One of the less likely destinations for visiting tourists can be found in the Ambos Mundos hotel. The rooftop bar and perhaps the experience of travelling to it in the original metal cage lift, are the draw for most, and with cold mojitos, smooth salsa and views over the city on offer from the shade of its canopies it’s an understandable choice.
Perhaps when they leave they’re a little too unsteady on their feet to venture down the stairs to the fifth floor and specifically room 511. There was no trace of other interested parties when I ventured there and no queue was building outside as I left. Nevertheless the room justifies the constant presence of permanent guardian, a white-uniformed guide who answers to your knock and for a few pesos supervises your stay in the room.
Its attraction lies in its former occupant; for this was Hemingway’s base in Cuba at one point and it is preserved in tribute to him along with various personal ephemera and of course his Remington typewriter on its height-adjustable table. (Hemingway couldn’t sit for long periods of time as a result of an array of injuries and health problems). The hotel proudly proclaims that this is where he began For Whom the Bell Tolls, the title being taken from a work by John Donne written while convalescing from serious illness. Deliberate or ironic?
Whatever the answer it seems fitting place to come to rest after my alphabetical perspective on this city don’t you think?
Nearly at the end of this alphabetical project and here is the last of my Cuban Colours, a little mellow yellow…
…and maybe not so mellow!
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!
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