A March 2007 trip
to Havana by MichaelJM
Quote: I thought my legs would drop off and that the blisters would never disappear, but walking is the best way to catch Havana.
Attraction | "The Old Parliament"
It really wasn’t too difficult to imagine the powerhouse of Cuban politicians deliberating heavy matters. There was a significant upper-floor gallery, but I’m not sure if this would have been reserved for the press, the public, or for less weighty politicians. From here, we were led back through the president’s room with the original furniture and, attached was a smaller ante-room where presumably the local dignitaries would have waited for their important meeting with the powerful president.
Other council chambers housed state propaganda indicating the clear progress that has been made with children’s education over the years since the revolution. Although some of the text was in English, our guide was really keen to explain what the facts and figures mean for modern day Cuba. She emphasized the improvement of social care in terms of education, health, and pensions and seemed disappointed when we indicated that we wanted to move on.
Around the outside of the entrance hall were small cabinets housing a variety of regalia and old Cuban coins. For the numismatists, there was a full range of pre-revolutionary coinage, some of which, our guide told us in hushed tones, was solid silver. Medals were in plentiful supply and although these meant nothing to us, it was clear that they really excited our guide who, on occasions seemed to demand our vocal appreciation. We nodded our approval and this was a sign for us to be led into another small room, off the entrance hall, to inspect the grand uniforms of the guards and the politicians. The Presidential "top hat and tails" was standard dress and worn by the president whenever he was on official business.
Although this isn’t the most fun-packed of tours, it is packed with interest of a bygone age. An age, if we understood things correctly, when education was limited and schoolmasters wore uniforms resembling that of army commanders (beige with a peaked soft-cap) to ensure, we presume, recognition of their work and respect from pupils and parents.
This visit will only offer a short diversion from your route and, at about 15 minutes for the whole tour, I’d recommend that you call in for a visit. The walk towards it from Obispo is really interesting with the some great architecture to view en route.
Member Rating 3 out of 5 on May 3, 2007
Old Parliament Building
There were a lot of carved wooden automobiles in the market and, of course, much to do with smoking. Fine-looking cigar boxes at a fraction of the shop price, ash trays, cigar cases etc.
Rum was another theme with mock advertising memorabilia and other, often tacky, decorative ware. Momentarily, we were tempted with some fine ethnic statues around 10 inches tall with a fine ebony finish at a price of three for 10 pesos. I heard my wife utter those dreaded words "they’d just go with…" and decided it was time to find a distraction somewhere else in the market.
"Look at these handbags," I uttered. This was a suitable distraction but a close call as she handled the cheap leather bags considering that they "might be good enough for work!"
The Cuban stalls carried straw sun hats by the score and I did hear a Canadian voice offering to negotiate his baseball cap for some items off a staff. Now that’s proper bartering for you! Unfortunately, I was whisked away and never did find out how well he’d done.
Leaving the cluttered stalls of t-shirts behind us, we take time to gaze at one of Cuba’s ancient fortified ditches where barrels of old cannons appear to have been ceremoniously laid out. It’s a bizarre but interesting sight
Just opposite the market is a street café, D’Giovanni’s, where we went for a mid-morning snack and coffee. It really was nothing special and the baguette was "not a patch on" the one we’d enjoyed at El Floridita, but the service was friendly enough and it was well positioned for a spot of "people watching". As is standard with Cuban cafés, there’s no hurry so you’re not discouraged from sitting and watching the world go by. What better way to rest those weary feet and restore the batteries before the next bit of sight-seeing?
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on May 3, 2007
We’d also been told that we must have our luggage "shrink wrapped" and our guide had assured us that this was a free service, but as we entered the building the service was being offered at 5 peso a piece. Not a fortune, but we were entering the airport with minimal cash (you can’t take it out the country) and were just bemoaning the fact when we see further into the airport the free service that our representative had advised us aboutMoral: always check your facts before jumping in with both feet.
Having finally checked in, we head for emigration where we must individually approach the booths and have our credentials checked. I have to say that the officer didn’t share my sense of humor as I took off my spectacles in an attempt to match the passport photo. He scowled and then proceeded to check every page of my passport, the boarding card, my exit visa, etc., before stamping my documents as "OK to proceed"Moral: don’t mess with airport officials.
I finally emerge from the row of doors (a bit like a game show entrance) and then have to be physically checked as I beep passing through the metal detectorMoral: always make sure you’re metal-free (that includes sandals with metal fasteners) before arriving at the airport.
Having got through my final hurdle to the airport lounge we are surprised to see the hall decked out with international flags (surprisingly even the American flag is hanging here) a colorful display which makes for a great welcome. There’s a couple of snack bars and decent duty-free, so we spend the last of our money and then wait for the plane to depart.
Havana International Airport
Avenida Van Troy
+ 53 (7) 649-5777
Attraction | "Revolution Square"
In a short walk, we were out of the hub of the tourist industry and were passing through the streets of "real Havana". At one point my wife felt "uncomfortable" but we carried on and at no point did we feel threatened or "at risk". There was plenty of evidence of the decaying fabric of city life and accommodation was poor and "compact". I’m not sure I would have wanted to be wandering these streets at night, but although it was unfamiliar territory and we, as passing visitors, were in the minority (we did pass another couple going in the opposite direction) and we did get the odd greeting from locals.
This was a much longer walk than we’d realized, but we finally arrived at the Plaza de la Revolucion having walked up the leafy avenues near to Havana’s university. It’s a vast, fairly uninspiring square of concrete but here you’ll see the two powerful monuments to Cuban’s heroes. Che’s visage, with his familiar starred beret, overlooks the whole square across to the more conventional monument celebrating the life of Jose Marti. Somehow, the basic and seemingly uncomplicated art installation to Che Guevara makes it so much more powerful with the sun’s ray casting a well-defined shadow on the "installations" back panel. Its stark simplicity pays absolute homage to this Cuban legend
The huge figure of Marti is a real contrast. A conventional, but modern sculpture, shows the seated Marti in pensive mode. The detail is minimalist but nevertheless quite sensational as this silent figure is dwarfed by a mighty obelisk.
We pottered around a bit, taking in the atmosphere, before approaching one the Coco-taxi drivers for a lift back into town. There’s no way that we could have walked the return journey and the ride back to Plaza de Armas proved exhilarating if not a little hairy in places. The driver un-unnervingly wore a crash helmet. You see, when you’re so low to the ground, the roar of a two-stroke engine seems to be suggestive of greater power, but in our heart of hearts we just knew how vulnerable we were in the back of this yellow fiberglass bubble. Great fun when we arrived safely at our destination!
Plaza de la Revolucion
Attraction | "Cathedral Square"
The cathedral was originally a Jesuit monastery but was consecrated as Havana Cathedral in the late 1700s and, thereafter, the square was renamed to reflect the status of the church. The elaborate front façade of the cathedral has a bundle of columns and, offset against the perpendicular pillars, the design waves heavenward. It’s full of niches and Baroque embellishments. It’s also interesting to note that although the front seems to have perfect symmetry, my eyes seemed to be playing some kind of trickery with my brain. It looked "wrong" and then it clicked: the right-hand bell tower had two fewer windows; but that wasn’t all. When I properly concentrated, I realized that the left hand tower is much narrower than its stocky twin. Odd, but I guess there must be some story to it!
It doesn’t have the grandest of interiors, but I do love to mooch around old churches, so I was well satisfied. On the altars, there are copies of paintings by Rubens and Murillo, and at the one end of the choir section with its dark wooden fitted carved chairs, there are parts of a fresco by Italian artist Giuseppe Perovanni. Apparently, some of Columbus's remains were kept here between 1796 and 1898, and there still is a nice little sculpture of Saint Christopher, Patron Saint of Havana, dating from 1632 and sculpted by Martín Andújar in Seville, Spain. He stands resplendent in front of a lush red carpet sporting his staff, a bright red hat, and scarf. Very fetching! Around the church, you’ll spot a variety of brightly painted carved angels, often I felt given a touch of quiet humor to the otherwise dour interior.
Around the square is the 1720s building currently housing the Colonial Arts Museum and if you've got time to eat, we read that Casa del Marques—part of the El Patio Restaurant—is well worth an inspection. We, unfortunately, were on a limited stay in Havana and needed to press on to see all the key sights.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on May 4, 2007
La Habana, Cuba 10600
+53 7 617771