I foolishly thought I could get all of one day’s worth of touring into one post. Didn’t happen, and so I continue on my tour of Havana, Cuba. Check out yesterday’s post, Havana, Cuba: Crumbling Colonial Architecture, Classic American Cars, and the Warm Cuban People, for a little more history and insight on the city and how my day began.
About midday our tour group ended up at the Hotel Nacional de Cuba where Sinatra, Hemingway, and Winston Churchill were guests. After passing through the tiled entryway, we went straight to the ground floor bar via the ballroom. The room is almost a museum to the many famous people of all walks of life who visited. In addition to the photographs, there is scattered memorabilia-like a guitar from Peter Frampton-around the room. I toured the grounds a bit before heading back to meet the tour group. I was glad I didn’t know at the time that Cubans are denied entry to the Hotel.
The rest of the tour will be conducted as a larger group via a bus. Jorge will still be with me. Our first stop is the Aramburo district with street art and a section dedicated to the celebration of the African cultural traditions brought to Cuba. A theatrical group accompanied by women on drums, performed a play based on their stories. Each character represented a deity dedicated to the honoring of very basic facets of life. The main character is the trickster. I loved the color, music, and dance of this area.
Finally, we moved on to the Habana Vieja, the colonial historic district of Havana that is an UNESCO World Heritage Site. We left the bus and passed by the Castillo de la Real Fuerza and the Temple where the city originated. Next to it is the Plaza de Armas (Arms), but Jorge likes to call it the Parade Plaza because he thinks the term arms doesn’t sit well with tourists. The plaza is centered by a statute of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, considered initiator of the Cuban wars of independence and father of the country for his symbolic freeing of his six slaves. In addition to the castle, the former American Embassy faces the square (now a bank) as well as the city first baroque building (now a museum). The Governor made this building his residence and had a wooden street installed in front to diminish the sound of the passing carriages.
This is the part of the tour where they direct us to a souvenir shop that sells only rum, cigars, and coffee. Boris was going to select some rum (I do drink) and cigars (I do not smoke) for us. I had no interest in the store so I walked around the square taking pictures, then Jorge walked me to a small nearby shop where I could get something different I might be interested in. It is run by some of his neighbors. I selected a few small paintings.
Finally, Jorge led me past the ceramic museum to Plaza de San Francisco the location of a lovely church and fountain. It is directly across from our ship terminal. All of the areas we have seen since entering Habana Vieja have been beautifully restored. We are meeting the rest of the group in the courtyard of a gallery directly across from the entrance to the church. It is time for a second mojito. I don’t know if it was because of the choice of rum, the preparation, or the fact that this is my second mojito on no food since breakfast, but it tasted fabulous.
Jorge and I enjoyed the lovely setting. He was still convinced I was a professor, so I let him know that I was a retired lawyer who volunteers for the University I attended and a nonprofit dedicated to providing opportunities and teaching leadership skills to young women, the Girl Scouts. “Ah,” he said, “you ARE a professor. I will continue to refer to you as doctor.” Natasha was most flattered.
Then he returned to the subject of law and we discussed the similarities and differences in our laws and law enforcement, finding more similarities than differences. Jorge and I chose to focus on the ways we are the same. Jorge has been to the United States and said an individual in the sponsoring organization (who he no longer does work for) was impressed by his skill in multiple languages and suggested he might want to stay in the USA and find work. Jorge knew and said that he knew this was illegal. Although he had a longer Visa, he returned to Cuba after only 5 months.
Talk about a great cultural exchange! The partnership I was concerned about, Jorge and I touring together, guide and tourist, turned out to be special and a wonderful experience. We walked over to the terminal together before parting at the staircase where I would go up to pass through immigration.
Although I had expected to arrive after Boris, I beat him back to the room. I was so hungry and so tempted to go up for a late lunch without him, but I waited. He had gone on the Hemingway tour. The American author, Ernest Hemingway, had a long relationship with Cuba and particularly the area of the country in and around Havana. Boris visited “Francisco de Paula, the town where Hemingway lived and worked for 20 years.” They also visited Finca Vigia, the house where Hemingway lived from mid 1939 to 1960 and in which he “penned some of his greatest works, including For Whom the Bell Tolls and Old Man and the Sea.”
Hemingway loved to fish and the tour also took them “to the fishing village of Cojimar to see a monument dedicated to Hemingway after his death in 1961.” Back in the city, they stopped for a mojito at La Bodeguita del Medio, one of Hemingway’s haunts. They walked by La Floridita and the Hotel Ambos Mundos, but Boris was very disappointed that they didn’t go inside. Together, Boris and I had lunch on the ship at the outdoor café and I suggested since we planned to go back into town that day that we just go to the bar and the hotel in the late afternoon and either return for a late dinner on the ship or eat out. I think Boris was already thinking along the same lines. Jorge had pointed out the hotel and I had seen the bar on the map so I knew where we were going.
I was able to take Boris straight to the hotel. Boris knew that the room Hemingway had lived in for seven years at the Hotel Ambos Mundos had been maintained and was open to visitors. He also knew the room number so we headed up to the 5th floor. Although now fully automated, the hotel has one of those fabulous old cage elevators. They do still employ elevator operators.
We found the room. Although it was within visiting hours, the door was closed and locked. Finally we heard a voice that told us it would be a minute. A docent eventually let us in and we paid the 5cuc fee (each) to tour a very small hotel room with a closet and small bathroom. It was rather strange. The room has a wonderful setting on a corner overlooking the water toward Plaza de Armas. Hemingway’s typewriter, his desk (that could be raised and lowered so you could type while standing), some of his clothing, and other memorabilia from Finca Vigia was in the room. Boris was so excited to be there. It was the only time I had ever toured a hotel room.
The shuttered windows were closed and locked, but the docent suggested we check out the 6th floor terrace bar for a similar view. We walked up and found a lovely rooftop terrace with tiled walls and excellent views. It would have been a great place for a drink, but we still had to make it to the Floridita.
We walked down a semi-renovated pedestrian street to reach the Floridita near the city’s central park. Along the way, we saw lots of outdoor cafes and bars with musicians playing. These venues have no air-conditioning so all had the doors and windows are open so you can enjoy the music without even going inside.
La Floridita is a restaurant, but it is the bar that is famous. It was Hemingway’s favorite hangout. They have a life-size bronze statute of him leaning against the bar. There are lots of pictures of Hemingway on the walls, including a large one of him and a young Fidel Castro. We stood at the bar and eventually got seats there. There was a great band playing and we liked the music so much we purchased a CD. The vibe was fantastic. There were locals and tourists alike and the room was so crowded you could barely move through it.
La Floridita claims to be the birthplace of the daiquiri. The bartenders were always moving; they just kept making daiquiris and the blenders kept buzzing. It wasn’t my favorite daiquiri, so I tried a pina colada. Oh my, heaven. One daiquiri and two pina coladas (for Natasha) later, the band had finished and the crowd had thinned slightly so Boris suggested we move on.
There were lots of people on the street. The corner was also a popular one for cabs, coco taxis (small motorized vehicles made for no more than three guests that are supposed to resemble coconuts), carts, bikes, and classic American cars. We had had enough to drink so we decided dinner was in order. Both of us were tired from a long day, so we headed back to the ship.
I suggested trying a different street back. What a difference a block makes! No major renovation on this street, although one building had been demolished. A peak inside showed the interiors had not been renovated and the electric wiring was an after thought. No tourists on this street, but plenty of activity. People were buying food from cart vendors. They was even one selling homemade cupcakes.
We made our way back to ship, too exhausted for another late night in Havana. We will probably regret it.