The Streets that Made the Century: The Prado, Havana, Cuba

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The Independent Online

The stretched Lada that lumbers north along the broad avenue from Havana's main square to the Atlantic Ocean represents a triumph of Cuban pragmatism over politics. Having been shunned by its nearest neighbour (Miami is a half-hour flight away) and rebuffed by the new regime in Moscow, Havana has certainly suffered more than most cities this century.

The stretched Lada that lumbers north along the broad avenue from Havana's main square to the Atlantic Ocean represents a triumph of Cuban pragmatism over politics. Having been shunned by its nearest neighbour (Miami is a half-hour flight away) and rebuffed by the new regime in Moscow, Havana has certainly suffered more than most cities this century.

The handsome street was laid out in the late 18th century by Marques de la Torre, Spain's governor of the island. Most of the neo-classical façades came later, but all are crumbling. They vibrate to the roar of old American automobiles and the whine of Soviet saloons that have been extended by the judicious addition of yet another accident write-off.

Yet though it is several glories short of magnificence, the Prado has been central to the first and only century of Cuban independence, which began in a messy sort of way when Spain pulled out of its last American colony in 1899. The United States took over as proprietor, and began creating an offshore fun palace: the Palacio de Matrimonio on the Prado was, until the revolution, one of the city's many casinos.

Washington's puppets were installed in the Presidential Palace, a confection built halfway along the Prado between 1913 and 1920. The interiors are by Tiffany & Co of New York.

It was against a background of such affluence, compared with the poverty just a few blocks away in central Havana, that the revolution began. After an unsuccessful assassination attempt by a group of students, the tyrant Fulgencio Batista finally fled to the Dominican Republic in the early hours of New Year's Day in 1959.

The revolutionaries duly turned the palace into a shrine to rebellion: the Museum of the Revolution is a litany of anti-imperialism, in which one name appears more than any other: Che Guevara. The vessel that carried him, Fidel Castro, and 80 other revolutionaries from Mexico to the south coast of Cuba in 1956, is preserved, encased in glass. The name of this diminutive cabin cruiser is Granma, meaning "grandmother"; it has been applied to everything from the official Party newspaper to the Cuban province where the rebels first landed.

The Sala de la Gesta Boliviana (Room of the Bolivian Quest) is more moving. It contains the casket in which Che's remains were brought back in 1997 from his attempt to foment revolution in South America 30 years earlier.

As with many streets in Havana, the Prado is officially known by its post-revolutionary name, Paseo de Martí - honouring the father of Cuban independence, the poet José Martí. But everyone still calls it by the name applied to echo the splendour of Madrid.

These days, the locals who promenade along the raised pavement in the centre of the road are almost matched numerically by tourists. Everything you need is here, from the most expensive hotel in town (earlier this year I paid a painful £160 for a night at the Golden Tulip) to the Asistur office (where you head to report that all your belongings have been stolen).

The Sevilla, where Graham Greene's man in Havana was a resident, is enjoying a refurbished lease of life, but the finest place to stay in the city is the Casa Cientifico. Built in 1919 as the official residence of Miguel Gomez, one of Cuba's first presidents, this elegant mansion is now in the hands of the Academy of Sciences. It is used as a hotel for visiting scientists, and more recently, for tourists.

In February and March, the street fills with stalls, floats and up to a quarter of a million people for the Carnival weekends. The 2000 event promises to be the biggest and best since the revolution. At such times, the safest place to be is on the roof terrace of the Casa Cientifico.

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