My 2015 Voyage to Cuba
By Carleton Varney
Cuba is a country for the curious, yes, and it is a country filled with contrasts – a world that once was, prior to the revolution in 1959, and a world constantly in flux and change over the last 55 years. The Cuba of today is the one that is complex, as well as curious. My associate Brinsley Matthews and I were in the Island nation recently visiting sites that have been the talk of our country for years and years.
No one can doubt the beauty of the country with its sandy beaches, lush mountains, tobacco and sugar cane fields, for they are working still as they were generations ago, not at the same speed, however. The buildings have magical style and with architectural elements: Moorish-shaped windows, decorated tile walls, and wrought iron balustrades – while crumbling in many and in most instances – are there to remind all that there was, and is, a glamour and beauty in its very being. Over the last five decades, much has been neglected for lack of funds to protect architectural heritage, but not for lack of want to preserve. When asked what is the magic of the country, I can say without hesitation, is its people – charming, hospitable and loving with hope there will be a future of prosperity and rebirth.
For the future visitors of this island country, only 90 miles from the coast of Florida, here are some hints and observations about Cuba today.
Planning Your Flight
Cuba is reachable by air only on charter aircraft from Miami. One must travel with a group – fully authorized by the government of the island country (and ours) – for purposes of cultural and professional interest. Generally, American tourists, for tourist purposes only, are not permitted. I traveled with the Ohio Alumni Group of Oberlin College.
Our group stayed at the Parque Central Hotel in the center of Havana, where most foreigners stay when in the city. The hotel is nine stories high and has two roof swimming pools. I give the hotel a four-star rating, as rooms, dining facilities, cocktail lounges and shops are all handsomely appointed.
One of the most unexpected pleasures was the dream breakfast buffet, which included cold meats and cheeses to dried fruits, omelets, fruit juices (I loved the pineapple smoothies!) and
a decadent bakery section.
A visit to the white-sand beaches of the Varadero Beach resort, with a stop for a coffee at the DuPont Mansion and nine-hole golf course, is a must. The residence, with its eight guest rooms, was built in the 1930s for the DuPonts and their friends.
When in Havana, a must is a stop-and-see at The Hotel Nacional De Cuba, the crowning jewel of Havana, built in 1930 on top of Taganana Hill with views over the oceanfront avenue, known as the Malecon. The hotel was designed by the prestigious New York architectural firm of McKim, Mead & White, which had designed Palm Beach’s convention resort hotel, The Breakers.
The roofs of the Nacional are classic Roman architecture with Sevillian patios that in Cuba had their expression in 19th century colonial constructions. The outer arcades are Californian mission style with French Gothic gargoyles. There is a Sevillian air of refined style in the main lobby floor tiles, which have a Moorish Spain influence. The splendid ceilings recall the tradition of the Roman coffer. The English Gardens are from the Romantic period. While the Nacional is in need of vast refreshing (visit but don’t stay there for the night), the classic bones are there. While there, a must to see is The Hall of Fame, where legends have been photographed – like Josephine Baker, Betty Grable, Ginger Rogers, Tyrone Power, John Paul Sartre, Errol Flynn, John Wayne. Rita Hayworth honeymooned there with Prince Aly Khan.
Havana’s Seaside Avenue
A stroll down Malecon, Havana’s seaside avenue, is a must. You’ll enjoy seeing a hotel design of the late 1950s – The Riviera. This hotel, designed in the spirit of the Fontainebleau (in Miami), but not as stylish, was the genius idea of Meyer Lansky of mafia notoriety to fulfill his casino/hotel dream. Visiting the hotel interiors and swimming pool is like walking through a time warp. New times are coming, but I doubt the domed Lansky gambling casino will find its tables or slots back in place. The gambling days, favored by Luciano, Lansky, Genovese and President Batista, were immediately destroyed by the rebellion of the masses and the Castro forces.
Staying at the Parque Central offered the visitors on our cultural trip the opportunity to walk the Prado Promenade. Here one finds fabulous villas of yesterday waiting to be restored and brought back to their original intent to be seen and enjoyed
There are shopping streets in Havana where trend-setting European clothing can be purchased, but at prices that are not affordable for the Cuban population – who live on meager wages and rationed food products. Transportation around the city is by Coco motorcycles – yellow bubble-looking vehicles with three wheels and by some now contemporary taxi vehicles. Cycling carts are also on the streets, along with the automobiles left on the island in the 1950s by Cuban families who sought exile in the United States. The vehicles, yes, the Chevrolets, the Buicks, the Cadillacs, all in full colors – yellows, reds, pinks, greens. Unfortunately, most of the autos of yesterday need restoring. Windows are held together with tape and coat hangers, and seats are low and needy of springs. Along the walk down the Prado, take note of the Capitol modeled after the Capitol building in Washington, D.C., built in 1929. Also check out the Moorish style of the Inglaterra and Sevilla Hotels, as well as the original Bacardi factory, which I’m certain the Bacardi family seeks to reclaim one day.
Old Havana Plazas
Old Havana and its Four Plazas offer a glimpse of what a colonial city is all about. The Four Plazas comprise Cuba’s first UNESCO World Heritage site. Visit the Plaza de Armas, the site of the oldest Spanish fortress in the New World (1519), also the locale of the first mass held in Cuba. In the Plaza de San Francisco, you can visit the restored Basilica San Francisco de Asis. At the Plaza Vieja, you’ll find artist galleries, boutiques, museums and market places. Most of the books available for purchase feature the words of the revolutionaries. Wandering through the street of the old town with plazas filled with cafés, you will see architecture spanning five centuries. End your old world walking tour at the Plaza de la Cathedral.
Art, Museums, Fusterlandia
Certainly there is a plethora of art galleries and museums in Cuba – from a museum of The Revolution, where airplanes and missiles are exhibited, to the Presidential Palace directly across the calle where Fulgencio Batista was ousted in 1959. There is even a town, a small “Gaudi-esque” village, where houses and shops are ceramic-treated and covered by the artist Jose Fuster. Fuster has transferred the town with wonderlands of sculptures, mosaic and murals where local neighbors volunteer their homes to become part of the sprawling masterpiece called Fusterlandia.
La Factoria is a late-night place to rendezvous and look-see all the art, from photography to watercolors and giant oils. There are bars and open terraces where there will be lots of hands holding sugar lumps and mojitos.
Our visit to Cuba was a most memorable cultural experience – and I can’t wait to go back when Cuba is once again in full color. Maybe then postal service to the U.S. will be restored so that I can mail postcards of this beautiful island to my friends.
DINING IN CUBA
Paladar is the Spanish word for dining restaurant and there are many now open where private enterprise is allowed. You will find them sublime (but drink bottled water only)! I recommend these eateries:
Concordia – 418 e/Gerrasio y Escoban, Centro Havana. Formerly known as La Maison Camaguey, this was the locale of the Cuban iconic film “Fresa y Chocolate.” It is one of the most popular dining spots.
Paladar Mercaderes – 207 e Lamparilla y Amas Gura, Havana Vieja. This restaurant, where lobster is always a treat, is inside the home of the owner in Old Havana.
El Ajiaco – Calle 92 (Los Pinos) #267 entre Stay 3r, Cojimar. This restaurant is in the fishing village where Ernest Hemingway kept his boat “The Pilar.” Before dining, visit Finca Vigia –
the plantation style colonial house where Hemingway wrote “The Old Man and the Sea” and lived from 1940 to 1960 with his wife Martha Gellhorn and their children.
San Cristobal Paladar – San Rafael 469 E/Leal tad y Campanario, Centro Havana. This local Cuban custom antique restaurant may have a cluttered look, but it has been rated the
#1 Paladar in Havana by the English newspaper “The Guardian.”
My favorite: La Casa Verde Paladar in Vinales Valley – Lealtad 208, Centro Habana, Havana, Cuba No one should visit Cuba without driving through Pinar del Rio Province. This is the pine-populated, red-soiled tobacco region where you can visit a tobacco farm and enjoy yourself at the restaurant “La Casa Verde,” and see the most beautiful mountain views in the country. The country style food is made of home-grown produce and you can hike the hillside terraced gardens.