I have been grabbed by the hand, twirled around and kissed full on the lips. Havana may be old but she is full of brazen charm and exquisite beauty. I am enthralled, enchanted, intrigued.
Havana, and Cuba as a whole, has a unique personality born from a tangle of influences ranging from her period as a Spanish colony, to African slavery, to her complex relationship with America and a chequered political past … and present. It’s a fascinating and at times overwhelming story and like all good tales I find myself being drawn further in to its spell. This is enhanced on a physical level by the network of narrow streets which beckon me and lead me further in to the city’s heart.
I make turns on a whim whether it’s to capture a shot of one of the many handsome 1950s Chevrolets that cruise the streets,
or to be drawn by the candle light illuminating the dim interior of a church or to rest a while leaning on a wall listening to buskers fill the street with salsa rhythms.
Though this purposeless meandering gives me great pleasure we do also have a list of Havana highlights to work through. We visit the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes to get our fill of hundreds of years of all genres of Cuban art and in contrast walk through the old warehouses on the docks which have been appropriated by artists churning out bright paintings of Havana street scenes. Daiquiris and mojitos are sipped and raised in memory to Mr Hemmingway who has done the same here many times before.
We sit on heavy wrought iron chairs at various alfresco bars in the cobbled plazas eavesdropping on conversations trying to decipher the languages around us, watching as tourists negotiate the menus and bored waiters move from table to table like heavy, tired bees visiting a never ending stretch of needy flowers. One evening after cocktails we attend the most wonderful concert in an old Franciscan church. The sweet sound of a string orchestra weaves around the earthy tones of an acoustic classical guitar – a sublime blend in a sacred place. At the other end of the cultural scale we join tourist groups for a kitsch, Parisienne style cabaret. Formulaic feathers, glitz and tits leave us bored and empty and in need of something with more substance. This comes in the most beautiful package – the ornate neo-baroque Gran Teatro. Magnificent in the daylight, it transforms to fairytale romanticism when lit up at night.
Wide, spacious lobbies lead in to the 2000 seat auditorium with, grand balconies, painted ceilings and a splendid sparkling chandelier. On stage the world famous ballet company perform with precision and drama in breathtaking costumes and skilled choreography. It leaves me speechless.
The warren of streets in Havana Vieja – old Havana – contain nearly 900 buildings of historical significance. With exquisite architecture ranging from baroque to glitzy Art Deco there is a fresh delight when turning every corner and entering every square.
Since the revolution in the mid-1950s with little money or raw materials to maintain these magnificent buildings many deteriorated in the Caribbean climate and today the results of this are the gaping holes where buildings once stood. The lines of room partitions and staircases are still tattooed on the neighbouring walls, the colour of the paint is still discernible, traces of the lives that were once lived here. Other buildings are propped up with lengths of rough wood in an attempt to get the last bit of life from them. Wherever you look paint is peeling, plaster crumbling and lifting like dry scabs.
This is in stark contrast to those buildings who were first in line for the ongoing restoration project. With great attention to detail they have been lovingly restored to their former glory. The squares are spacious, the buildings majestic yet elegant with attractive architectural details, the pretty courtyards and high ceilinged interiors sublime.
It is easy to imagine the heady days before the revolution when this city was a sparkling starlet, seducing Americans who came here to party away from the restrictions of prohibition. But what’s also impressive about this part of the city is the vision of the man behind the restoration project, Eusebio Leal Spengler, Havana’s celebrated City Historian, didn’t want the city to become an historical theme-park, he wanted an authentic ‘living’ centre where tourism and city life could find a harmonious balance. When sitting in the Plaza Vieja one morning sipping freshly roasted coffee, knowing that the pesos we spent here would be ploughed back in to more restoration and projects, we watched the children from a nearby school exercise and play games, their teachers blowing whistles to keep them in check. Passing an open door I look in to see a group of elderly patrons receiving tea in the courtyard of their convalescence home. There are neighbourhood committees and homes for children with disabilities all rubbing shoulders with museums, cafes and shops. So although at times it can feel that tourists are in the majority, especially when the cruise ships come to town, there is still a feeling that this is a working, gritty, modern city.
In the TV footage of the 1990s after the Soviet Union fell and Cuba was thrown in to what Fidel called a ‘special period in a time of peace’ we were shown a grey communist dystopia. Sad looking, downtrodden people stood in long, slow moving queues to receive their food rations. Those years were harsh and many Cubans suffered terribly due to the food shortages and hardships they faced. There are still remnants of these times in some of the ugly, concrete buildings, stereotypical of the communist era and people still queue for many of their daily needs – maybe to change money or to purchase bread from the bakeries. I have joined many of these queues, it was a significant part of my Cuban experience and I learnt to call out “ultimo?” to identify who is last in the often ragged line. But on the whole life has improved and there have been many positive changes, particularly in recent years under the rule of Fidel’s younger brother Raul. Cubans were given permission to buy and sell houses and cars, though not to foreigners. They were allowed to own mobile phones and gradually access to the Internet has become more widespread although it is still limited, expensive and slow. Young people are just the same as in any other city, heads bowed over their phones and dressed in modern fashions.
There is far greater freedom for travel and to live abroad although there are still those who leave the country illegally. One change which has made a significant impact on the lives of Cubans was the laying off nearly a million people from government jobs and allowing self-employment to prosper. This has meant an explosion of book stalls in the plazas and cramped little shops fashioned from the front rooms of private houses which line the narrow streets of old Havana selling anything from paintings to handmade hats, Che T-shirts and tourist souvenirs. From the windows of their front rooms some families sell small cups of strong coffee, sandwiches and doughy pizza.
There are the honest men who push carts with fruit and vegetables or flowers, and women selling homemade cakes and pastries.
And there are those who try to exhort money from the tourists by way of scams. Cigars which are actually banana leaves stuffed with low grade tobacco, the woman who wants you to buy milk for the fictitious baby or the conman who tells you the restaurant, bar or hotel you ask directions to is closed so you’ll go to the place where he receives commission. Everyone is just trying to make their business work and to cover the taxes the government applies or to supplement a government wage which on average is $28 per month. The freedom to start a business has also resulted in a plethora of ‘paladares’, family run eating places ranging from three or four tables in the front room serving simple Cuban staples, to superb restaurants experimenting with fusion fare. In addition to the paladares many families are taking advantage of the surge of tourists and have opened their homes as guest-houses or Casa Particulares as they are called here. In these havens away from the dust, heat and bustle of the cities we have found simple comfort and always a great welcome and warm hospitality.
One unpleasant aspect of this ageing old city is that despite the face lifts and primping she does whiff a bit. The majority of cars are over 50 years old and belch foul grey fumes which mix with the odour of horse sweat and manure, fetid stagnant drains and the sweet, sickly fermentation of rotting food and rubbish in the large open topped bins. Hold your breath for a few moments and with luck you will be cleansed with the comforting smell of freshly baked bread or the floral scents of laundry which hangs, fluttering from balconies everywhere.
I loved this melange of classy elegance and unkempt shabbiness. It was as though I was seeing an actress in all her finery and glory performing for her audience and then getting a backstage tour which revealed her vulnerabilities, wrinkles and weariness when all the makeup and fine clothes had been stripped away. Whichever way you view her, she’s a stunner.