Sunday, April 15, 2018

Havana Good Time

We took a couple of bus trips into Varadero to see the sights and do some souvenir shopping, but our only other outing was a day tour of Havana.

Havana is about 90 minutes drive from Varadero, but took about 2 hours with all the resort stops to gather the other tourists. Our driver, Julio, regaled us with tales of Cuba's people and history for the entire ride, and we stopped at the midway point to marvel at Cuba's highest bridge (112 m) at Bacunayagua, and to enjoy a pina colada served in a fresh pineapple.

We spent more time in the parking lot than the souvenir stands there, admiring the classic cars that canny and imaginative Cuban mechanics still keep rolling nearly 60 years after the last shipment of American parts.

The Bacunayagua bridge was actually engineered by the French, but along the way, Julio pointed out a number of other infrastructure projects (power stations in particular) built during Cuba's close association with Russia, or "Mama Roo-see-ya" as he put it. Russian tourists still make a point of journeying to Cuba, and there were a few posters with Cyrillic lettering in our hotel. The lobby clock even featured Moscow alongside Madrid and Havana:

Once in Havana, we stopped to look over the city and see the enormous marble Jesus statue (3rd largest in the world, I believe) that stands over the harbour.

And a cruise ship that seemed to dwarf even the city itself...

We toured New Havana first, seeing the massive expansion of the early 20th century, and the Hotel Sevilla where Al Capone would stay while in Havana, taking the entire 6th floor for his retinue.

The opulence and craftsmanship of this period is astonishing, right down the the tilework in the lobby.

How incongruous then to see the Revolutionary Museum right across the street. We had no time to go in but through the window, we could see the now-legendary yacht, The Granma. This tiny cabin cruiser took the Castros, Che Gueverra and nearly 80 other rebels from Mexico to Cuba to begin the overthrow of Batista and is now practically enshrined. The tanks, missiles and planes (British Sea Furies, actually) from the Bay of Pigs invasion are also displayed.

Most of Cuba enjoys a - let's call it 'relaxed' attitude to upkeep, and it would be easy to describe a lot of the buildings we saw as shabby by Canadian standards. On the other hand, no one in Havana is likely to freeze to death in December, so some of that attitude is understandable, and of course, they are still cleaning up after Hurricane Irma just last year.

The contrast between these two perpendicular streets was so striking I felt I had to get a picture of them; one looking like a postcard, the other almost post-apocalyptic, separated by 90 degrees and almost as many feet.

Our last stop in New Havana was the Revolutionary Plaza, the immense square where Fidel Castro delivered so many speeches at the foot of the Jose Marti Memorial. One of them went for over 7 hours, we were told!

Directly opposite the memorial stands the Ministry of the Interior building with an enormous depiction of Che, still revered here in a way that would make Elvis jealous.

After the plaza it was time for lunch at La Pina de Plata, with time for a delicious daiquiri made at the same bar that made them for Hemingway. The daiquiri originated in Cuba, and is named after a beach and iron mine near Santiago de Cuba, so we felt kind of obligated to have one there (but I would have had more, given the time and opportunity).

Shortly after this, we stopped in at the Rome y Julieta cigar factory, which Julio assured us was the only way to get proper "Habanos" despite the nearly constant offerings from helpful folks on the street, trying to catch your ear with a conspiratorial whisper. This, we were told, was a good way to get a masterfully wrapped collection of banana leaves, if that happened to be your thing. We got a couple for gifts, and I held a Cohiba back for myself, on the odd chance I get brave enough to try it at some point.

After that, it was on to Old Havana, skipping the 19th century completely and seeing buildings that went back all the way to the 16th, and the original Spanish colonists.

The former governor's mansion is now a civic museum, and elegant building that had me thinking I had wandered into a bonus level for Uncharted or some such.

Just outside the museum, Julio showed us how the governor dealt with what he felt to be excessively noisy horse's hooves: a road cobbled with wood instead of stone, maybe the only one in the world.

Inside we barely had enough time to take in all the artifacts, from the two enormous marble bathtubs they brought over from Europe to the mahogany Jesus and other religious items from the original cathedral.

The cathedral stands empty in the old town square now. Castro himself was Catholic, but his insistence upon a firm division between church and state upset the diocese of the day and they left.

Our guide, like most modern Cubans, is a non-believer, but says there has been a bit of a resurgence due to two recent papal visits: Francis in 2015 and Benedict (who he jokingly referred to as "Ex-Benedict" due to his retirement) in 2012. John Paul II visited there in 1998 as well, the first since the revolution.

In addition to that though, there is also a new blossoming of Afro-Cuban religious beliefs, including Santeria. Two practitioners sat in the square as we finished our tour, reading palms, telling fortunes, offering a variety of intercessions.

Like most other things we saw in Havana, they mixed the old and the new adroitly.

If we should ever return to Cuba, I intend to spend much more time in Havana, having lost most of our free time frantically searching for a power adapter for my CPAP machine. It is a fascinating city with an intriguing history I would love to learn more about.

Plus, you know, daiquiris.

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