  Trying to recreate this in France didn’t achieve the same results.  In business terms the culture of an organisation is “the way we do things round here”.  Surly and non-committal seemed to be the outcome in Paris, and for this and variety of other reasons the operation struggled and was rebranded ten years later in an attempt to erase bad memories.

Cuba’s history features a cultural transplant that evolved too.

The import of slaves into the Caribbean meant that a variety of tribal and religious traditions were uprooted and deposited in these new lands, where Christianity, (and in Cuba’s case Roman Catholicism) was expected to supplant those traditions.

In some cases it did.  In other cases unusual blends, known as syncretic religions originated, of which Haiti’s Voodoo is probably best known.

With the majority of slaves originating from West Africa (for ease of supply onto ships heading for the New World) many Yoruba myths and beliefs made the journey.  In Cuba these developed into Santería.Havana-6


In Habana Centro, a small alley provides an incredible insight into this religion.

A single artist, Salvador Gonzáles Escalona, has taken Santería as the inspiration for a colourful transformation of murals and sculptures that has become the centre of Afro-Cuban culture in Havana.  Here small children enounter The Little Prince, not in book form, but in murals painted in bathtubs.  Rumba dancers congregate on here on Sundays.  There is a small stall selling Santería herbal remedies, and a bar serving a peculiar cocktail that I declined to sample.  Have you seen Live and Let Die?

My guide around Callejon de Hamel, which is what the alley is called, enthusiastically told how in Santería yellow was good for sexual energy.  Of course, given his outfit he would say that.  He also introduced me to this device – The Cuban Internet!



Rum (Habana 48)

No one knows for certain the origins of the word rum to describe this Caribbean spirit.  I’d always assumed that the use of the word in English meaning “out of the ordinary” might derive from the behaviour of rum drinkers, but it seems the term pre-dates the spirit.  As a result there are some that think the reverse is true and that the drink was described this way to show it as outstanding.  Unlikely.  Others think the name originates from Dutch drinking vessels, or the French word for Aroma, the Latin word for sugar or a Romani word for potent.  It doesn’t really matter.  Mention the word now and most people’s first thought will be of sugar based alcohol.Havana

Bacardi Building detail, Havana
Bacardi Building detail, Havana

Despite Bacardi’s desertion of the island before the revolution, the production of rum continues to be an important industry in Cuba; it is of course the staple of all those cocktails that I referred to earlier, but Cuba’s official rum, Havana Club, is one of the world’s best sellers thanks to a partnership between the government and Pernod.  With the easing of trade restrictions the battle with Bacardi is likely to continue, as there has been a long running dispute over ownership of the brand.  Buy a Havana Club in the US and it will be made by Bacardi, which begs the question “How can it be a Havana rum?”.  Elsewhere you’re on a safe bet that it’s the Cuban product.

Incidentally the symbol on the label of Havana Club is La Giraldilla, a weather vane that stands atop a watchtower of the Castillo de la Real Fuerza.  The statue is a symbol of the city.

Havana-2The island’s history as a producer goes back to the time of slavery and sugar plantations.  I had wrongly assumed that rum was produced using the sugar that was also refined on these plantations, but instead it is the waste from that refining that is used; the thick syrupy molasses left over after sugar crystallisation was fermented by slaves to make a drink that was quickly taken up by their entrepreneurial masters.

In contrast with sugar, where for many years the white granules were seen to be the best, most refined product, the reverse is true with rum (or ron as it is known in Spanish, hence ron Collins).  The colourless liquid mixed into so many cocktails is the most basic form of the drink.  Darker colours and flavours are developed by aging the spirit in oak casks, particularly those that have been used in the production of Scotch or Bourbon whiskey.  Bacardi only make one grade under their Havana Club label, the Cubans make several, including a limited edition of only 1000 hand-blown bottles which at the time of writing were selling at nearly £1200 each online.

It’s a rum business.


Revolution (Habana 47)

There are two defining moments in Cuba’s history; gaining independence from Spain four centuries after Columbus first claimed the island as a colony, and the revolution which came only 60 years later when they gained…

You can fill in your own blanks according to whether you see Castro as freedom fighter delivering the nation from Batista dictatorship, or simply another dictator with a contrasting set of political beliefs.  There’s also a lot of grey area between the two views.

Havana-15Before my visit I’d assumed that the most visible celebration of his victory was the Plaza de la Revolucion, but one afternoon as I was walking along looking for the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, I spied something unusual in the reflection of its doorway (no, not the photographer!).

In a small park behind me was a fighter plane and a strangely shaped glass building.  Circumnavigating it I saw that the building was surrounded by various pieces of weaponry, most of which was badly damaged, but that inside the building, guarded by men in the unmistakable green of the Cuban military, was a boat.  A boat called Granma.

Havana-14Disastrously I didn’t get pictures of any of this, for at that moment I was accosted by one of the many friendly Cubans who want to share information, advice, and guidance.  As this necessitated us adjourning to a nearby Cuban bar (very different to the tourist watering holes) Raul, and his girlfriend Elizabeth effectively distracted me from my mission, which was a shame because of the significance of the artefacts.  The weaponry and other damaged equipment was all ostensibly captured during the Bay of Pigs fiasco, and boat is revered because it is the vessel that Castro and his revolutionary force used to sail to Cuba from Mexico.  This event is another where the participants didn’t exactly achieve the glory they intended.

Havana-16This small motor yacht, designed to accommodate a dozen people was carrying 82 on its journey.  The journey took longer than expected due to navigational errors and nearly ended in running aground.  When they did reach land, it was in broad daylight rendering them vulnerable to attack from the air.  Further problems arose as the group fragmented, got lost and were betrayed by locals.  Twelve of the original party regrouped in the mountains, and remarkably achieved their goal some two years later.  Perhaps their bad luck was affecting me in my photographic omission.

English: Yacht "Granma" in the Museu...
English: Yacht “Granma” in the Museum of the Revolution in Havana Deutsch: Yacht “Granma” im Revolutionsmuseum in Havanna Español: Yate “Granma” en el Museo de la Revolución en La Habana (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Like the guerrillas, I turned tragedy into triumph of sorts however.  My route after escaping Raul’s hospitality took me to the Museum of the Revolution (adjoining the Granma exhibit).  I’d seen the dome from in the distance many times that day and had assumed it to be the cathedral.  It seems that a different sort of worship was intended.


Quixote (Habana 45)

William Shakespeare is probably the greatest writer that England has produced; more than that he is probably the greatest ever writer in the English language. Curiously he had a Spanish contemporary of similar stature, and in the same way that Shakespeare is revered not just in the UK, but also in the US, so Miguel de Cervantes is honoured in Cuba. Both New World countries fought bitter wars to gain independence from their European masters, but both clearly retained much of their original culture.

So you will find a statue of Cervantes in a small park that also bears his name in Havana Vieja. Placed here in the first decade of the 20th Century, not so long after independence was gained, it was paid for by public subscription.  There is something very wrong about the sculpture however.

Cervantes’ military knowledge comes from personal experience, and he took part in one of the most significant naval battles of the Mediterranean, the Battle of Lepanto, where the expansion of the Ottoman Empire was halted by an alliance of Catholic states in the Holy League fleet.  These galley battles were dominated by infantry forces firing crossbows and arquebus (early rifles) and Cervantes took three shots from the latter, two in the chest and one in the left arm.  A number of accounts refer to the loss of his left hand, and though it seems that it was never amputated it was certainly maimed to the point of being rendered useless.  Cervantes remarked:

“The loss of my left arm is for the greater glory of my right.”

He was 24 at the time.


But it’s not just the writer who is feted. So too are two of his heroes.

Halfway down Obispo you will find Leo D’Lazaro’s bronze of Sancho Panza borne by his long-suffering donkey. The bronze was created in the final decade of the 20th Century so creates a nice symmetry, though the two monuments couldn’t be more different in style. Reverence and Ridicule.


Of course this post couldn’t be complete without reference to Cervante’s protagonist Don Quixote. The deranged knight, to whom Sancho Panza was squire, could not be overlooked, though he is some distance away from his friend and creator. Sergio Martinez’ work features him naked astride his horse Rocinante; two gaunt figures who are each past their best. Why he is here in Vedado, near the ice cream emporium of Coppelia, is rather puzzling when you would expect this man who revered history to be in the old quarter.

What Quixotic caprice brought him here?Havana-3