A Churchillian Taste of Havana

Revisiting Havana, a Favorite Destination of My Grandparents Winston & Clementine Churchill

By Artist Edwina Sandys

Artist Edwina Sandys

Artist Edwina Sandys

We are here – at the Nacional Hotel in Havana. It’s a very grand building on a hill overlooking Havana Harbor, designed by the New York City architects McKim, Mead & White, who were also responsible for The Breakers in Palm Beach. It opened in December 1930 and was a prime destination for Americans. What a lovely welcoming staff, and an enormous swimming pool with no one in it but me. Getting the hang of the food and finding what works for me – drinks a delight – no problem – anything with white rum goes down very easily.

It’s windy on the terrace. Skirts on girls, and not so young girls, are flying in the air. Palm trees swaying, darkness falling. I almost expect to hear Begin the Beguine. Music everywhere and all the time; Buena Vista Social Club songs predominate. Tiny children staying up late – no babysitters – tripping along merrily. The intoxicating sound of mojitos being shaken.

Winston & Clementine Churchill

Winston & Clementine Churchill

Remembering Past Visits
My grandparents Winston and Clementine Churchill stayed here in 1946. There is a special Winston Churchill bar and smoking room with all sorts of memorabilia. He was first in Havana in 1895 during the Spanish-American War – attached to the Spanish forces as a journalist. In fact he spent his 21st birthday here where he first experienced live fire.

I am here with my son Mark and his girlfriend Halyna. This is our second visit, so we feel no pressure to “see it all”. We can meander to our hearts’ content around the old city where time has stood still.

Shopping for the Perfect Hat
Our first port of call is the vast covered market. Our mission is to buy hats. Hundreds of booths jammed together in rows – all selling exactly the same wares. Musical instruments rather crudely made, cigar humidors of varied quality, clothing in very small sizes, all manner of carved wooden ornaments. Here we find that nowadays private enterprise is raising its powerful proverbial head. Bargaining is to be enjoyed like a game of Ping-Pong. Bids flying back and forth, fast and furious, and soon we have acquired some bargains that may not stand the homecoming test.

And hats galore! Panama hats are best the world over. Authentic ones are made in Ecuador. We ask the price: $30 each. “How about $10…?” “No, nothing less than $30 for the Panamas.” You can have any of the other styles for $10 or even $5.” HMMMMMM! How about we buy three?” No deal! The lovely lady was adamant. We left and went to two other sellers – same deal! We realize there must be some sort of cartel that no one dares to disobey. We return to the first booth and docilely make our purchases.

Nacional Hotel in Havana

Nacional Hotel in Havana

Cheers!
It’s a great advantage when you visit a country to know a few people who live there. We were lucky that our friend James Burn was in town. He has an apartment opposite the best restaurant in Havana – La Guarida. The entrance is from a rundown street, up two flights of a marble staircase. Paint is peeling off the walls at the top of this grand building that looks like a film set and has seen better days. They could redo it but restoration would be a crime. The food is delicious and varied and no prohibition on cigars – so evocative of my childhood.

One of the fascinating things about Havana is that visitors can dine in “paladares,” people’s homes. This is an unusual opportunity to meet Cubans in a personal setting. The hosts are all very different but warmly hospitable. This is a two-way experience not to be missed.

Los Coches (The Cars)
I have fallen in love! So many options! Don’t know how to choose! Delicious colors, lovely shapes, not exactly streamline, some even a little stocky. I have never been interested in cars – except of course for a Rolls-Royce or Aston Martin. But these old 50s cars are a joy to behold – and comfortable to ride in. You see men polishing their gleaming cars with the same care and love that men in earlier days groomed their horses.

Ahh, I hear my mother’s voice! She would always say when I went out on a date, “Save something for next time!” So I shall return.

A Churchillian Taste of Havana