City break: 48 hours in the heart of Havana

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For a short cut to the soul of the Cuban capital, Michael Williams offers a guide.

Why go now?

Because the finest Spanish colonial city on earth is shining more brightly this December than for a decade. Because you no longer have to fly via Gander or East Berlin to get there. And, who knows, after four decades of revolution, it really could be Fidel Castro's last Christmas ...

Beam down

Cubana (0171-734 1165) flies three times a week from Gatwick, using a DC-10. A fortnight from today it begins flying weekly from Manchester. Fares are high: around pounds 500, including taxes. But you could also find a package tour, staying in the best hotels for around the same price. Be prepared for your flight to stop at Brussels, taking the journey time up to 12 hours. Taxis at the airport cost around pounds 10 into town.

Check in

After a trip like that, you don't want to be scouring the darkened streets of Old Havana for somewhere to stay. So try to book in advance. The budget option is the perennially cheerful and grotty Caribbean (00 53 7 62 2071) on the Prado. The smarter and more atmospheric Plaza (00 53 7 62 2066) or Inglaterra (00 53 7 62 7072) on Parque Central, the main square, cost around pounds 60 double. Top of the range is the new Hotel Santa Isabel, just opened in a converted palace on the lavishly restored Plaza de Armas (00 537 33 8201). It costs around pounds 90 for two.

Get your bearings

You could easily spend a week, let alone a weekend, in the conspiratorial confines of Old Havana. But to see how it fits into the Revolutionary scheme of the whole, take a trip out to the western district of Miramar (where, pre-1959, the Mafia community hung out) and see the Model of the City, housed in a hangar on Calle 28 between Avenidas 1 and 3. An amazingly detailed wooden model gives an excellent overview of the entire capital, with each century colour coded to give an idea of the development of Havana.

Take a ride

Almost anything that moves in Havana can be construed as a taxi. But from an aesthetic point of view, a pre-1959 American saloon (of which there are hundreds prowling the streets) is the only way to travel. You can pick up a dowager of Detroit around Parque Central or near the railway station. Fix your price with the driver first.

Literary interlude

While you are queueing (get used to Cuban queues) for immigration, or changing money, or simply waiting to be served in a cafe, re-read Graham Greene's Our Man In Havana. This comic tale of the vacuum cleaner salesman turned spy is the perfect evocation of the Havana mood - the steamy heat, the sleaze and that indefinable sense of political danger. It was written in 1958, but half-close your eyes and it could just be happening in 1997.

Take a hike

From the main square, go east along Calle O'Reilly through deliciously complex layers of colonialism, Communism and community. Promenade around the Plaza de Armas, nod in the direction of Ernest Hemingway at the Ambos Mundos hotel (and toll the bell that stands opposite), then return along Calle Obispo. When you reach the main square at the end, loop back along Calle Obrapia. You can keep this up all morning, turning up all manner of curiosities - and being hissed at once per block by someone offering cheap cigars - or a girl.

Lunch on the run

Havana is not a great city for people who lunch. Best bet is to stoke up on the lavish hotel breakfasts, though this year for the first time a fast(ish) food industry has emerged from the doorways of Old Havana and its seedier western neighbour, Central Havana. You can get a slab of pizza in brown paper and an ice-cream for eight pesos (30p).

Cultural afternoon

Fidel will be pleased if you call in at the Presidential Palace. Not his heavily guarded HQ, of course, but the residence of the dictator he deposed - Fulgencio Batista. This has become the Museum of the Revolution, repository of the heritage of Che Guevara and his companeres. You can see not only such revolutionary essentials as Che's socks and his mistress's handbag, but also, in the gardens outside, the mangled wreckage of an American U2 spy plane shot down during the Cuban missile crisis.

Window shopping

Cuba is the perfect destination for shopaholics to go cold turkey. You are free to browse, presupposing you can find a shop with (a) windows that aren't concealed by grubby net curtains, or (b) anything you might want in it. You will be offered countless cigars, but to avoid duds wait until you get to the airport on the way home. A good bet for a souvenir is to head for the quirky second-hand book market on Plaza de Armas, or some old postcards of historic Havana from the Office of the City Historian at the bottom of Calle Obispo.

An aperitif

"My daiquiri in El Floridita," Hemingway was fond of saying. But in the Fifties, it wasn't the priciest bar in Havana; now it charges more for a cocktail than the average Cuban earns in a week. Instead, head for the raucous La Lluvia del Oro, halfway down Obispo. You won't miss it, because of the blast of salsa thrumming through the door.

Demure dinner

Most restaurants serve dreary, standardised fare. Not surprising, since they are generally run by the state. But since 1994, entrepreneurs have been able to open private restaurants, palodares, provided they don't seat more than 12 people. A good place to go is La Moneda, serving delicious fish with salad, beans and rice with fried banana for less than pounds 5 a head. It is at San Ignacio 77, near the cathedral, but get there early - there are only three tables.

A night at the opera

Chris Smith may think he's on to a good thing by reinventing Covent Garden as "the people's opera". But Fidel got there first: pounds 7.50 will buy you the best seat in the house at the Gran Teatro de la Habana, which claims to be the oldest working theatre in the world. The splendid 2,000-seat baroque building was opened in 1837. You won't even have to queue for a seat. Respectful of culture-loving tourists, Cubans will push you to the front of the line.

Sunday: go to church

The Pope arrives next month, and religion is the big thing in town. But you don't need to brave the bustle and crowds of Cathedral Square. Head for the white Iglesia del Santo Angel Custodio, on Monserrate, near the waterfront. It nestles among some of the loveliest streets of the old town - just the place to lift the spirits.

Bracing brunch

The sun will be hot now, and it's time to cool off by the fountain in the Moorish courtyard of the newly restored Hotel Sevilla. Take tapas here, with perhaps a mojito (ice, lime, mint and rum) to revive the spirits. (Mind the gents, though; it was here that Greene's hero, Wormald, was recruited into MI6).

The old man and the sea

Get a 1954 Chevvy to drive you to Hemingway's old villa at the Finca Viga, 10 miles south of the city - Marie Celeste-like, the gleaming-white house is just as he left it when he departed from Cuba in 1958, shortly before his suicide. With hunting trophies on the wall, whisky bottles at the ready and the table set for dinner, you expect the big man to walk in at any minute.

The icing on the cake

Take the lift to the top of the newly opened (but not newly built) Jose Marti memorial on Revolution Square. Che Guevara smiles up at you while you survey the whole heroic mess that is the Caribbean's largest and greatest city.

High road

For the past 32 years, the way to travel from Birmingham New Street to London Euston has been by InterCity train. The journey time has increased considerably in that period, from 83 minutes in the Seventies to 100 or more now that Virgin Trains runs the service, rather than British Rail. The fare for a day return, departing at around 9am, is pounds 59.50 return; this falls to pounds 24 after 9.30am. Details of this, and most other trains - but not the one below - from 0345 484950.

Low road

Silverlink County sounds like a brand of tennis racket, but is, in fact, the new name for the privatised North London Railways. It, too, runs trains between Birmingham and Euston, though they travel a slower, longer route via Northampton. - taking just over two hours.

A day-trip starting any time after 8.30am costs pounds 17.90, and if four people travel together they pay a total of pounds 28 - just pounds 7 each. Before 8.30am, though, the fare is a whacking pounds 59.50. Find out more on 01923 207258.