Not withstanding the views expressed by others about the latin charms of Havana’s residents, or the thread on Trip Advisor about where to find romance in the city, it’s not a place that I would consider as having a lot of romantic possibilities.
Now that might say more about me than it does Havana. Perhaps I was blind to the opportunities, but I’d like to think that I do have a romantic bone or two in this body.
For me the heat and humidity caused the problem. It’s hard to feel confident of your appeal when your clothes, rather than enhancing your physical appeal, cling to everything they touch and soaked by perspiration become unflatteringly shapeless. When perfumes must battle with a mustiness that is ingrained into everything from buildings to banknotes. When you come ready seasoned with a layer of saltiness.
One of the options suggested on the Trip Advisor thread was to enjoy drinks at sunset on the patio of the Hotel Nacional, something that I did on a couple of occasions after a day of exploration in the city. On one evening a striking brunette in scarlet dress with matching lips sat at my table to write her journal for the day and we soon struck up a conversation. If Cupid did arrive with his bow and arrow he would have been disappointed. Conscious of my dishevelled and dusty appearance, and self-conscious of any possible aroma, I quickly excused myself to my room and the shower, never to see her again.
So I don’t see Rome or Paris feeling threatened by Havana, but there were others who may disagree!
Earlier in my posts about Barcelona I mentioned that the development of the city really began with the arrival of the Romans who developed a great port here and laid the foundations for the prosperous metropolis that was to spread inland. So is this a city with Roman sites to rival those of Italy? Well no. It doesn’t come close as far as I could see on my visit.
In most conurbations the medieval city might be a good place to find evidence of Roman structures that had been developed and built upon, or perhaps incorporated into the city walls, yet in Barcelona this didn’t seem to be the case. Now I’m no Mary Beard, so might well have overlooked some vital evidence, but in the Gothic Quarter there is medieval design aplenty but very little that pre-dates this. I suspect Medieval Catalonians may well have been recycling enthusiasts.
In Plaça Nova, not far from the Cathedral lay a stretch of Roman masonry which was my first discovery. Perhaps “stretch” is stretching a point. There’s a single arch, though view it from the other side and you can see two. Any Monty Python aficionado should recognise its purpose; the famous exchange from Life of Brian that answers the question “What have Romans given us?” results in a long list of achievements. A list that begins with “an aqueduct”. For those of us who take clean drinking water and sanitation for granted this might not seem much, but it’s transformative power made being part of the empire a more attractive option than simple subjugation.
Behind the cathedral I found my second structure. Along the narrow alleyway of Calle Paradis and down a few well-worn steps I found the Temple of Augustus; the very heart of the Roman City. This structure wasn’t only dedicated to Rome’s first true emperor who had been elevated to the status of god, it was also the site of the Forum in the city so would have been impressive and imposing, and in a limited sort of way it still is. Only a podium and four tall columns in the Corinthian style remain, but finding them “indoors” was quite a surprise. The rest of the temple has gone and its surrounding gardens incorporated into the cathedral complex.
Reg: All right… all right… but apart from better sanitation and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order… what have the Romans done for us?
Xerxes: Brought peace!
The Romans may have done a lot, but over the centuries it seems that their beneficiaries were less than grateful.
Perhaps it was because I wasn’t in a relationship when I went to Havana, but it seemed that many of the people I told about the trip reacted with a knowing smile and exclaimed “Ah, all the Latin beauties”. Several of these people were women too, although I suspect that Maria, who is Portuguese, was a little biased.
Personally, I wasn’t looking for romance in Cuba. A country where the degree of poverty prompts many to turn to prostitution and others to marry foreign visitors purely as a means of escape isn’t a good starting place for a lasting relationship. Those who go seeking something more casual should be aware that Cuba is also home to a particularly aggressive strain of AIDS.
So when I was joined by René for a chat under the trees of Avenida de los Presidentes the expectations of Latin beauty were far from my mind. Our conversation covered a number of subjects; food, politics, health, music before he turned to me with that same knowing smile to ask “And what do you think of Cuban women? Aren’t they just the most beautiful women you’ve seen?”
I gave the expected response, although of course it was a white lie. Perhaps I just don’t get the attraction of the “Latin” look. I’m not particularly drawn the La Guitara shape, and beyond that I wasn’t really sure who was and wasn’t Hispanic. Were those with African features local or visitors? I certainly wasn’t fooled by the caricature washer woman.
Yes there was beauty to be found in many of the young women there, but that was probably more as a result of their years than any inherent Habanero features.
So I was all set to remain unimpressed, but shortly after René left an elegant woman sat down opposite. From the white coat across her knees and the manner of her dress I’m assuming she was a medic from the nearby hospital and therefore probably Cuban.
Not my type (which ironically is the true Latin look of an Italian), but still captivating.
Old Havana was my favourite part of the city, so you can imagine that I expected to be similarly enthralled with Plaza Vieja, the Old Square. The name is slightly misleading; when this open space was first created in the mid 16th Century the Plaza de Armas was already the city’s main square, so the newcomer was unsurprisingly named Plaza Nueva then.
The plaza became home to wealthy Creole Habaneros, their balconied residences providing perfect viewpoints for the fiestas, parades, bullfights and executions that took place in the square in the centuries that followed, the changing times reflected in further changes of name. By the 18th Century it was Plaza del Mercado, Market Square.
So with all this history I had high hopes for the plaza, that it would be full of buildings like this, the art nouveau Palacio Vienna Hotel, built in 1906 and now seemingly in a state of suspended restoration.
Unfortunately my dreams were in vain.
The presence of retailers whose target market is completely at odds with a population struggling to make ends meet told me that the square’s purpose now is to cater for the wealthy tourist, the buildings repaired and repainted to a state of perfection that wouldn’t be out of place in Disney theme park. Prettified and sterile.
Still I suppose it embodies elements of its history, a new square, a plaza for the wealthy, a plaza for commerce. It just didn’t feel like a Plaza Vieja.
You can’t really consider Cuba as a country without considering the role of Uncle Sam; their intervention in the war for independence from Spain was a turning point, the consideration of Cuba become part of the Union, the influx of American investment (much of it from organised crime), their support for the Batista dictatorship until it was overthrown by Castro, the missile crisis, the Bay of Pigs, Guantanamo…
All in all the US hasn’t been a quiet and unobtrusive neighbour, though the recent rapprochement confirms that their value as a trading partner outweighs this.
Diplomatic relations were broken off in the early sixties, so for some time there was no direct representation for American interests in the country, or for Cuban interests in the U.S. although Switzerland and Czechoslovakia respectively took on some of the workload.
In 1977 Jimmy Carter’s administration took steps to improving relations with the result that US diplomats took over from the Swiss in running what was known as the United States Interests Section in Havana. (It was finally recognised as an embassy in August 2015)
Of course with the two nations still at odds politically and ideologically the building inevitably became a flashpoint. With a complete lack of diplomacy the Americans began displaying propaganda messages on the building, even installing an electronic billboard in 2006 specifically for the purpose.
Havana’s response? They’d already built the José Marti Anti-Imperialist Platform, a public space for political rallies, in front of the US Special Interests Building, so they used it to build a wall of flags, initially each with a white star on a black background to represent Cuban victims of terrorism. The flags’ role was to obscure sight-lines to the billboard.
In 2009 the billboard was removed, and the flags now fluttering are the Cuban national flag. How ironic that it should now be a wall of stars and stripes.
I may have mentioned elsewhere that I covered Havana on foot each day, but there are plenty of other ways of getting around the city.
Across the Gulf of Mexico, young Americans heading for a night out may well opt for a limo to take them partying, here it seemed there were less ostentatious options.The most obvious option for tourist of course is to take a taxi, and from the immaculately preserved fleet of 50’s American classics to the fibreglass sphere of a coco-taxi there are options to suit every wallet.
Something a little more ecologically sound? How about the rickshaw option?
On the plus side you get to take in more of the atmosphere of the streets around you, the sounds, the smells, but that’s also the downside when those smells are emanating from the guy out front who’s working up a sweat powering you, himself and his machine around in very humid conditions. Of course he may get the chance to freshen up a little if it rains.
Of course I wouldn’t write off cycling altogether. With a lighter passenger it could work… so long as those lighter passengers don’t provide too much of a distraction with all of their flapping along the way. I hope the goat hanging from the box behind him had already been slaughtered.
Something more lightweight still? How about the portable option of a pair of skates? They do need a certain amount of bravado to carry off successfully, much like the outfit and haircut, and given what I’ve said previously about the state of many of the pavements, I suppose hazard evasion skills have to be learned pretty early.
Still haven’t found the option for you?
Well then I have only one more option.
You’ll need to be small. And lightweight too. If you can meet these criteria than this is the most personal mode of transport going and it has the added benefit of allowing you to snooze along the way. Not sure how much choice you get over the destination though!
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!
Tower of the Havana telecoms building in the background