¡ Viva Cuba !

Tuesday 5th January 2010


We slept in this morning, partly because we were shattered after the last two days and partly because breakfast at the Hotel Ambos Mundos wasn't exactly a reason to get out of bed for. Whilst lying in our collapsed bed listening to Radio Rebelde Julie switched on her mobile phone to a flurry of text messages.

Hannah had sent a message a couple of hours ago saying "It's snowing heavily. Couldn't get Tyler to nursery. Cars slipping all over the place." Her last text said "On my way to pick up Rory from school. It's snowing heavier and heavier."

Havana, Cuba

When Julie realised that it was sent over an hour ago she began to descend into complete dread of the next message. She tried phoning but there was no answer. "What if she's stranded in the snow with the two kids?" She was literally shaking with worry.

We went up for breakfast partly because we'd already paid for it and partly because it was a distraction, although not enough for Julie as she just couldn't bring herself to eat. I made myself a cheese sandwich and popped in two boiled eggs. I was beginning to acquire a real liking for boiled eggs.

Picking them up with my hands and eating them like one would an apple reminded me of a film about a gay Cuban poet Reinaldo Arenas called Before The Night Falls. Javier Bardem played the main character and he noticeably ate a lot of boiled eggs in the film. In fact that's all I remember from it; that and a strangely brilliant Johnny Depp performance.

It was another grey day over Havana, if anything it felt colder. The flags were flapping in the chilly breeze.

Overlooking the city on the other side of the Canal de Entrada was the Christ of Havana, a twenty metre tall statue built from Italian Carrara marble.

Apparently it was officially unveiled fifteen days before Fidel Castro victoriously entered the city on the 8th of January 1959. On that same day the statue was struck by lightning destroying the head. Spooky coincidence or a holy sign?

We returned to our room, the day put on hold until we heard some news from home. Julie was now inconsolable with worry. She kept on trying Hannah's mobile phone and with each unanswered call she sunk further into fear of what could be.

Finally she got through, Hannah answered. She was in Tesco buying a sledge!

With enormous relief the day was allowed to begin. We didn't have far to go for our first attraction on today's itinerary. In fact it was just one floor up.

On the fifth floor of Hotel Ambos Mundos, room 511 to be exact. This was Ernest Hemingway's room.

We stood outside briefly as the door was locked. There was however a bunch of keys in the lock. Temptation got the better of me and I turned the key, slowly opening the door.

We stepped inside but there was no one there. All of a sudden a flustered curator rushed in spotting her uninvited guests, "Hola, Hola, Hello".

We thought we were in trouble but she just opened up the shutters to let in the light and with a smile began her tour of the little L-shaped room.

It didn't take her long to show us around the main features of the room such as his bed, his display cabinet , his desk with his typewriter looking out onto a lovely view over Havana.

For Whom The Bell Tolls would have been partly written here. "I must read that one day" I told myself.

She then drew our attention to the many photographs on the wall. They were apparently rotated regularly and the current theme was the Women of Hemingway.

He was married four times, all American women yet he had a constant flow of international affairs in between.

"He had lovers of many nationalities" explained our guide pointing to a photograph of him with a German lady, "German, Italian, Spanish."

"He was quite the collector." I added.

She found that funny and repeated it to herself as if she was storing it away to use for her next group of tourists.

We thanked her and paid a small fee for her services.

We left Hotel Ambos Mundos and walked down the street to the oldest square in Havana, Plaza Armas. It's as old as the city as it was here that Havana was founded in 1514 (although it was known as San Cristobal back then.)

Parque Cespedes, the green centre of the square, was surrounded by second-hand book stalls.

Its no surprise that most books were revolutionary related.

We were aiming for the northern corner of the square to where the Castillo de la Real Fuerza stood.

The impregnable fortress was quite an impressive sight. It was built to protect the fledging city from swashbuckling pirates that terrorised the Caribbean during the late 16th century.

As the city grew it turned out to be an useless defence as it was badly positioned.

Another castillo (del Morro) was soon built in a more strategic position.

Despite the "drawbridge" being a very solid construction Julie was petrified of walking over it to cross the murky waters of the moat.

Castillo de la Real Fuerza had only recently been re-opened to the public after an extensive renovation and it looked magnificent. The rooms looked almost as good as new.
We walked through the windowless rooms enjoying the exhibition with mild interest, trying to translate the Spanish descriptions beneath the items. Things got a little more exciting when we came to the treasury.

Once the Spanish realised the castillo was not best located for keeping the pirates out it was then given responsibility to protect the city's treasures behind its thick walls.

On display were gold and silver coins, real proper doubloons and "pieces of eight" of legend, all retrieved from the treasure chests of sunken ships.

Tales of Blackbeard and Henry Morgan filled my imagination as we continued up a stone staircase past cannonballs and reinforced chests and up onto the rooftop.

It was here we got a closer look at one of Havana's more recognisable symbols, the La Giraldilla weather vane. (recognisable only because the little bronze statue is always found on the label of Havana Club rum!)

The one positioned on top of the lookout tower was now just a copy.

The original according to our guidebook was kept in the Palacio des los Capitan Generales but it looked very much like they had now moved it back here, to the castillo. Although for a four hundred year old brass statue it looked in very good condition.

Up to now we had stumbled around the castle museum on a self-guided journey although in every room there was always a member of staff keeping an eye on us.

We entered the final section, a room filled with nautical equipment such as telescopes, plumb weights and sextants to navigate by the stars.

A member of staff in the corner wasn't content to just let us guess our way through the items on display and decided to give us a little tour. Whilst her English was as non-existent as our Spanish it did make for a more interesting guessing game.

She rambled on in Spanish and we nodded attentively. She would occasionally stop to ask us a question and we would shrug and look back at her vacantly. She then carried on regardless.

Kept behind lock and key was a very impressive model of a tall ship. We could only peek at it through the bars of the heavy iron doors. Larger than the actual opening into the vault it was like a super-sized ship in the bottle. There were a lot of other model ships here, H.M.S. Victory was peculiarly one of them. I wasn't aware of it being involved in any campaigns to the West Indies.

Our informative guia continued her tale and talked about the "Battle of Trafalgar" (which we understood) of when the British trounced the Spanish Armada.

I'm sure she put a "sad" face on when she was talking about the history. I somehow felt as if I had to apologise to her personally on behalf of the British people. To soften the blow and bring a smile back to her face we tipped her a $1 for her kind if illegible services and we left Castillo de la Real Fuerza.

As we crossed the drawbridge Julie spotted this amazing bird. It looked like a Kingfisher but much larger than I imagined one to be.

I went all "Bill Odie" as the ornithologist inside of me came swooping out and I got quite excited trying to take its photograph. Although we had to get off the wooden bridge and onto solid ground before we could stop and take a closer look.

Back onto Plaza del Armas we walked past a small neo-classical building called El Templete. It stood on the spot where apparently the first local government of Havana met and where the city was blessed by the Bishop at the city's first mass.

The little Greek temple looked out of place amongst the rest of the colonial architecture.

We decided it was time for a sit down when we came across Bar El Globo, the lovely patio of the Hotel Santa Isabel overlooking the square. We ordered a coffee and watched the flower girls ply their trade on unsuspecting tourist walking across Plaza del Armas.

We almost had the patio to ourselves as we relaxed and people watched. The idyllic moment was unfortunately spoilt by a sequence of events. First, when the cold and awful tasting coffee arrived.

It then got worse when a 30 plus tour group flooded the patio completely submerging us in Canadians.

Then we were hit with the extortionate $6 price tag for the insipid coffee.

We walked away muttering to ourselves. "We're not bloody going back there!"

We left the square along Calle Oficios soon ending up in another one called Plaza de San Francisco.

This was a large open space separated from the port by a busy road. There were a couple cafes spilling out onto the cobbled square and several horse and carts lined up waiting to take tourists for a ride but it lacked the atmosphere of the other plazas we had seen.

It did have a fountain just off centre called the Fuente de los Leones. It didn't appear it have any water flowing so we didn't pay it much attention.

At the far end of the square stood the Basilica de San Francisco de Asis with its tall tower. The church and Franciscan monastery were built between the 17th and 18th century.

Facing the square was a statue of what appeared to be a young indigenous Indian boy standing in the protection of St. Francis waving his cross to ward off evil.

We continued our meticulously planned walking tour of old Havana and turned towards a square that has recently had millions of dollars spent on its renovation.

When we entered Plaza Vieja we were blown away by its staggering beauty.

Restored to its former glory with the income from tourism Plaza Vieja was in such contrast to the rest of Havana, so colourful, vibrant and new!

Brightly painted colonial buildings in vivid yellow and pastel blues and striking art nouveau buildings created such an uplifting space. Lines of cannonballs then created an inner square within the perfectly paved plaza. In its centre a replica of the original fountain which was destroyed in the 50s when a huge car park was built here.

I couldn't help think that it looked like a film set for a 17th century period drama. It was just so perfect.

As charming as the ramshackle decaying buildings of Havana were it was wonderful to see how they were supposed to look.

It was time for lunch so we walked across the Plaza Vieja to the south western corner to find La Taberna de la Muralla, the city's only micro-brewery. It's an interesting joint venture with an Austrian beer company and it produces several varieties of authentic pilsner lager.

We sat down and browsed their menu. Unsurprisingly I didn't have much choice. When Bavarian and Spanish cultures collide the vegetarian has got a bulls chance in the ring of finding anything to eat!

There was a large charcoal barbecue in the corner busy churning our chargrilled meat kebabs on skewers that we served very decoratively suspended on a cast iron stand.

Another whacky serving suggestion was how they presented their lager.

You could buy the beer of your choice in a three litre tube!

The equivalent of six jars it was over three feet tall and placed on the table in front of you for you and your three friends to serve yourselves from little taps at the base. They looked ridiculous yet we so wanted one.

We didn't. Three pints each for lunch would have been a really really bad idea.

Julie didn't go for the swinging kebabs either, choosing instead a tasty chargrilled chicken fillet that was roadkill flat and barbecued. I went for an amalgamation of side orders to fill my plate. A salad of vegetables, (read - shredded cabbage), plantain chips (or crisps as we know it) and patatas rellenas (potato croquettes) which I was most looking forward to but ultimately had to give to Julie as the little flecks of ham would have aggravated my vegetarianism. So basically I ended up with a crisp salad sandwich.

At least the beer was good.

We sat and relaxed at our table for a while, people watching, being serenaded by the house band whilst our food digested.

Once we decided on our next move we left Plaza Vieja out past the incredible art noveau facade of Palacio Cueto. It was undergoing major surgery at the moment and was nothing but an empty shell.

A sign outside said that it was going to be a 58 room 4 star hotel.

"If we come back to Havana we'll have to stay here" said Julie.


We were on our way to the Havana Club Foundation and its rum museum. It was only a short distance away on calle San Pedro.

We paid our $5 entry fee and joined a small group from Norway, a mother and three daughters, for the next scheduled tour. (Julie and I joked that they must all have had different fathers as they looked so randomly different!)

The tour began when I was asked to ring a bell to start the day's shift. Taking my job seriously I almost ripped the bell off the wall as I yanked the cord to knock the donger against the bell.

Once the ringing in our ears had stopped the six of us followed our guide up the stone stairs to the first room of rum related artefacts.

She was half way through explaining that the barrels used for Havana Club were recycled Canadian whisky barrels when a large group of late comers arrived swelling the group from an intimate six to a slightly unmanageable twenty one.

We walked through to the next room which was filled with black and white photographs of sugar cane plantations and a selection of harvesting tools.

Unfortunately standing at the back of the group we could hardly hear a thing she was saying which was a little disappointing.

At least being at the back meant we were the first into the next room as we followed our guide into a dark room. When she switched on the lights a scale model of a plantation came to life complete with a model steam train!

It filled the room. What a great train set.

"I want one for Xmas!" I joked.

We all walked upstairs for a better view.

We were stood much nearer to her now and could hear her explain the fermentation and distillation process. How yeast and molasses are added to water and left to ferment in huge wooden vats. We had walked past a couple of these huge barrels. The room did smell sickly sweet but I don't think they were actively making rum here.

Back down the stairs we then saw the copper distillery and then the ageing barrels where our guide described the various rums available such as Anejo Blanco the white rum, then rums aged over 3, 7 and 15 years each one darkening with its maturity. Then they had their Especial, Reserva and Barrel Proof bottles, quite a selection.

It was quite interesting how she explained that a bottle of Anejo 7 Anos for example would actually be a mix of varying aged rums carefully blended by the Mastero Ronero to get the correct balance and that it's the average age of the blend that would be seven years.
We moved on down a spiralling staircase to the museum's bar where we were all given a taster of the seven year rum.

Julie did have a sip despite not being much of a spirit drinker, although I had to finish it for her.

We left through the museum shop where we could have bought all the rums on their books including a very expensive bottle of Havana Club Maximo Extra Anejo that came in an elegant crystal decanter and displayed in its own dedicated cabinet. We didn't buy any.

On our way back towards our hotel on a short side street called Churruca we came across a train carriage set up on a plinth.

It looked like it should be open to the public and having already walked inside Hemmingway's room uninvited we didn't think twice about climbing up the steps and inside.

It was free to enter and waiting inside was a charming old lady who spoke only Spanish. She showed us the various rooms on this presidential train explaining to us the best she could about the history of the Coche Mambi.

The palace on wheels had a formal dinning room, a fully functioning kitchen, two bedrooms, one for il Presidente and one for Mrs. Presidente.

It was very fascinating to see.

The highlight of the tour was the guide herself. She was ever so sweet.

We tipped her a $1 which she graciously accepted with a bow of the head.

Continuing our route back towards our hotel up Calle Mercades we walked past the Museo del Chocolate. It looked more like a sweet shop & cafe rather than a museum but it was very popular with the locals with quite a queue forming outside. We didn't hang around but promised that we'd try again later when it's less busy.

A little further up we came across this old fella sat in a doorway. His face weathered and leathered and with an old sea dog beard he looked quite a character. Wearing a black beret and chewing on a cigar he was a classic photo op not to be missed.

His credentials were further enhanced by a copy of a Lonely Planet guide placed to his right with his face on the cover.

It was quite exciting to photograph the face of Cuba.

After just a crisp sandwich it wasn't long before I was beginning to feel famished so we decided to find something for me to eat.
We weren't far from Cafe Paris and remembered that they had a few things that I could eat on their menu. We sat down, listened to the band and ordered food.

The staff on duty this afternoon were perfectly Parisian, they must have been classically trained by the best French waiters as their service was especially surly and rude!

Having been barked at and rushed into a decision the Pasta Napolitano was a disappointing bowl of short cut spaghetti with ketchup. It wasn't all bad. At least the band was good and the bottle of Cristal beer was nicely chilled.

We sat and listened to the band for a while before deciding it was time to smoke my first cigar.

I didn't want to light up just anywhere. I wanted to choose my location wisely. It's all about making memories, so let's make it a good one.

So I had decided on the perfect place to smoke my San Cristobal La Habana cigar and where better than sat on the steps in Plaza de la Catedral looking directly at Catedral de San Cristobal.

It was only a short distance away. We sat down outside the Museo de Arte Colonial and I got ready to smoke.

I lit the match, held it to the end and began sucking in short burst. Within half a dozen puffs I had started a fire and smoke came billowing out of my mouth. It felt good in a very primeval way.

It wasn't an altogether pleasant experience however. The mellow aroma was quite deceiving as my mouth was filled with a bitter taste. As I wasn't inclined to swallow my mouth was rapidly filling with spit which I had to gob discreetly onto the floor at regular intervals.

"Good cigar?" asked a construction worker busy wheeling rubble out of the building next door.

"Oh yes" I said waiting for him to go before spitting on the floor again.

I was beginning to feel a little sick so I decided to stop self-inflicting and carefully stubbed out the cigar. I still had two thirds left so I wrapped it back up and put it back in my bag.

"Is that safe?!" shrieked Julie "watch your bag doesn't burst into flames!" She can always be trusted to find the worse case scenario!

We left the pool of saliva behind and walked across the plaza towards the cathedral.

Sat in the corner near El Patio restaurant was a lady dressed in all white reading tarot cards and sea shells whilst chewing on an unlit cigar.

I imagined that she was a high priestess of the Santeria faith a religion blended from Spanish Catholicism and African beliefs.

She was very animated waving her finger at the punter who had just paid to be told what the future holds, that they should drink less rum and eat more shredded cabbage or something like that.

We popped inside the cathedral very briefly to have a look at the interior. It obviously lacked the impact of the glorious exterior but it was worth catching a quick glimpse.

We were feeling like it was siesta time but before returning to our hotel we headed towards Castillo del Morro or at least as near as we could standing on Avenue del Puerto.

It was built in the perfect position to protect the entrance to the port, overlooking the bay and the mouth of the river.

We looked over the water towards the fortress watching the waves crash against the rocks below.

I read that it was here, just beyond the moat, that the Soviet missiles were stored during the Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962, symbolically "protecting" the country and bringing the world to the brink of a nuclear holocaust.

It was possible to visit the fort but we were quite content with the view from afar.

Just as we left our vantage point a wave splashed over sea walls soaking where we had just stood.

"That was lucky" said Julie "more than lucky!" we said in unison mimicking another TV advert catchphrase.

Judging by the rows of empty coaches this area seemed to be a popular drop off point for the day trippers. There were also one or two cafe shacks set up along the embankment.

We slowly walked back down Avenue del Puerto being more aware that the puddles on the pavement were potential soaking hazards.

Then out of nowhere this huge brown pelican flew past.

"Wow" I gasped "look at that!"

I got so excited that I actually embarrassed myself.

Fortunately only Julie was within earshot but at least it was a bird worthy of wetting myself. It was a magnificent big bird.

It looked like a pterodactyl with its unfeasibly large beak and a truly prehistoric face. Defying gravity the hulk of a bird coasted past heading out towards the bay. I looked on in mouth opened amazement.

We were by now very tired and ready for our customary siesta so we decided to head straight back to Hotel Ambos Mundos.

At the spot where a statue of Neptune stood we crossed back inland into the old town of La Habana Vieja and back to where we had started this morning, Plaza Armas.

It had gone 5pm but the book stalls were still set up. We didn't spend any time browsing but we did stop at one where a ginger cat had settled down for its own siesta.
Down Calle Obispo we stopped again to take a photo of a postbox. It may seem an odd thing to do but it's become one of these things that I do on holiday.

It wasn't for me, no, I have no interest in post boxes, of course I haven't, that would be just silly. It was for my father who has a thing about anything postal. I have to admit though this one was pretty cool as post boxes go. It reminded me of the Bocca della Verita in Rome only that was a drain cover not a letter box.

When we eventually reached Hotel Ambos Mundos we were so tired we went straight up to our room, switched on Radio Rebelde and fell fast asleep. It was a deep sleep that took us three hours to resurface. If it wasn't for hunger we would have rolled over and gone back to sleep.

Furry mouthed and disorientated we got up and stumbled out for some food. We chose a restaurant that came recommended for their choice for vegetarians. It was in Hotel Floridana on Calle Obispo. When we got there it looked quite formal and starchy, quite uninviting and was completely empty. Despite being starving we decided to find somewhere else.

Second on our list was a place called El Meson de la Flota, the complete opposite of Hotel Floridana with rustic charm and a lively atmosphere. When we arrived there the place was rocking with a flamenco show in progress. A big guy on the door stopped us from going in, it was full. We were having no luck tonight! We liked the look of here and tried to book for tomorrow "Reserva manyana?" I asked and he handed me a leaflet pointing to the telephone number.

Back up Calle Mercades we walked to Plaza de Catedral for our third choice restaurant El Patio. We sat down at a table in what I guess was El Patio's patio. A waitress came over with the menu which had some tasty sounding dishes for Julie but my only choice was a vegetable salad.

I was prepared to eat shredded cabbage so at least Julie could have a nice meal but she didn't want me to do without. So we left, leaving behind a very bemused waitress.

We had exhausted our list of options and ended up returning to our local bar, Cafe Paris. At least we knew what was on their menu.

The resident band Corazones de Fuego were playing again tonight. It was really busy again tonight. We had to wait a while for a table to become vacant. With our top 3 shortlist failing us we weren't going anywhere.

Eventually a table right alongside the band became free and we pounced. We ordered food immediately.

I'd like to say that it was worth the wait but my spongy bland greasy pizza marguerita wasn't good. At least I wasn't hungry afterwards.

Julie's food was a little better. She had Chicken Creole, chicken coated in a dark spice a bit similar to KFC.

Once we had eaten we stayed and had a Daiquiri each. The ones they made here were almost like dessert.

The ice had been blended so much that it had began to get the consistency of ice cream! I ended up scooping it up with a spoon rather than suck it through a straw.

The band were on fire and there was a really great atmosphere inside.

One or two couples got up to dance which was quite entertaining until we realised that one of the women was absolutely shit faced drunk, then it became a bit embarrassing.

During the intermission we decided to buy their CD for $10 as a reminder of our Havana nights. We still had ice in our daiquiri glasses as they began their second set.

In one song during the saxophone solo the saxophonist stepped up to this table where a solitary woman sat. I'm assuming that she was his girlfriend because he stood inches away serenading her with his big brass instrument.

My God that must have been loud but she seemed to like it in her face.

"There's a lot of love in this room" said Julie with a wicked smile.

We stayed until the end of their performance before returning to the lobby bar of Hotel Ambos Mundos for one more Daiquiri before bed.

The musical evening continued as a quartet, featuring a blind guitarist, walked in off the streets and set up to sing a few Buena Vista Social Club classics.

Our long siesta this afternoon had recharged us so much that could have stayed up all night.

We were overcome with sensibility and before we found ourselves dancing in the lobby we headed for bed.

With a few measures of Dutch courage inside her Julie was perfectly happy to take the old shaky Otis elevator up to the fourth floor. Shortly after midnight we slumped into our broken bed.

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