Our Man in Habana


While resting up surrounded by the fading red felt of Il Floridita, a well known bar in La Habana Vieja quarter frequented by Ernest Hemingway, late in the afternoon on the second day I was in the city that I thought “Yes, this is a very good place.” I was chatting to four Norwegian guys, lined in similar easy chairs along the bar, and they were thinking pretty much the same. So, we continued contentedly to
slurp our Cuba Libres, and ordered a couple more.

Having struck up a conversation, we then decided that, over the next few days, we would show any locals who cared that we could play football. A matter that we somewhat succeeded in doing on municipal basketball courts, hot and hard, in the shadow of the colonial walls, cooler, and on the beach, extremely hot and hard as you feel like you are playing through treacle. For the record, we won the first two games but lost the last one as you need the bull-strength of a Maradona or the athletic skills of Pelé to play well on sand.
If you are less athletically inclined, other daytime activities one can enjoy involve strolls down the sea road, the Malecon, which runs for the entire length of the city, into the older quarters of Vieja and the neighbouring Vedado. A visit to the prince’s castle and the revolutionary museums and Capitolo Nacional, a replica of Washington DC’s capitol building are well worth the effort. Strolling around you will see a remarkable mix of architectural styles from neo-classical, colonial and baroque up to modernist hotels designed by Walter Gropius and Oscar Niemeyer.

If you are there in summer, you will be glad of the few cooling squares to rest in as the temperature will be the normal Caribbean standard of 30 degrees Celsius, but with around 80 degrees of humidity. Sweaty, but good if weight loss is part your holiday ambitions.
Another way to cool off is to hire one of the movable remnants left from the Batista dictatorship, an array of 1950s Chevies, Plymouths and Lincolns. These open-top specimens of a stylish era were mostly left by fleeing US expats and Cubans who didn’t fancy discussions about dialectics and didactism with Fidel Castro or one of hisfriends when he swept into town on 1st January, 1959. Their arrival was something of
a party stopper.
Whole streets in the centre of town are devoted to garage after garage where teams of mechanics improvise with what they have to rebuild pistons, radiators and other engines to keep on the road types of cars that elsewhere have ended either in a specialist museum, Jay Leno’s garage or more sadly in the crusher a couple of decades ago. These cars are now used to ferry around happy travellers and tourists to see the sites of the city or head down the coastal road to the nearby beaches.

But if you just want to walk the streets popping into the cafes at the Hotel Ingleterra, the Bacardi Building or other similarly splendid  constructions, you will find a genuinely friendly city where live music is played in most bars most of the time. As much as how the locals deal with the US embargo with a make and mend policy it is their willingness to enjoy song and dance that shows that though still relatively poor they can deal with any adversity.
Music becomes the soundtrack to your stay in the city, as even when the locals have retreated indoors for their mid-afternoon siesta the streets are still filled with mordant tunes that accompany Latin America’s favourite TV soap operas.
The other soundtrack that you will hear constantly is hawkers selling cigars and many other things. Generally, they will leave you alone after a while as there is a high police presence, a reminder that the city might be beautiful and the weather glorious but it is the centre of a one party state and opposition is put down pretty efficiently, as were the recent demonstrations by the Ladies in White.
Despite this, Havana’s spirit and its inhabitants seem irrepressible. On my arrival at the national airport I found that the hotel I was meant to stay in was overbooked. It was late and it seemed that I may be crashing on a bench for the night, but my guide gave me a big conciliatory smile and said: “Don’t worry Señor, we’ll find a solution, after all this is Habana!”