A March 2007 trip
to Havana by MichaelJM
Quote: There are plenty of places to visit in Havana and it really is a matter of sorting your priorities before visiting Cuban's capital
Having explained to us a little about the place where we were standing we climbed aboard and Benjamin lowered the carriage’s canopy, as he explained, "to give us a better view". A few gentle words to Lindo and we gently clattered off down the streets. A couple of times we had to stop for some "minor repairs" to the carriage’s wheel arch caused as the wheels crashed over Havana’s notorious potholes. "Well", explained Benjamin as he almost apologetically climbed back into the driving position, "it is an extremely old vehicle and it needs a lot of care."
Our first stop was in Plaza de San Francisco which is dominated by the impressive early 18th Century Church for Francis of Assisi. This now houses the Museum of Religious Art and has a superb tranquil garden crammed with art work, beautiful cloisters, and views from the bell tower across most of Old Havana. It’s a colourful square with brightly clad buildings and some fine architecture. Back in the carriage and we’re back on the main road passing the working port, the old structures of the harbour buildings and a 19th Century promenade that was reserved for the Cuban gentry of its day. Now, work is being carried out to restore this feature to its former glory. This is something that is evident throughout the town. Cuba clearly has its eye on increasing its tourism business and there are numerous public buildings that are being given a serious renovation, hopefully retaining their original charm.
Sometimes, it felt quite precarious as we trotted the streets of Havana, but vintage cars, seemingly the majority in Havana, gave us a respectful distance as they roared passed us. I’m not suggesting that they sped through town, only that they were incredibly noisy.
At one point, we detoured off the tourist trail and were in the heart of the Cuban quarter with the hustle and bustle of day-to-day Cuban life on display—small shops with limited product lines, roadside vegetable stalls, and a lot of folk in "serious" discussions with each other. This, Benjamin explained, was his home. People have described Cuba as being poverty-stricken. No outward signs of wealth here, but there was passion, happiness, and excitement in this residential zone. Everything is not always as it seems!
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 27, 2007
Attraction | "Museum of the Revolution"
This is by no means an interactive museum, as there are lots of dry displays, but it does give a fascinating insight into life before and during the revolution. There are loads of photographs, almost as if the revolutionaries decided to keep a pictorial record of all the events, and some quite gory ones, too. Certainly some of the uniforms soaked in the blood of the combatant are not to be viewed by the squeamish and, whatever your political view, it underlines the passion and fervour that these revolutionaries felt. Their weaponry and uniforms are fully displayed and, of course, there are numerous photos and references to the iconic Che Guevara. The surprise was when we left the second floor and came onto the first floor we were greeted by life size models of Che and his revolutionary comrade, Camilo Cienfuegos, emerging from the undergrowth in full combat uniform. That kind of brought things to life in a bizarre way.
Ironically, the museum building was originally the presidential palace of Cuba’s dictator, General Batista, and it really is a grand affair. The hall of mirrors on the first floor, the room leading to the infamous balcony, should be looked down on from the upper museum and then gazed at from the vast floor area of the room itself. The views from here down to the sea are also pretty dramatic.
Outside, across a courtyard in the Granma Memorial are the vehicles, planes, and bombs used in the revolution. Of course, taking pride of place is the boat that Castro used when he and his followers travelled from Mexico to Cuba. It’s enshrined in a huge "glass display cabinet" and a couple of guards kept a vigilant eye over all visitors. Many of the adapted vehicles are crude and amateurish and include a flame thrower out of a tractor, an "armor"-plated grocer's van riddled with heavy bullet holes, and a Soviet tank which Fidel unsucceesfully used against counter-revolutionaries. But these were determined fighters who adapted what they had to achieve victory.
Museum of the Revolution (Museo de la Revolucion)
Calle Refugio 1
La Habana, Cuba 10600
+53 7 624091
On the first floor, up some rickety well trodden wooden stairs we reached, the sorting bay for the inner leaf - ensuring the different components for taste, length of burning and coolness are achieved, and the highly technical job of measuring the proportions for the day’s work. There was a large training area on this floor where workers were learning the required skills – a serious business as failure to reach the target or creating substandard cigars will result in the trainee returning to a more mundane factory job or worse still being sent home without a job.Upstairs on the top floor we were greeted by a cacophony of excited voices registering approval of the work of today’s narrator there’s a morning read through newspapers and a story in the afternoon. Today they were being read another chapter of the Da Vinci Code and shouts of approval and demands for another chapter rang through the building. They would have to wait, explained the guide until tomorrow, but for now they would just play music and we shouldn’t be surprised if workers got up to dance. You see as long as they achieve their daily target (both in quantity and quality) the bosses aren’t concerned how they complete the job. Indeed they seemed a very contented workforce.Staff are given three cigars every day and are not discouraged from smoking whilst at work indeed the overseer of the quality must smoke regularly through the day ‘that’s no hardship’ explained our guide ‘that’s what they’re paid to do’. Mind you smoking a Cuban cigar before breakfast must be a bit of a chore!We’re mesmerised at the dexterity of the workers and our guide said the popular myth stated that the cigar was rolled on the thigh of a Cuban virgin. ‘This is no longer the case’ she said with a smile ‘as virgin’s are too hard to find’.After the first roll and pressing the leaf is wrapped round the cigar, sealed and placed neatly and universally, even to the colour match, in boxes. All hand done not a single piece of automated machinery was anywhere to be seen.
A superb insight into Cuban working life.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on April 28, 2007
Partagas Cigar Factory
Inside the main hall (admission to this part is 2 peso a further 2 peso to take photographs) and we are immediately over shadowed by the dominant gold figure who successfully dwarfs all tourists who enter through the massive wooden doors.Doors, which on the inside tell a story of Cuba’s history through intricately carved panels. Unfortunately, my ignorance of Cuban history meant that I was only able to appreciate the panels for their artwork rather than the story line.
In the center of the huge domed hallway, a small glass dome, inset into the floor, shows off one of ‘a girl’s best friends’, a diamond; sparkling beneath our feet. A superb center spot underneath the Nacional’s Cuprinol, which is a masterpiece of design and well worth cricking one's neck to appreciate its design features. The elaborate plaster carvings, the extensive use of gold leaf and its bright dominant colors directing the eye to the center spot: the eye on the outside world. Amazing.
Either side of the palatial entrance hall are two long wide corridors stretching into the distance with their highly polished marble floors reflecting every ray of light that finds its way into the building.
You can only visit the ground floor of this building and even then much of it is not accessible to the tourist, but the Salon de los Pasos Peridos (the entrance hall) will surely leave you with lasting memories. It truly is a lavish extravaganza demonstrating authority, power, and influence.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on April 28, 2007
Calle Paseo del Prado
La Habana, Cuba 10600
+53 7 620353
We paid our 10 pesos and settled to wait in the courtyard, but after only 5 minutes or so, our English speaking guide arrived to take the two of us around the museum. His English was not brilliant and we both found him difficult to understand, but thankfully most of the exhibits were subtitled in English and fairly self-explanatory. It was really interesting to hear how Cuba had built up its business based on locally grown sugar cane and massive imports of slaves from Africa. Somberly, our guide explained that the majority of the slaves did not survive the long sea-crossing and those who did disembark were unhealthy and so poorly treated that few survived to enjoy old age. Indeed, they were often punished mercilessly if they performed poorly just so their fellow slaves understood the consequences of not working hard enough. Apparently, Cuba was one of the largest "human importers" with over 300,000 being employed on the island in the early 1800s.
Our guide then led us down a dark corridor and, before opening a large imposing door, said that the next exhibit was the high-spot of the tour and his personal favorite. The doors were ceremoniously opened and there, laid out in front of us, was a scale model of a rum factory, complete with a model train chugging around the extremity. It was surely an elaborate model, but we found it difficult after a few minutes to share the guide's enthusiasm.
We made a move up a staircase at the side and found that we had a much better view of the whole layout. From here, it was much more interesting and the guide explained the site and the logistics of making rum. We were led past a life-sized fermenting barrel, with the accompanying bubbling, gurgling, and aromas (almost realistic). Next, the distilling process before we moved to a mock cellar with the smoky oak casks that will house the rum until maturity.
It's the end of the process, but not the end of the tour because next we find ourselves in the bar and we are now expected to try some proper rum. A hefty measure of what some refer to as a "a dazzling, transparent, amber-colored liquid" which taste nothing like the dark rum that I'm used to in the UK. This stuff will even challenge a decent whiskey!
Member Rating 2 out of 5 on April 28, 2007