Wednesday, 15 June 2016

Havana - Cuba March 2016

Getting the visa for Cuba at Mexico City Airport wasn’t as easy as I had been told. Eventually it was obtained and we boarded our flight to Havana. We were met at the airport taken to our hotel and was told Rita from the tour company would meet us the next morning with our itinerary etc. We were on an Art Tour which ended with just the two of us being the only participants, which meant we didn’t have an artist with us the whole time. We didn’t mind.

That evening we walked into the city as far as the coast. Stopped on the way back for a drink.

Our guide Renee picked us up at 9.00 am, Rita didn’t appear, so no itinerary. I managed to persuade Renee to let us look at the one he had.

We were taken to many places and given extensive explanations, much of which was superfluous and were whizzed past places without an opportunity to look inside. Old Havana looked great and we would have loved to just wander the streets on our own.

We had a large lunch at La Bodeguita Del Medio a bar now famous as Ernest Hemingway frequented it. There was a crush of tourists outside. We entered then up a fight of narrow stairs. The meal was OK a mosquito drink was complementary, though not that great. I suspect churned out for the tourists. It was interesting to visit the bar but would have been better to eat elsewhere.
'Hemingway's Bar'

After lunch we did sketching with our artist Carlos. I’m afraid we were probably the less serious and more amateurish ‘artists’ he’s ever had. We promised to do a few sketches before we met the following day.

Dinner at the hotel was less than ordinary and they didn’t have any of the drinks we ordered that were displayed on the menu. I suspect they never had them.

The next day, Sunday started with Carlos and again we did minimal sketching. Then we went off for a coffee and had a great conversation with him after which he took us to some interesting small galleries where we met the artists. He proved to be a more interesting guide than Renee who was rather pompous and didn’t listen to us at all.
Cathedral Square

We met Renee around 12.00 and went to lunch at what I call a ‘food barn’ which is set up for large group tours. The food was rather ordinary to say the least though it so purported to be traditional Cuban cuisine, if so, considering the influences of the Spanish, French and African it proved rather disappointing compared to Mexico.

Though a factor impacting on the limitations in variety of food would be the embargo by America and poor economic situation but that doesn’t excuse lack of imagination and flavor of the dishes.

After lunch we went to the amazing home of Jose Rodriguez Fuster who devoted his life and art to the memory of Antoni Gaudi. He not only turned his home into a work of art but engaged the whole community in his vision.
Memorial for Gaudi

We asked to be dropped off at the old city and enjoyed our free time after I tried to re-organise the next day so we didn’t waste the whole day on a couple of things. Renee eventually came around to our way though it had to come out as though it was HIS idea.

Monday up early, regular breakfast spread, cereal consists of coco pops, choco-loops and fruit loops, plenty of cooked fare, terrible tasting juice, cold meats and cheese, fresh fruit, toast and cakes. They haven’t learnt bread making from the French that’s for sure.

Rita turned up only after we phoned yesterday to insist that she comes with copies of the itinerary and discuss it with us. After that we were dropped off in old Havana which was great. Disappointingly museums were closed as it was Monday.

We were then picked up around lunchtime to go to Cojuna on the coast. There was a small fort plus a memorial to Hemingway put there by the fishermen, who melted some of their anchors to make it. He had been their friend and memorialized them in his book Old Man and the Sea.

We had another big lunch which was surprisingly tasty fish soup, paella, rice pudding (a lot of rice!) after tis we went to Ernest Hemingway’s house, which was really delightful, despite the animal head trophies on the walls. A ‘writer’s retreat’ room in a tower with telescope, empty swimming pool, his boat ‘Pilar’ and his dog cemetery gave us an interesting insight into Hemingway.

Computer access is difficult in Cuba and though our hotel had computers and Wi-Fi we couldn’t use it without a card which they didn’t have to sell us.

We went out later for dinner and walked down the road we went along the first night Calle 23. We came across an Iranian restaurant ‘Topoly’ we had a very tasty vegetarian meal, we had been a bit vegetable deprived so really relished our dinner.

Tuesday our last day in Havana, we were picked up a bit later and went to Parque Centrale along the Paseo de Marti which is similar to the Ramblas in Barcelona.  Many interesting surrounding buildings were pointed out and how it was the famous theatre, restaurant and hotel area before the revolution.

We were shown a couple of beautiful Art Deco buildings which were in surprisingly good condition, there are many beautiful buildings in Havana which have been left to deteriorate and many are derelict. Only recently has restoration of these has been happening in earnest.
One of the Art Deco buildings

We visited the Museo Nacional de belle Artes which features the works of Cuban artists from colonial times to the present day. It was fascinating to see the progression of styles and influences from major European eras. It was great having Carlos with us to give further insight into the Cuban artistic tradition.

Lunch was in a small restaurant, and proved really pleasant both ambience and food, unlike the ‘food barns’ we had endured previously.

We then went to the art school where Carlos teaches. It was an enlightening tour of various classes and seeing the students’ works at various year levels, very sobering considering our meagre effort. We were relieved we could opt out of exhibiting our now quite ‘non-existent’ work.
Carlos with some of his art works

Dinner was to be provided and with no other information assumed it was at the hotel but it seemed there was no voucher (which eventually was sorted out). With various difficulties and muck ups, I dubbed Cuba – ‘China of the Caribbean’ and anyone who has been to China and had a number of dealings with organisations there will understand what I mean.

Next Vinales.