Havana is an energetic and bustling city pulsating with life. Cubans very much live their lives in the shady squares and alleyways of the city. Havana is divided by distinct areas, stretching from Playa and Miramar in the West to Habana Vieja in the east. Habana Vieja is the historic heart of the city. Its narrow and chaotic streets, thronging with people, are framed by wrought iron balconies crowded with washing.
Anyone on the Hemingway trail (you will certainly not be alone), should make a pit stop at the Hotel Ambos Mundos. This dramatic pink building sits prominently on one of Havana Vieja’s principle thoroughfares. Made infamous by regular client Ernest Hemingway, it is worth a view inside to its cool and airy lobby. Here, 1930s Havana is very much retained with low rise sofas, dark wood detailing and shutters, and ornate hanging ceiling lamps. A detour via the classic lift to the roof terrace is recommended, providing a fantastic panorama over the old town and beyond. As well as giving a good geographical reference point, the perspective on the Havana cityscape also makes this a worthwhile stop.
A short distance from the Ambos Mundos is the Plaza de Armas. This shady square, filled with large mature trees, provides a cool retreat from the searing Caribbean heat. The plaza is a melee of stalls selling books and posters, many linked to historic figures and events in Cuba’s colourful history. One is never far from the image of Che Guevara that is for sure. After a refreshing stop in this cool oasis, the Plaza de la Catedral is the next highlight of Habana Vieja. The supremely ornate façade of the Cathedral dominates the square with two towers either side. Around the square well preserved colonial buildings with their colonnades and arches provide a fitting backdrop.
On the western side of Habana Vieja lies the Museum of the Revolution. It very much represents Cuba personified. Housed in a decaying palatial building undergoing renovation, every room has at least one guard willing the hours by. The exhibits chart Cuba’s fascinating history with a clear political bias and are simple and basic, demonstrating how far Cuba still has to go. The museum does, however, provide a fascinating insight into the iconic relics of Cuba’s past from tanks, to vans, to the boat Granma, which Che and his fellow revolutionaries used and is embedded within the Cuban psyche.
This sense of the past in modern Cuba is also felt in the vast expanse of the Plaza de la Revolución. Surely every state with a political backdrop as chequered and colourful as Cuba’s has a serenading ground at its heart, and this indeed is Cuba’s. The column of Jose Marti stands majestically at its centre, with such luminaries as Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos etched in abstract metal work on the buildings that border the square. When there is a parade or rousing speech, the square must be alive with energy, otherwise it is a somewhat soulless expanse of concrete.
Excursions to Hemingway’s home, Finca La Vigía, in the southerly suburb of San Francisco de Paula is a well worn route, however it makes an enjoyable escape from the city. Set amongst unassuming suburbs, Hemingway’s classically simple home is accessed via a grand curved driveway and surrounded by park like grounds. Inside, it is a quintessential Caribbean villa with cool marble floors and ceiling fans. Whilst it is only possible to view from the outside looking in, the eclectic and simple interior décor reflects Hemingway’s character and style, from the mounted animal heads on the walls to shelves jostling with books that are to hand in every room. Up a flight of exterior steps takes you to Hemingway’s look out set above the trees. A true eccentric’s lair, Hemingway’s desk sits in the middle looking out beyond acres of greenery to the Havana skyline beyond. It is not hard to imagine the man himself seated at the desk. In the grounds is Hemingway’s beloved, Key West registered, boat Pilar. A frequent presence on the Florida straits during Hemingway’s time on the island, it is somewhat sad to see it now entombed in concrete.
What makes Havana that most unique of Caribbean cities is that it has layers of history and culture that are manifold and complex. Architecturally, Havana is an eclectic mix, touches of Art Deco and Art Nouveau with Spanish colonial flourishes. The 50s American modernism expressed in the villas of Miramar are fascinating and would undoubtedly have been gentrified and surrounded by walls were they on the other side of the Straits of Florida. Paradoxically, the city is the capital of a communist country that is increasingly opening up to the free market. Chinese imported goods and cars are the most obvious manifestation of this. The clichés of Havana are very much alive but fading. The graceful American classic cars still are a common sight, however they are competing for space amongst the Chinese imports. The most pristinely preserved of these cars are chiefly the domain of tourists. The buildings too are very much in a period of change, many undergoing restoration under the UNESCO programme as funding becomes readily available. However, as can be seen on the Malecón, the replacement buildings are often somewhat paler, sanitised imitations of the originals. It is not difficult to imagine the Havana of the 1930s and later, when Ernest Hemingway was perched at the Floridita Bar having daiquiris and the mafia frequented the Hotel Nacional. That Havana is very much depended on for its tourist appeal which runs the risk of corrupting their authenticity. However, sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional, sipping Piña Colodas and watching the sea waves collide against the Malecón sea wall has a certain timelessness.
Havana is very much a city in transition. With the thawing of relations with the US comes a renewed sense of opportunity that the process of renewal that is slowly permeating through the city can continue and quicken. It is important that in this transitional period, Cuba retains its sense of identity and culture that has developed as a result of generations of political isolation. Havana has tremendous potential to develop further and become an increasingly dynamic destination for the keen eyed visitor.
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“The clichés of Havana are very much alive but fading.”