48 hours in Havana
Stroll through the magnificent decrepitude of the finest Spanish colonial city, to see Che Guevara's sock and the hotel that Hemingway called home
Saturday 17 March 2001
Why go now?
Why go now?
Because the finest Spanish colonial city on earth is shining more brightly this spring than it has for decades. Because you no longer have to go there via Prague or East Berlin. And because there is still time to see the West's most wayward capital before it capitulates completely to capitalism.
The only airlines flying non-stop are Cubana (020-7734 1165, www.cubana.cu/ingles) and British Airways (0845 77 333 77, www.britishairways.com), which fly once and twice a week respectively from Gatwick to Havana. Fares for the BA non-stops are high - around £500 - so you may do better to find a city break package. There are also good deals from a range of UK airports on Air France, through discount agents. The specialist South American Experience (020-7976 5511), for example, can organise a four-night trip from any UK airport served by Air France, going out Friday, returning on the Monday overnight flight. It costs £625, including accommodation at the Hotel Florida, based on two sharing. From the international terminal at the airport, there is little option but to pay the $25 (£17) or so demanded by a cab driver to take you into town. In the country of the peso, the US dollar is king.
Get your bearings
The Caribbean's biggest city has three cores, strung out along the Atlantic coast. The oldest, and the place you will spend most time, is Habana Vieja (Old Havana), the almond-shaped area that still boasts scraps of the old city walls. Next along, Centro Habana is, frankly, even more of a slum than the rest of the capital - but, if you keep your wits about you, it is one of the most intriguing parts of the city. Vedado, the new quarter to the west, is the revolutionary and commercial hub of Havana. These districts are linked by the most abysmal selection of public transport you have ever seen, plus taxis and cycle-taxis, but the most rewarding way to see them is to walk. To get a view of the whole magnificent decrepitude, head further west to the Model of the City, housed in a hangar on Calle 28 between Avenidas 1 and 3; an extraordinarily detailed wooden model gives an overview of the capital.
The optimum place to stay is the newly restored 1885 courtyard that has re-opened as the Hotel Florida (00 53 7 62 41 27) on Calle Obispo, right in the middle of Old Havana. Rooms are arranged around a cool courtyard, dappled with light, and are well worth the $105 (£72) rate for a double room; it is worth nipping in here for a beer even if you are staying in the perennially cheerful and grotty Caribbean on the Prado (00 53 7 62 20 71), where rooms are half the price. Even cheaper, there are plenty of homes offering private rooms to foreigners at about $30 (£21) for a double, but most of these are in Centro Habana; they are banned within Old Havana.
Take a ride
Almost anything that moves in Havana can be construed as a taxi but, from an aesthetic point of view, the only way to travel is in a pre-1959 American saloon car. Plenty of them ply the streets of Havana, but the best way to feel like an extra in Buena Vista Social Club is to pick up a collective taxi on the fringes of Old Havana and Centro Habana - for example, those that congregate to the east of the massive dome of the Capitolio - and from there head across to the old Mafia haunts of Miramar.
Take a hike
The main square is the Parque Central, which is the hub of the city's life. From here, make your way east along Calle O'Reilly - named after Alejandro O'Reilly, who hailed from Spain rather than Ireland - through deliciously complex layers of colonialism, communism and community. Then, take a 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 of this zig-zag back along Calle Obrapia. You can keep this up all morning, uncovering all manner of curiosities, and being hissed at once per block by someone intent on offering cheap cigars, rum or sex.
The icing on the cake
Take the lift to the top of the Jose Marti memorial on Revolution Square. Che smiles up at you while you survey the whole heroic mess that is the Caribbean's largest and greatest city. And, by the way, that heavily guarded building behind you is the office of Fidel Castro.
A walk in the park
Las Ruinas stands in the Parque Lenin, an open space studded with Marxist memorabilia that has outlasted the collapse of Communism elsewhere in the world. Or, much closer to the centre of town, visit the Jardin de Diana, established in 1998 to celebrate another icon: Diana, Princess of Wales.
The concept of Sunday brunch has not permeated deep into the consciousness of the average Cuban restaurateur. But take a cab 10 miles south to Las Ruinas, an ambitious 1960s structure wrapped around the lichen-covered walls of an old plantation house, sumptuously furnished and embellished with some impressive modern Cuban art - a setting so extraordinary that you probably won't care about the food.
Sunday morning: go to church
The church and convent of Santa Clara, at the west end of the street of that name, is a wonderfully airy, cool and calm place - a welcome respite from the rest of Havana. Play your rosary right, and you may be invited to visit the crypt. Or wander into the lopsided cathedral, which once held the bones of Christopher Columbus.
In Cuba? Little chance of that. If you want to lose weight, so the saying goes, head for Havana. The food is generally lousy, even in the paladares - private restaurants seating fewer than 12 people - but at least in these places there is some chance that the ingredients may be fresh. The supply of paladares fluctuates; if you have difficulty in tracking one down, plenty of people will help you.
"My mojito in La Bodeguita", Hemingway was fond of saying - but in the Fifties, La Bodeguita del Medio wasn't an unashamed tourist trap and one of the most expensive bars in Havana, charging more for its signature cocktail of rum, lime, soda, sugar, ice and mint than the average Cuban earns in a week. For a chaser, head to the Bar de Bilbao, a hilariously drunken dive on the corner of Calles Obispo and Aguilar.
The retail revolution in Havana can be carbon-dated to the moment in 1994 when Castro deflected insurrection by decreeing that, henceforth, it was legal for Cubans to possess dollars. But an economy crippled by the US economic blockade produces precious little that you might actually want to buy, apart from cigars, rum and, in the tourist market fringing the old town, some impressive and low-priced percussion instruments.
Fidel would be pleased if you call in at the Presidential Palace. Not his heavily guarded headquarters, 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 comrades, including the caskets that bore their remains back from Bolivia, and a single sock that once belonged to the revolutionary.
Lunch on the run
An entire cottage industry of fast(ish) food takeaways has emerged in Old Havana and Centro Habana. The standard offering is "pizza", a tepid mix of dough and an approximation to dough, which costs five pesos (about 15p) a slab.
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