We explored parques, plazas, museos, fortresses and libros with Monica and Mike K.
We began by heading for Parque Central not far from the casa where Monica and Mike were staying. On our way through Animas and the surrounding calles we could see the state of the buildings and the work going on everywhere. A mix of dilapidated buildings falling apart, others standing upright, some were just a concrete skeleton, some lots were empty except for rubble and other buildings were colourfully painted. You had to watch where you walked dodging the rubbish, puddles of water and what not. Stray dogs roamed and laid about. Washing hung from lines above us. There were fruit and vegetable market stalls, usually bananas, on the corners of the streets. Some doors and windows were open to let the air in so we could see some homes were tiled but others only had concrete and unplastered walls. Along the Prado or Paseo de Marti piles of rubble lined the main street as workmen concentrated on repairing the infrastructure under the road. We passed the newly restored Francais Alliance building but the blue Centro Cultural Cubano Arabo building was not quite as polished yet. You could see that there were so many different styles of buildings as well as the different conditions they were in. Stepping over the rubble we saw Hotel Inglaterra, then a row of colourful and polished old cars lined up by the park and the Roman-like white dome of the Capitolio Nacional building ahead of us. With all the work going on at the moment, we realised that it’s far better to walk in the centre pathway of the Prado and walk across the road when you need to.
We went to the Museo de Revolucion which used to be the former government building. The museum was basically a series of rooms on three levels with old black and white photographs (some of them disturbing war images) accompanied by Spanish and English explanations of battles, heroes and heroines as well as the new socialist society they founded. There were some war artefacts too, guns, clothes including Che’s and typewriters as well as a wax replica of Che in guerilla action. You could get a sense of what this building was like before the revolucion from the Hall of Mirrors. You can view the rooms where the new socialist government reigned from, one of them with a gold telephone and once you’re out of the building there are more revolucion artefacts, rockets and the famous yacht that Castro and the revolutionaries used. This is the museum to go to if you want to know all about the revolution and you could easily spend a few hours here if you wanted to digest it in detail but even two hours of it was enough for me.
As we continued on our walk, it was easy to notice clues everywhere that indicated Havana’s different pasts and not just in the renovated buildings. We went by a boarded and locked up building that had Bolsa De La Habana, inscribed on it, the former stock exchange building I presume. Another inscription on the footpath that read New York Hotel but when you look up you just see the encased concrete walls of whatever building is behind it. Fading art deco signage of restaurants and shops. Chipped tiles around doors and windows which must have been elegant in their time. The Chinatown gate still stands in a dilapidated state as a record of El Barrio Chino which had been a buzzing Chinatown by the 1920s but is now run down except for a done up area of restaurants and the street sign with both English and Chinese writing, Calle Zanja. I don’t think the Chinese run it anymore. While Mike and Monica went to the Museo de Belles Artes we followed our nose to this barrio, Mike snapping away and me trying not to breathe in the exhaust fumes as I studied the map and sprayed some lavender water onto my face.
Then deeper in Havana Vieja there are the old beautiful plazas, very Spanish style, surrounded by churches and grand buildings: Plaza de la Catedral, Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco. These plazas come as a surprise after walking through streets of crumbling buildings. Coming out of ruinous areas are colourful and beautifully restored buildings with shops, bars and restaurants, markets, performers dressed in costumes. In these places there were also jineteros (hawkers and sales people) but they leave you alone after you say no. A no gracias or fuimos ya or lo tenemos ya or no lo necesito gracias sufficed to get them off our back only once (no thanks, we went already, we have it already, we don’t need it thanks). These areas are also full of tourists because it’s close to the cruise ship terminals and plush hotels. No wonder the buildings have been renovated here.
We wanted to see books and forts so to the book fair we went. The Feria Internacional de Libros was held inside the fortress across the bay, la Punta Fortress. It was a 10 minute pleasant short ferry ride from the terminal to Casablanca to get there and then just a short walk up passing the Cristo of Havana statue. Many countries from Latin America participate in the book fair but on first impressions the range of themes and authors seemed a bit limited to me although we were only spending a short time there. Even Mexico City bookshops had a wide range of translated authors. However, we did find some English books that were taken out of a locked cupboard that inspired Mike and Monica’s purchases. Plus it is fantastic to see a book fair so well attended by the public. From the fort beside the old cannons you get a wonderful panoramic view of Havana stretching from the terminal to the Malecon.
We tried a Cuban traditional meal in a restaurant near another 16th-century fortress, the Castillo De La Real Fuerza. Called Ropa Vieja, old clothes, it is a kind of a stew, either with beef or lamb. I tried some of Mike’s otherwise I usually ordered vegetarian like Monica and Mike K. even if you only always got rice, beans and salad. Cuba still has a long way to go in terms of food variety.