Gilly Pickup discovers the enduring allure of Cuba’s bright and breezy capital, Havana, the island’s cultural heart.
Havana’s effervescence is palpable. The city is reminiscent of an old picture postcard come to life – awash with faded grandeur and crumbling ice-cream coloured buildings. Bartenders mix up mojitos in time to the hip-swaying, hypnotic sounds of salsa and straw-hatted, cigar-puffing men driving vividly coloured vintage Cadillacs, Pontiacs and Buicks.
Habana Vieja and beyond
Havana’s UNESCO listed Habana Vieja or Old Town, almost an open air museum, was once the Caribbean’s main Spanish settlement. With a glut of castles and baroque churches it has more old colonial buildings than any other city in the New World. Head to the Camera Obscura in the Plaza Vieja for the best views.
Of course there are countless museums to explore, too. The most famous is probably the Museum of the Revolution in Centro Habana. This big blast from the past is housed in what was once the Presidential Palace, headquarters of the Cuban government for forty years. Besides plenty of rusty revolvers and a life size wax figure of Che Guevara, it contains maps tracing the war’s progress, innumerable photos of Fidel Castro and some blood-stained uniforms.
Behind the museum are parts of a plane shot down during the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, a surface-to-air missile and the yacht that brought Guevara and Castro together with eighty plus revolutionaries to Cuba from Mexico in 1956 – today rather incongruously kept in a glass enclosure.
Another important landmark is the Capitolio Nacional. Once Cuba’s seat of government, the building is similar in appearance to the US Capitol Building in Washington DC. It is home to the National Library and Academy of Sciences and houses a planetarium and museum. Under the dome, a 24-carat diamond – an imitation – is set into the floor. This is where distances between Havana and other sites in the country are measured.
A cigar stop-off
No trip to Cuba would be complete without a cigar, and close by the Capitolio is one of the city’s most famous cigar factories, Real Fabrica de Tabaco Partagas.
Here, a reader is employed to entertain workers while they make the cigars – the reason why some cigars are named after literary characters. Tours allow visitors to see how cigars are made and, of course, there is the opportunity to buy some from the little shop at the end.
In the footsteps of Hemingway
While in Habana Vieja, it makes sense to pay a visit to El Floridita, one of the bars where Ernest Hemingway liked to have a bite to eat and down daiquiris.
Nothing much seems to have changed here since the thirties, when he was sometimes snapped at the bar with Errol Flynn or Gary Cooper, though it was a favourite meeting place for expat Americans before Hemingway made it famous.
Hemingway's celebrity status has never dimmed in the eyes of the locals and his favourite stool is cordoned off almost as if he is expected to walk back in at any minute. The bar even created a daiquiri in his name, ‘The Papa Hemingway Special’. One story goes that he once sank 13 doubles in one visit. Who knows for sure, but if he did, he must have had a serious hangover next morning.
Fans of Hemingway can also visit his home, Finca Vigia, which lies just outside town. Now also a museum, it is kept just as it was when the man himself lived there. This is where he wrote The Old Man and the Sea, for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, and today visitors can see his huge book collection and his typewriter.
Along the sea spangled waterfront
And speaking of the sea, every visitor to Havana should head to the Malecón, the eight kilometre sea spangled waterfront promenade popular with locals and tourists, swimmers, joggers and musicians.
Although it was built in 1901 to protect the city from rough seas, today a party atmosphere abounds, especially during evenings and weekends.
Feisty bands and fizzing nightlife
You'll learn to expect continual music here. It emanates round the clock from the city’s shady squares and cobbled streets. Havana is a feisty rainbow explosion of live bands. They’re everywhere: in the airport, restaurants, bars and on the streets – and at night the experience is out of this world.
Many local musicians play the ‘tres guitar’, a rhythm instrument with three double strings, while the pulsing African ‘son’ music and Timbal drum beats are bound to get your feet tapping.
Nightlife is full on and fizzing – and there are plenty of clubs and bars where visitors can party like a local. Dress to impress, as the locals do, and head to open-air cabaret Tropicana, a great place to soak up the sounds and shake that booty. This is no ordinary cabaret, complete with a 32-piece orchestra.
It’s also an idea to plan a visit to Havana to coincide with some of the popular celebrations and festivals. These include the cigar festival in February, Carnival in July, the ballet festival in October and film and jazz festivals are in December.