¡ Viva Cuba !

Wednesday 6th January 2010

 

We struggled to get up this morning. Not just because we were in a heap in the middle of our broken bed but we woke up still feeling extremely tired.

We made breakfast in time, although that was debateable. They served breakfast from 7am to 10:30am and we arrived with twenty minutes to spare. Yet there was hardly anything left to eat and what was left was stone cold. Nothing was being replenished either as the service was winding down.

I struck it lucky though when I uncovered the last two boiled eggs submerged in the murky warm water.

I ate them as I did yesterday, holding one in my hand, taking a big bite off the top, salting the yolk slightly, then popping the remainder in my mouth. It's so fortunate that I like boiled eggs. I would have been a little hungry if I didn't.

Suddenly a waiter appeared, placed an omelette in front of a guest sitting next to us then disappeared in a flash. I wish I had known they made omelette to order but now that I was in possession of that priceless information I couldn't see anyone to order one!

It was a very blustery morning today. What with the wind chill factor up here on the rooftop terrace the temperature could actually be described as bloody cold.

At least there were frequent gaps in the clouds through which brilliant sunshine brightened up the city; little rays of hope for a better day.

Before leaving the terrace we had a closer look at a strange piece of artwork in the corner.

It was very dramatic.

Six tormented baby faced angels flew out of the wall bursting out through wooden doors. It felt a very dark and sinister piece. It was such a peculiar thing to have in hotel roof top terrace. We were at a lost in guessing what the hell it represented?

We returned to our room to get everything for our day. The plan was to catch a taxi out to Plaza de la Revolucion and walk slowly back.

It's interesting how our roles reverse when we're on vacation. I take on the responsibility of organising the day and carrying the cash where as at home Julie takes the lead.

A short distance away, just behind Castillo de la Real Fuerza, there was a taxi rank and after a slight confusion we got into one. It wasn't a 50s classic car just a normal old Peugeot.

Our driver spoke very good English and he talked most of the 15 minutes it took to get to the square.

His name was Jose and he was born in Santa Clara. He moved to Havana with his family when he was about 10 years old. When we told him that we were hoping to get to Trinidad & Santa Clara on our trip he said "Ah, Trinidad is beautiful but Santa Clara is nothing special". He hadn't totally turned his back on his hometown as he went on to explain that he always supported Santa Clara in the baseball league even when they play against Havana.

He charged $6 for the trip, we gave him $8 for being so likeable.

We stepped out onto the large void of Plaza de la Revolucion. It wasn't the most attractive of squares. The expanse looked more like a huge empty car park complete with classic seventies carbuncles to the right and a huge concrete tower to the left. It was at least an useful square for mass gatherings and rallies which often occur in Cuba to celebrate one anniversary or another. I'd never seen so many streets named after some momentous date in history, 27 de Novembre, 20 de Mayo, 19 de Mayo.

Che Guevara facade of the Ministerio del Interior., Havana

Despite the disappointing panorama there was however one iconic image that we all come here to see, the bronze wire image of Che Guevara on the facade of the Ministerio del Interior.

It was the familiar pose of Alberto Korda's photo, the Guerrillero Heroico, with the words "Hasta le victoria siempre" (keep striving for victory) below it.

I was surprised to see another image on an adjacent building. The Ministerio del Comuniciones had only recently been decorated with the image of Camillo Cienfuegos, the other hero of the revolution.

Camillo Cienfuegos facade of the Ministerio del Comuniciones, Havana

Below it were the words "Vas bien Fidel" (you're doing fine Fidel)

It had been commissioned to commemorate the 50th anniversary of his death. His untimely end happened in October 1959 when his light aircraft disappeared from radar over the sea near Camagüey province. I read that here in Cuba Camillo Cienfuegos is held in higher regard than even Che Guevara.

We took a few photographs of the guerrilla twins then turned our attention to this colossal tower behind us. The impressive Jose Marti Memorial was 109m tall standing on a 30m hill and was actually constructed from grey marble, not concrete.

Che Guevara facade of the Ministerio del Interior., Havana

The five-pointed star rose up into a pinnacle and looked like something from Gotham city. Work began in 1953 on the 100th anniversary of Jose Marti's birth and it was completed by a pre-revolutionary 1958.

At its base there was a 60ft statue of a very pensive Jose Marti carved from white marble. We walked towards the memorial to have a closer look but were prevented from getting any nearer by a soldier who politely indicated that we should wait.
Jose Marti Memorial, Havana
Jose Marti Memorial, Havana

We could see from here that there was a service taking place.

There wasn't a large crowd but it all seemed very official.

"Do you think Fidel is up there?" asked Julie. I doubted it as Fidel Castro hadn't been seen in public since 2006 but maybe his brother Raul was up there.

We watched as two soldiers goose stepped along with a very large wreath, placing it down at the base of the memorial. A few minutes later the dignitaries began to disperse and we were allowed to make our way up.
There were still a few guests milling around by the time we reached the top of the hill, party members and army generals, but no one we recognise.

Not that I would know what Raul Castro looked like if we fell over him!

We tried to enter the Jose Marti memorial but had to buy our tickets first from a portakabin around the corner. I paid one lady $4 price of admission then had to pay another lady in a separate booth the $2 photo charge.

Jose Marti Memorial, Havana

Jose Marti Memorial, Havana

We returned back to the memorial entrance where we were refused entry yet again.

This time he pointed to my bag.

We had to go back to the portakabin to hand over the bag before trying for a third attempt. It was a case of third time lucky and we were finally inside.

We practically had the place to ourselves. A group of Russian tourists had just got into the elevator to ascend to the top of the tower leaving us as the only visitors in the whole museum.

We walked around the exhibition anti-clockwise. It was split into five areas, filling the gaps between the five-pointed star shape of the tower.

Two parts were filled with mementoes and photographs of Jose Marti which were mildly interesting. They would have been much more interesting if we had a better grasp of Spanish. We amused ourselves instead by playing "Where's Jose" in several of the group photos.

The third section focused on the history of Plaza de la Revloucion and the construction of the memorial.

The image I will remember the most was one taken from the top of the tower looking down on the plaza during a May Day speech. There must have been hundreds of thousands of people crammed into the square.

The final section was a space filled with artwork from what we assumed to be local children of Havana. It wouldn't have surprised me however if we had discovered later that they were serious contemporary Cuban artists that just looked like a child had drawn them!

Having completed a full circle we came back to the front door, the fifth segment, which was where the elevator was located.

We stood next to a bronze bust of Jose Marti whilst Julie fought her fears. She wanted to do it, if only to share in the experience, but she struggled. Shaking she took a deep breath and followed me inside the small chamber that was about to rocket upwards.

"Hola" said a woman sitting on a stool inside the lift.

She then pressed her finger on the number 3, the highest numbered button.

Julie thought this was a bit odd and began to fret that the lift was actually a second hand elevator installed from a three storey house. We began to fly up the tower.

She noticed that the lift attendant was permanently holding her finger on the No.3 button and naturally she began to worry "What if her finger slipped? Would the elevator stop halfway? Or worse would we plummet back down to our deaths?" "Oh no, we're doomed"

Whilst holding down the number three she explained that we were travelling up the equivalent of forty floors. That didn't help Julie. She also looked at us as if we were mad to be wearing shorts & T-shirts in such cold weather.

It was with huge relief for Julie we reached the top and the doors opened. She couldn't get out of there quick enough. Although after stepping our her calmness was not restored as the realisation of where she was hit her, 358 ft up in a small room with big windows.

The views from here were certainly worth the effort. I wouldn't be surprised that on a clear day, which today certainly wasn't, that you could see Florida from here.

I could see beyond the Plaza de la Revolucion below landmark hotels such as Habana Libre and the Nacional. Our plan was to walk in that direction towards the sea front.

The views over Habana Vieja, the old town, were fantastic. Despite the cloud and scratched opaque windows I could clearly see familiar sights. Rising above it all was the dome of the Capitolio and just before it the wedding cake top of the Edifico Telegraffico.

The urban sprawl and mish mash of buildings took the breath away.

It was quite dizzying.

The Jose Marti tower had maintained its star shape up here. Julie remained in the centre unable to walk out along the narrow arms pointing outwards in five separate directions.

To the south the tower overlooked the Palacio de Gobierno the current seat of government.

Beyond that down Avenue de la Independencia was the dome of Cuidad Deportiva, Havana's sports arena.

 

As Julie slowly became acclimatised to the altitude she gathered confidence enough to shuffle out a little and take a look at a signpost on the floor. It pointed North and then the direction and distance to several cities thousands of kilometres away such as Moscow, Warsaw, Berlin, Jerusalem, London, San Francisco and Pinar del Rio 158km away.

She'd been staring at the floor the whole time but then lifted her gaze slightly and looked out the window.

"Oh my God" she said before freezing to the spot. "Is the tower swaying?"

It was of course Julie who was swaying not the tower. I stepped up to steady her and moved her along towards a seat. "Look at the floor" I said and before she knew it she had been coaxed to the furthest point of the eastern pointing arm.

She indulged me as I walked away to take her photo. I actually felt a bit guilty, as if I was taking advantage of her. She was rooted to the spot, incapable of moving.

Although I mustn't have felt guilty enough as I left her sat there for a few minutes whilst I did one more 360 degree swoop for anything I may have missed.

After recovering Julie from the far end of the eastern spoke we decided to leave the 358ft high capsule in the sky. We called the elevator and waited, then waited a little more and then some. Julie had already begun looking for the back door and the steps down by the time it eventually arrived.

We descended slowly courtesy of the lift attendants finger on the all important button. Julie couldn't wait to get out, in fact once the doors slid open she let out this enormous sigh of relief.

Habana Libre, Havana

Back down on terra firma her ordeal was finally over. We walked across the Plaza de la Revolucion towards the face of Camilo Cienfuegos.

We were aiming to go behind the face, inside the Ministry of Communications to find a Postal Museum. The front door appeared inaccessible so we walked around the side and luckily found the Museo Postal Cubano.

The doors were open but it was very dark inside. As we stepped inside a young schoolgirl in her uniform apologised but it was closed. I wasn't sure if it was closed due to the power cut or just closed in general.

We weren't too gutted on missing out on the museum. Although I would have liked to have seen fragments of the first postal "missile", a crazy method of express delivery invented in 1939 here in Cuba where the letters were literally put inside a rocket and blasted from Havana aimed at Mantanzas. Now that's some postal history!

Unfortunately on its inaugural flight it blew up when launched and was never used again.

The main reason why we came here was to buy some Cuban postage stamps for my father and fortunately next door to the museum there was a shop selling postage stamps and it was open!

The stamps they had here were commemorative type not the ones you would normally stick onto a postcard.

We bought over a dozen different types. A few that celebrated the Olympics, another set with a variety of Cuban birds and a couple celebrating Cuban heroes such as Jose Marti and Che Guevara.

We spent quite a lot, just under $10 convertible pesos.

With all the stamps safely stored inside a hard back guide book we continued walking away from the Plaza de la Revolucion, down Avenida de Rancho Boyeros.

It was quite a nothing stretch of road made slightly more interesting when we walked past a busy bus terminal. There must have been a hundred people waiting for one bus or another.

All eyes were on us as we walked past.

Every now and again a wall mural lifted the scene with a splash of colour. "Revolucion por nuestros Suenos de Justicia" shouted one banner, Revolution for our dreams of justice.

Further along on the side of a simple shack with a corrugated iron roof there was a surprisingly high quality painting of Che and Camilo. (Thanks to the lady selling stamps earlier I now know not to pronounce Che as the 'Shea' in O'Shea but more like the 'ce' in La Dolce Vita!)

With a small printed Google map in hand we crossed a busy intersection and walked up hill towards a street called Avenida Universidad.

We didn't see any murals on this street but we did come across a large billboard celebrating the 51st anniversary of the revolution.

The poster had a large red '51' with Fidel Castro and Camilo Cienfuegos armed with their machine gun and rifle stooping in the foreground.

"What does that mean?" asked Julie about the celebrationary words of "1ro. de enero: Victoria de la firmeza, la justicia y la esperanza" printed down the right hand side.

"Fuck knows" I replied, for some reason in a Yorkshire accent. I suppose because they're renowned for their plain speaking.

It wouldn't have been difficult for me to translate really if I had only given it some thought. "1st of January: Victory for strength, justice and hope." I could have guessed most of it.

On the corner of this street we past these trees that certainly would have stood here back in 1959, in fact they looked like they would have been here in 1859. They were so ancient in appearance.

They were straight out of some fantasy dark forest. The central trunk, a core of entwined wood, looked like a melted candle with the wax having dripped everywhere. They were very reminiscent of the trees growing around the temples of Angkor.

They looked so out of place here in inner city Havana, they were more tropical rainforest than municipal park.

A little further up after stopping a local Habanero for directions to the University we eventually found ourselves inside the campus.

It wasn't the familiar sight of the steps leading up to the Doric columns that we had seen in the guide books but that's because we had sneaked in through the back door.

Much of what centred around the courtyard, the Science faculty, the Great Hall and even a small Anthropology museum were open to the public but we chose not to visit any of them.

The University of Havana formed in 1728, one of the earliest in the Americas and moved to this hilltop site in 1902.

When Batista took Cuba over in 1952 the University became a seat of rebellion with frequent demonstrations and violent clashes outside on the steps.

A young attorney, a graduate of the School of Law by the name of Fidel Castro would have been involved leading a failed attack on Moncada Barracks in 1953 after which he was captured , jailed then extradited to Mexico.

We walked through the dramatic entrance to the University and out towards a bronze statue.

Sat overlooking the city with her welcoming arms wide open was a bronze statue of Alma Mater (Mother Nature) the personification of the University.

We sat down on the broad stairway briefly to take the weight off our feet after our trek and to take in the views. Within minutes we were asked to move on by a security guard. I guess we were making the place look untidy.

We carefully walked down the massive staircase to the street below. In a city of grand street names this one was simply called 'L'.

We were in the Vedado district of Havana where the modern 19th century town planning had been set out in a precise grid layout approximately 15 streets wide and 30 streets long. With the exception of Avenida de los Presidente they were all either a number (1 - 30) or a letter (A - O).

We walked up L to where 23 crossed.

There were a few houses along here with large patios and verandas, beautiful reminders of the wealthy colonial suburb that Vedado once was.

We were surprised how hilly this area was. It was making the walk quite tiring.

We lumbered past the Habana Libre Hotel an unattractive yet historical tower of concrete and glass with a huge mural in the style of Picasso at its base.

It was originally known as the Havana Hilton and opened in 1958 to cater for the burgeoning casino crowd but within twelve months the revolution had happened and it strangely became the temporary headquarters of the new Cuban rulers.

For the first three months Fidel Castro ran the country from a suite on the upper floors.

It's funny to think of the revolutionaries in a 5 star hotel. After a few years in the jungle the bearded ones must have enjoyed a little bit of luxury before coming down off their cloud.

Where 23 met L there was a cinema called Yara. Tonight they were showing a film called El Premio Flaco (The Booby Prize) featuring famous Cuban stars Alina Rodriguez, Rosa Vasconcelos and Rosa Blanco.

We'd never heard of them but we did have a little film festival before our trip watching the boiled egg film Before The Night Falls, the two Che films and two native Cuban films before our trip.

One was called Soy Cuba (I Am Cuba). It was directed by Russian Mikhali Kalatozov in 1964. It made a drama out of Batista era after which you sympathised with the revolution.

The other was called Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberries & Chocolate) which I thought was about ice cream flavours but turned out to be another gay Cuban film.

As fate would have it we were at the crossroads where we could find the ice cream parlour which featured in the film. Well, actually it was more by design that we were here. The Coppelia ice cream parlour was a Havana icon and on our must see list.

We crossed over the road and into a leafy park. In its centre was two storey structure that reminded me a little of the UFO from the Encounters of the Third Kind.

Just as we were about to walk into the mothership two security guards ushered us to the left and towards a little portakabin version of the Coppelia ice cream parlour, a special one for the tourists.

I felt robbed.

I didn't want to cause a scene so we went along with it but I was sorely disappointed not to be able get inside the main feature and mix with the ice cream loving locals.

The Soderia Coppelia international outlet was so disappointing. There was no strawberry nor chocolate flavours on offer, in fact there was no choice but to have Mango ice cream.

Julie's not a big fan of mango so she sat and watched me eat a bowl full of ice cream. I'd be lying if I said it was delicious but it was fine.

It was good to have an opportunity to sit down and take the weight off our feet for a while.

Our thoughts turned to lunch and we consulted our Lonely Planet guide book.

I almost fell off my little plastic chair when we found a write up for a vegetarian restaurant called Biki. It was described as having a "peso (costs peanuts) vegetarian buffet with a cafeteria-style layout serving stuffed peppers, veggie paella, fried rice and fresh salads." It sounded too good to be true.

Even better was that it wasn't too far from here!

We walked down a stretch of Calle 23 that had been given the name of Rampa.

Between M and N there was a busy crafts market selling all sorts.

Nothing caught our eye from the pavement as we marched past, not even the wooden carving of a Cohiba cigar being held aloft between two fingers.

I could just see that on our mantelpiece.

 

At Calle N we turned uphill through quite a boring 50s concrete residential area, at the end of which we reached Calle San Lazarno a street that in comparison was so full of character

It wasn't just the mature buildings but the people who sat on the steps of the houses that gave it its uniquely Havana feel.
When we finally reached Biki we almost decided to carry on walking. It didn't look the most salubrious of venues.

We stood outside for a while double checking the sign to make sure we were in the right place.

"Well, nothing ventured" said Julie optimistically "it'll be an experience".

So in we stepped.

We walked straight into the dining room which was very sparsely decorated. It really looked as if we were in an abandoned office. It felt very much like a squat cafe as if they had just moved into an empty space with what ever furniture they had. They must have only had four tables as with the chairs it barely filled half of the empty room.

Two blokes were sitting in the corner and they nodded a greeting as we entered. We almost got cold feet and ran out but we decided to stick to Julie's nothing ventured plan. Eventually a waitress came through a set of doors. "Through there is where the buffet must be" I guessed. Or perhaps it wasn't as she came to take our order.

We asked for a menu but she shook her head and tried to explain something really important to us in Spanish.

We looked bemused so she turned to the two who sat in the corner who did a little translating for her. He hardly spoke English but knew enough to explain that there wasn't a menu just a set fixed price meal.

He began by saying that we could have "chicken y salad".

"Eh, hang on minute" I thought "I've heard of people who call mistakenly call themselves vegetarian but actually eat fish but a chicken eating vegetarian?"

"I'm a vegetariano" I said. (We really must learn a bit more of the lingo next time. It would make life a lot easier.)

"No problem, you can have rice" he answered and then asked "Would you like soap?"

Julie and I looked at each other wondering which one of us was the filthy dirty one before turning back looking utterly bemused once again.

"Vegetable soap?" he asked.

Now whilst he could still have been talking about soap the penny dropped. "Ah, yes, we'll have the vegetable soup" I smiled.

It came and was served in a rustic earthenware bowl. A simple soup made with the obligatory shredded cabbage floating in vegetable stock. Every veggie meal must by law contain shredded cabbage. Julie couldn't bring herself to eat hers so as not to offend I ate the two bowls.

Fortunately I found it surprisingly tasty.

The main course quickly followed accompanied by even more shredded cabbage.

We continued to be pleasantly surprised as Julie's chicken dish, a grilled flattened chicken breast tasted fine. My rice dish was just that, a mound of savoury rice, similar to paella but only the rice and a few shredded cabbage leaves.

We sat and watched the traffic roll past. It was a little bit more interesting than your average traffic with such a variety of classic cars on display.

It was surprising how many modern cars there were, we even saw a very nice Audi. The most popular car by far though was the Lada, Russia's contribution to the world's car showroom.

Equally as entertaining was, well it could be called spying, on the people sitting on the steps over the road.

They were just hanging out in the sun.

We paid our $15, (which wasn't exactly peanuts but at least the food was edible) and we left Cafeteria (not!) Biki.

We returned to Calle 23 up Calzede de Infanta which was a little more vibrant than boring Calle N.

The streets that branched out down towards the bay teemed with life.

It felt like the most Cuban street in Havana.

Our next stop on our walking tour was the Hotel Nacional, another Havana icon. It opened in 1930 and soon became the country's premier luxury hotel.

Famous Americans of the era flocked here, Hollywood stars such as Johnny Weissmuller, Errol Flynn, John Wayne, Marlon Brando are all name dropped as famous guests. Even Winston Churchill stayed here.

The most infamous event that took place here happened in 1946 when a Frank Sinatra concert was the cover for a mob summit where all the big players in the US mafia came to Havana to discuss how they were going to run their crime syndicates.

Having walked down to the front we found ourselves stood at the bottom of a cliff looking up at the towers of the Hotel Nacional wondering "how the hell do we get up there?"

Edifico Focsa, Havana

Eventually we found the traders entrance up around the back of the hotel. I was sort of glad we came this long way around as it gave us a great vantage point to see the enormous Edifico Focsa, a huge 1950s skyscraper of a building that towered above all around.

We came up alongside the hotel past the deserted swimming pool.

The cold British-like weather was not encouraging anyone to jump in.

It was quite blustery up here on the rocky outcrop but we soldiered on and sat outside overlooking the Malecon, Havana's long seafront.

It was cocktail time.

There was a little bar outside from which we ordered two Daiquiris. Whilst I waited for the ice to be crushed another bar man was busy mangling a large stick.

He was squeezing out the juice from a sugar cane. I asked him which cocktail it was going into. "Gurapo" he replied.

I discovered later that Gurapo was the name given to the sugar cane syrup not the fruity rum cocktail he handed over to the other hardy customer in a woolly jumper and leather jacket.

So we sat there at the edge of the cliff, looking out over the bay of Havana and beyond to the Florida Straits, shivering in our shorts and T-shirts, drinking our icy cocktail.

After ten minutes of freezing our tits off we decided to try and find some where warmer inside to finish our drinks.

The hotel's foyer was very busy and what few seats they had were already taken. We resigned ourselves to walking up and down the narrow lobby sipping our daiquiries through a straw, people watching and being watched.

At one end was their dance hall where they hold a nightly cabaret performance, similar to that at the Tropicana. It's probably where Frank Sinatra performed in 1946.

At the opposite end were the toilets which we used to empty our swollen bladders before the long walk back.

Hotel Nacional was our second choice and it certainly looked impressive. The only thing that dissuaded us was that it wasn't in the thick of it like Hotel Ambos Mundos. Everything would have to be a taxi ride away from here.

We left through the front door which was a more welcoming an entrance than the around the back.

Following the road back down to the seafront we came across a memorial to the victims of the sinking of USS Maine.

In 1898 with Cuba struggling for independence from Spain the US sent a battleship to Havana to protect its citizens and interests in the country.

Whilst safely moored in the harbour the armoured cruiser suddenly and unexplainably blew up. Accusations and denials followed but within two months Spain and America were at war.

It lasted 10 weeks which delivered Cuba its independence. The US also bagged Puerto Rico, Guam and the Philippines from Spain in the process.

The memorial was built in 1930 but after the Bay of Pigs incident in 1961 when American(CIA)-trained Cuban exiles attempted to start a counter-revolution the Cuban government added its own inscription to this memorial blaming the Maine disaster on "imperialist voracity in its eagerness to seize the island of Cuba".

The US Embassy was only a short distance from here. Well, officially America does not have an embassy in Havana but it does have a department called the "United States Interests Section of the Embassy of Switzerland in Havana".

What a difference a name makes?

We didn't walk towards the USISESH or whatever its acronym was. We were heading in the opposite way down the Malecon, Havana's spectacular promenade.

It's known as the soul of the city where all the locals come to hang out stroll down the esplanade and all the classic cars cruise up and down.

Not today however.

The cold weather had put the whole city off the Malecon. Other than a few canoodling couples sat on the walls Julie and I had the place to ourselves.

We soon joined the Malecon couples club and found ourselves a spot on the sea wall where we sat for a while admiring the dramatic view.

The tide was high and it was rolling in.

The powerful rush of the waves crashing against the sea wall was so exciting to watch.

The sound of it pounding hard was almost frightening.

"We're going to get wet!" said Julie and she was right. It was unavoidable !

There were frequent sections where the waves would spill over soaking the walkway. We tried our best to stay dry by methodically waiting for a wave to hit and retreat before venturing across the slippery pavement safely reaching the dry part before the next wave arrived. Apart for a few light sprays we were doing alright.

It wasn't just water that came over. There was a surprising amount of flotsam tossed over the sea wall as well. That would be adding insult to injury; not only to get drenched in a wave but to be hit by flying seaweed and a stray flip flop.

We did quite well in avoiding getting doused by seawater but there was one section where we knew we weren't going to make it. It was far too great a distance to reach the other side in-between the relentless waves.

There was only one thing for it, head down and march through. We were three quarters of the way when the second wave struck. Julie caught the brunt of it as her back got completely soaked.

I somehow miraculously missed the worst of it (which Julie didn't appreciate.)

Halfway down the Malecon we picked up a new friend. A scruffy little black and white street dog joined us. He was going our way and decided to stick with us for the most part. We grew fond of our little companion and started calling him Scamp.

"Come here Scamp." we called and he responded by looking at us and wagging his little tail.

"Stay off the road and on the pavement."

He obviously didn't understand a word of English and would wander off chasing motorcycles for a while before returning to our side.

We had another pause in our stroll where we sat on the wall to admire the view. We sat and looked back down the Malecon at the great cityscape of Havana's skyscrapers.

Edifico Focsa dominating the skyline, dwarfing the Hotel Nacional in the foreground, it looked a very different Havana to the one ahead of us in the Old Town.

We had walked a very long way. Havana's protected sea front was 8km long but the most popular section was from Vedado to La Habana Vieja, the part we had just done.

Scamp tried to join us on top of the barrier but couldn't reach. He stood on his hind legs attempting to scramble up the wall but he was too short.

We thought about giving him a helping hand but as much as we liked him we couldn't bring ourselves to touch him. His wiry coat was just too dirty and he quickly turned from Scamp to Tramp, from our cheeky little mate to a manky mutt. Poor thing was out of favour all of a sudden.

Despite our best efforts at ignoring our flea-ridden friend he decided to wait for us. We eventually parted company only when he decided to branch off the Malecon near the Plaza de la Revolucion.

We soon reached the end of the sea front where there was a small fort called Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta. We walked around it not paying it much attention, our eyes drawn instead to the lighthouse and fort of Castillo del Morro over the river.

There were several statues dotted around this area. One of which was of Francisco de Miranda a Venezuelan revolutionary who began a movement of rebellion against colonial Spain in 18th century Latin America.

As we continued to walk along the riverside we heard some lively music and a large crowd appear from a side street behind Castillo de la Real Fuerza.

It was an exciting carnival procession of performers on stilts accompanied by musicians and followed by a large crowd on onlookers. We decided to join the party. The atmosphere was thrilling.

We were right in the thick of it dancing in the streets, well, actually we just shuffled along to the beat as we made slow progress down Calle Mercaderes.

There were six different characters tottering along on their stilts. One woman was dressed in the lace and frills of a colonial lady fashion, another man was dressed as a Napoleon-esque Spanish Naval Officer.

Two other characters were more pagan. One wore a grass headdress which gave him a very African folklore look. Another had a sack over his head with a pair of large white eyes stitched on.

His character was known as the diabilito, (the little devil) and was a throwback to an African cult of the dead called Abakua .

Diabilito is more of a caricature of itself these days, a figure of fun rather than part of some macabre ritual.

We reached Hotel Ambos Mundos but decided to continue along Mercaderes with the troop of performers down towards Plaza Vieja.

It was so much fun being caught up in the middle of all the celebration. You could spot the tourists, we were the ones observing, not dancing, being slightly detached, busy looking for a photo opportunity. The Habaneros were going for it throwing themselves into their dancing and singing to the rousing tunes belted out by the band.

Halfway down towards the square we decided to leave the party and head back to the hotel.

At the Ambos Mundos we paid $6 for an hour of internet access and were given a pre-paid card to log-in with a password.

The connection wasn't the fastest but at least it worked enough for us to send a few e-mails home and check the weather forecast. It really didn't look good for our time at the beach next week. Some days were predicted to reach only a high of 12C, now that's just ridiculous!

All that had taken us half an hour. Before disconnecting we searched google.com.cu for Colin & Julie and there we were, second on the list!

"What? There's another Colin & Julie out there ? ... and their web page is better than ours!"

Their website angusadventures.com looked fascinating. They've both rowed across the Atlantic and he's even circumnavigated the globe completely under his own steam. Incredible.

Inspired by their adventures we propelled ourselves from the computer desk in the furthest south western corner of the lobby over to the comfy sofa nearer the watering hole and ordered a daiquiri each.

It wasn't long before the sound of drums were beating in the streets again.

"Go on then" said Julie knowing full well that I wanted to go outside and see all the commotion in full swing.

A merry band of minstrels accompanied a quartet of stilted performers heading away from Plaza Vieja which probably explained why they didn't have much of a crowd following them. They would have been only just setting off on their lap of fiesta frivolity.

This group didn't have any scary African cult members just an eclectic collection of fancy dress characters.

One was dressed colourfully with her face painted with whiskers sprouting from her nose, another was dressed all in black complete with black beret, the other was a vision in pink, of which I took far too many photographs and there was a solitary male dressed like a futuristic robotic Cuban fireman. The significance of which was lost.

After all the excitement it was time for our siesta and we retired to room 404 for a couple of hours.

Slightly refreshed and recharged we returned back out into streets of old town Havana to find the party was over.

Plaza Vieja had a stage erected down one end but it was now empty and in the process of being dismantled.

Our party was just beginning so we started with a pint of home brew beer at the Austrian brewery La Taberna de la Muralla and shared a plate of delicious "potato chips" or crisps as we prefer to call them.

The Plaza Vieja square was looking particularly beautiful as the sun set and the lights came on. The restoration was certainly tourist dollars well spent.

We had over an hour to spare before our reservation at the flamenco dancing El Meson de la Flota so we decided to return to our favourite Cafe Paris for a little entertainment.

The familiar house band was there in one shape or form playing their usual high standard of jazzy Cuban mixes.

The guitarist in the corner caught my attention. He looked so cool like Morgan Freeman was researching for a new film role of a seasoned Cuban musician.

It was early evening and the music set a laid-back relaxed mood.

We tried a new cocktail, it was a refined version of Sangria the red wine and juice mix knocked back aplenty on the Costa del Sol in Spain. This one was expertly crafted into two layers.

A lower citrus fruit and an upper red wine layer.

As often is the case it was style over substance and looked better than it tasted.

We still had time on our hands so we walked back down to Plaza Vieja.

Along the way we heard a lot of noise coming from a side street, a lot of laughter and whooping "Aye carumbas".

Curiosity got the better of us and we went down Calle Obrapia to have a look what all the fuss was about.

Having walked there and observed them for a minute we couldn't work out what was going on. There was a group of performers in fancy dress posing for photographs.

It al seemed like harmless fun but one of them appeared to be completely off her face. She had hardly any clothes on.

It suddenly felt voyeuristic so we left.

We had time for another drink in Plaza Vieja before heading back up Mercaderes to El Meson de la Flota.

Our table was in quite a good spot, right at the back but centre stage.

I didn't have much choice on the tapas menu but at least I did have some choice. I ordered Gazpacho, Spanish Omelette and a portion of Patatas Bravas.

Unfortunately there must have been a potato shortage as the waiter returned from the kitchen to say that the omelette and patatas were both off the menu tonight.

I was at a lost as to what to order so the waiter suggested the vegetable paella. He guaranteed me no meat no fish. He then sheepishly returned from the kitchen again this time to let me know that the Gazpacho was not available. I wasn't having any luck!

Julie's starter arrived. She had a bowlful of garlicky prawns which she really enjoyed. I rushed into choosing diced cheese as my replacement starter which was a little disappointing.

Her main course didn't look that inspiring on the plate. She had gone for sliced pork but one ingredient actually made us laugh. Due to the national potato shortage the ice cream scoop mound of mashed potato was made from Smash the packet powdered stuff you just add water. Julie actually enjoyed it!

"I haven't had Smash since the Eighties!" she said.

After Julie's plate not quite hitting the right note I wasn't expecting much from mine. Perhaps a repeat of this afternoon's mound of rice.

When it arrived I was blown away by my paella. It was served in a huge traditional pan and tasted very tasty.

My best meal of the trip by a long shot.

What made it go down even better was a bottle of authentic Freixenet Cava from Spain, one of our favourite sparkling wines.

We couldn't have timed it any better as we just finished eating when the flamenco dancers took to the stage.

It was quite entertaining as they stamped their way across the stage accompanied by two guitarists and someone slapping a beatbox.

It wasn't just flamenco either. They broke up the set by singing a few songs such as Bob Marley's "No Woman No Cry".

"They should stick to the dancing" I said.

Also there appeared to be some audience participation as firstly a young (around 10 years old) girl got up onto the stage.

She was followed by a middle aged woman who strutted her funky stuff, stamping her feet and waving her arms with gay abandon. It was a flamenco dancing version of karaoke. The performance hardly lasted 30 minutes and with over half of that time taken up by amateurs or singing it was a disappointing flamenco show.

As soon as the show finished we left. We were suddenly very tired.

Even though it was only 9:30pm we returned to our hotel and after one drink in the bar retired to bed.

We briefly watched baseball on TV. The teams were Villa Clara versus Holguin. Baseball is so popular in Cuba despite its American roots.

It was an exciting game with the red team (whoever they were) playing well but it wasn't enough excitement to keep us awake. By 10pm we were both fast asleep. We're getting too old for two late nights on the run!

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