Dispatch: Enchanted in Havana
Hemingway sculpture at the Floridita bar in Havana. (photos by David Cogswell)
On the Celestyal Cruise Around Cuba we had two precious days in Havana, and it felt like we had centuries to catch up on. We had to do our best to make the most of it. Our second day was going to be Havana on foot and we started in the historic city center, Old Havana or Habana Viejo, the one essential place to visit.
Dating back to its founding by the Spanish in 1519, the old city is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s the original settlement next to the harbor that eventually grew into modern Havana.
The area is characterized by old neoclassic and baroque buildings from the colonial era. The district is run down, but many restorations are taking place and the newly restored buildings glow with a new, colorful veneer. The old buildings clean up nicely and it is becoming an increasingly beautiful, storybook area to spend time in.
READ MORE: Dispatch: Docking in Havana
There were many cranes on the Havana skyline, and a lot of building is taking place. The wheels are in motion, and no one, not even Raul Castro himself, can completely control or predict how it will change.
We started at the plaza of the Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception, a good entranceway to the old city. After Isora, our guide, gave us some preliminary remarks introducing us to the area, she turned us loose to roam around the shops and cafes.
Most of the businesses are local shops, and there are numerous beautiful cafes, many with outdoor tables. It’s constantly bustling with tourists as well as local people.
On that day, I saw something I had not yet seen in Cuba: a corporate logo on one of the buildings. It was United Colors of Benetton, and the logo appeared tastefully on the front of the shop. No doubt it is a sign of things to come.
All such foreign-owned businesses in Cuba, such as the hotels, operate through joint venture agreements with the government. But one of Cuba’s most unique features is the fact that there are no corporate logos and signs, virtually nothing like advertising anywhere you go, except for some billboards that celebrate the Revolution. So seeing the logo of Benetton on the outside of a building was almost a shock.
We shall see how it develops. There is no doubt that Cuba is changing fast. It’s not a matter of “will change,” it’s more a matter of “is changing” and is changing rapidly.
After roaming around independently for a while, our group gathered again and Isora led us to what is described accurately enough as a palace. The Palacio de la Familia Pedroso dates back to 1780 and is built with stone Doric columns and arches and a large open courtyard in the middle where the sun shines. It’s now set up as a public gathering place, beautifully restored and maintained with tables and chairs in the courtyard, a performance stage at the back and vendors around the perimeter.
We sat near the stage where a little combo played music that rattled with jagged syncopated percussion and we were treated to a presentation about Cuban rum and cigars.
We were each given a Romeo y Julieta cigar, taught how to light it (with long chips of cedar), how to hold it (for men it’s a fist with the index finger wrapped over the cigar, for women it’s two fingers up and two fingers down), and how to smoke it (hold the smoke in your mouth and taste it, never inhale).
We also learned about drinking rum, and about the differences between the clear rum and the darker, aged rum. Havana Club rum was provided to taste along with instructions on how to taste it. You swish it around your mouth to enjoy the flavor before swallowing it. It works! It starts to digest in your mouth and the flavor comes out.
The band came over to our table, all women wearing red shirts, and played for us. They let us join in with percussion instruments they lent us. The Havana euphoria was sinking in deep now and it was still before noon.
After the rum and cigar tasting, feeling increasingly authoritative as Habaneros, we went for lunch at a small restaurant down a nearly deserted street, beyond the showcase center of the old city. It was called El Zaguan. The long, narrow room had seating for 35 people or so.
They were not expecting us and were challenged to handle a group of 15 people. They showed us the menu, but told us they would be short on a number of the items listed. There were about three power shortages while we were there. When the lights went down the place was lit only by the sunlight coming in the front.
Two men looked out from the kitchen at us through a serving window and watched us in fascination, as if they had never seen such a strange gathering of chattering Norteamericanos.
It goes without saying that there was live music in the restaurant as there is almost anywhere you find yourself in Cuba. This time it was two pretty young women who played guitars and sang all the familiar old songs like “Quizas Quizas Quizas” and “Besame Mucho” with sweet voices.
We also stopped for daiquiris at Floridita, one of the places that claims Hemingway as a former regular customer. It is also supposed to be the place where the daiquiri was invented. There is a statue of Ernesto himself at the end of the bar where he is said to have routinely planted himself.
It’s quite a good likeness, though much smaller than Ernesto himself. He was a big dude. There are a couple of pictures of Hemingway with a young Fidel Castro on the wall behind the statue. Hemingway’s presence in the bar is almost tangible.
At Floridita, the band sets up right at the door so you almost have to walk through the band to get in or out. It was a little combo with an upright bass, a woman playing a violin, bongos, a guitar and maracas. Of course I bought their CD.
The Cubans love Hemingway, and their claim of ownership has some validity. Hemingway lived in Cuba from 1939 till 1960, about a year before his death. He wrote seven books there, including "The Old Man and the Sea" and "A Moveable Feast."
From 1932 to 1939 he spent his winters in Cuba at the Hotel Ambos Mundos in his special room, number 511. We saw the hotel during our walk through Old Havana. That was where he wrote "For Whom the Bell Tolls," based on his experiences during the Spanish Civil War. Castro said he actually learned some things about guerrilla warfare from reading the book.
Hemingway is said to have downed a half dozen to a dozen daiquiris at a sitting when he came into the Floridita. The management had a special high-test daiquiri they served him called El Papa Doble.
We could not match his drinking prowess but we enjoyed walking in his footsteps, and learning about Cuba similarly to how he educated himself. Only a high school graduate, Hemingway preferred traveling to the university as a means of education. And in his pursuit of enlightenment he preferred bars to museums.
“Don’t bother with churches, government buildings or city squares,” he said, “If you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars.”
Havana was so great we could have spent 20 years there, as Ernesto did. But unfortunately the ship was scheduled to pull out that afternoon and we had to get back. After only two daiquiris, my body was leaden. It was hard to lift it out of my chair. But it wasn’t the rum.
It was hard to leave Havana.
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