Tag Archives: Havana

Tobacco, Trova and Ché

Havana was the subject of my very first entry on this blog and I said I’d return to Cuba in future posts. Never say I don’t keep to my word. Let’s pick up the story…

After spending an amazing week in the capital, we joined a tour group called Cuban Adventures for a trip around the north and centre of the island. Our first stop was Viñales in the Pinar del Rio countryside, three hours north of Havana. I think I mentioned previously that – while not always too forthcoming with interesting facts and information – our guide, Jorge, did keep us in plentiful supply of cheap rum. Our first night in Viñales was spent unwisely in the village’s only bar/club, drinking copious quantities of said rum, dancing to trova music with the locals and eating whole tubs of ice-cream. Rather worse-for-wear (I believe he described it as his worst ever hangover), Paul spent the next morning cradling his head on the porch of our wooden homestay, trying to avoid the help of our confused hosts and fending off repeated offers of rice and beans. I, on the other hand, felt inexplicably perky and joined the rest of our eager party on a horse-ride trip through the tobacco plantations and valleys of the Parque Nacional Viñales.

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It was such a shame not to experience the stunning scenery with Paul, but my trusty steed kept me company. We cantered through muddy holes, waded through rivers and passed quietly by farmers tilling their fields with oxen, before stopping at a small holding to discuss tobacco growing with the locals. Cuba has the second largest area planted with tobacco in the world, yet the farmers have to give a substantial portion of their profit direct to the government. In fact, it was only relatively recently that they became able to keep any percentage for themselves. And despite being famous across the globe, the two main varieties grown – corojo and criollo – are banned as contraband in the USA. We stopped on the farm long enough to learn how to roll a cigar and get chased by turkeys, then rode on to the Cuevas del Indio (Indian caves) at the foot of the mogotes (the “haystack” like mountains).

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Next on the itinerary was the Bay of Pigs, the famous landing site of the CIA-sponsored counter-revolutionary militia in 1961. A short-lived offensive, which was quickly quashed by Castro’s troops. We had a quick look around the museum, which offered an arguably far from balanced account of the conflict and ongoing US embargo, then proceeded to Cienfuegos. This small city was settled by French immigrants from Louisiana and saw an uprising against Batista during the Cuban Revolution. It has elegant white architecture and enjoys the distinctive feel of the American Deep South (which I can say now, though I hadn’t been at the time). While there, however, we stayed in the least inviting of all our casas particulares, in an area of town with no street-lighting. So I was quite pleased to move on, particularly given our next stop was the vibrant town of Trinidad in Sancti Spíritus. The UNESCO World Heritage site is a delightful place of colourful barrios, friendly people, loud trova bars, stunning colonial architecture and beautiful sun-drenched beaches. I loved it! Our time there felt far too brief; I could have happily spent many more days navigating the cobbled streets, hanging out around the main plaza or sitting listening to street music on the steps near the gorgeous Iglesia y Convento de San Francisco. But I can’t complain: we stayed in a fabulous casa during our stay and ate a feast on the roof terrace in honour of someone’s birthday.

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Trinidad 2010 (57) Trinidad 2010 (66)On the way back to Havana we stopped briefly in the town of Santa Clara, site of the last battle of the revolution. There’s a huge statue of Ché Guevara, the instantly recognisable poster-boy of Fidel’s movement, commemorating his death and that of the revolutionaries who died along with him in Bolivia. There’s also a museum dedicated to his life, though – again – it’s somewhat light on balanced fact. And the shops are relatively pricey, charging as they do in the convertible peso (CUC) – reserved for use in the tourist sector – rather than the lower-value CUP used by Cubans. I read recently that Raul Castro is ending this two-tier system, a move that I’m sure is well overdue and will please the resentful owners of our various homestays.

It was good to end the trip with a bit of a history lesson…and a stern telling off for the worst evils of capitalism. I must admit, though, that when we finally boarded the plane home, having enjoyed an extra couple of nights in Havana at Richard Branson’s expense (thanks to the eruption of Eyjafjallajökull), I felt both simultaneously sad at the thought that this amazing country is destined to change so quickly…and somewhat comforted by the same thought.

I Am Not A Wall

All things in nature are dark except where exposed by the light” – Leonardo da Vinci

IMG_4078Hoxton, London

photo 2East Dulwich, London

Havava (6)Havana, Cuba

IMG_0306Reykjavik, Iceland

IMG_9065Old Street, London

photobullBrixton, London

photo new crossNew Cross, London

IMG_2502Shoreditch, London

IMG_2512Brick Lane, London

IMG_4034Hackney, London

Doorways of the World

People who know me well, know that I love a good door. Big, small, flat, knobbly, wood, metal, brightly coloured, old and peeling, leading to interesting places or leading nowhere at allI love them all! It’s a bit weird, to be honest. But I’m going to bore you with some of my favourites of recent years anyway

dublin door 2Dublin: 2012

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Otford, Kent: 2013

IMG_0860New Orleans: 2012

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOia, Santorini: 2008

IMG_1803Oxford: 2011

IMG_2363Wapping: 2013

14 - Door knockerDurham: 2003

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeville: 2006

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Nuremberg c.1400, V&A: 2013

Havava (300)Havana: 2009

green doorGhent: 2013 (Credit: Alison Groombridge)

Habana Vieja

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I thought I’d start my blog as I mean to carry on, focusing predominantly on photographs. These are a selection of my favourite pictures from a trip to Havana in the winter of 2009/10. Habana Vieja – the Old Town – is stunningly beautiful and yet at the same time battered and bruised in a way I’ve not experienced in any other city. The streets are alive with colour and Cuban jazz, the bars welcome you with free-flowing rum, and the people are friendly and eager to talk about the future of the country they love.

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The faded grandeur, of which so many wax lyrical, is not limited to isolated patches – the city is a film set of peeling walls, classic cars and street art. The paladares, daily parades and private casas, while found elsewhere in the world, felt alien and exciting, particularly to someone for whom this was her first experience of a communist state. In fact, it was a trip of many firsts: my first trip to an embassy to collect a visa; my first time queuing with locals outside a bank to exchange cash currency; my first time staying in a village homestay; and my first experience of reggaetón (though I wouldn’t particularly have missed my education into this musical form, which has since been denounced by the Cuban state).

However, the food – which I have no doubt will become another regular feature of this blog – was sadly not something to write home about. Despite the country’s fertile soil and tropical climate, the socialist policies of the last century have not encouraged farming or the introduction of interesting ingredients to the Cuban culinary scene. Whilst tasty, we quickly tired of the typical meal of black beans, rice and pork. Strangely, though, locals regularly indulged in the velvety-rich and spicy hot chocolate from the cafés near Plaza Vieja, sometimes queuing for half an hour or more for a table. My favourite place was Museo del Chocolate on Calle Mercaderes. And ice-cream parlours are also a permitted luxury, with the largest – Coppelia – claiming to be the biggest in the world and having separate, restricted access for tourists. But if the restaurants are not the place to hang out, the bars certainly are. With salsa, son, jazz, trova or rap to accompany your daiquiri, cuba libre or mojito, you can’t complain.

Havava (33)Without turning into TripAdvisor, I’ll end with a few of my recommendations for things to do whilst you’re in Havana, in case helpful at all to anyone thinking of visiting. Obviously, the Plaza de la Catedral is a must (with the beautiful Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana), as is a walk to the statue of Jose Marti and the Plaza de la Revolution. I’d recommend going up to the Camera Obsura, if only for the views from the tower, and a walk along the seafront promenade is great for people-watching. If there is ballet (a proud cuban tradition) or a concert to see at the Gran Teatro de la Habana, I’d also urge you to go. While the outside of the building is certainly more impressive than the interior, it is a great venue and surprisingly light on tourists. One evening we got tickets to see the flautist Maraca, who was performing with the latin-jazz all stars, and it is probably still the best concert I’ve ever been to. Further afield, we travelled outside of Havana and into the Cuban countryside to Viñales and up the coast to Trinidad, with stop-offs at Cienfuegos and the Che Guevara memorial.

But maybe I’ll do a separate blog on those another time, so I won’t dwell on them here. Just to say, though, that I wouldn’t recommend at present – unless things have changed significantly in the last few years – that you use public transport to get around Cuba. The story of a French tourist getting stuck in Viñales with a choice between a six-day wait for the next bus or a $100 taxi fare back to Havana was enough to convince me to take a tour. It is also worth ensuring you choose a company whose guides provide a regular supply of rum for $3 a bottle (though this did cause Paul to miss a rather wonderful horse-riding trip through the tobacco plantations and valleys of the Parque Nacional Viñales). We went with Cuban Adventures and I’d definitely recommend them. Right, that’s it for my first post.  Hope it was ok!

Havava (61)Travelling Cuban style

Havava (123)Street games

Havava (73)Speaking to the Heavens

Havava (4)Pink Beauty

Havava (151)Patriotic

Havava (170)Nap-Time

Havava (25)Footie & Cars

Havava (98)Setting Sun