Havana: Restored, Re-energized and full of Rum
AN observant friend who recently visitedHavana summed up the city in one word: “brute-iful.”Despite years of neglect and large swaths of dilapidation and poverty, Havana remains a beautiful and endlessly fascinating city. Walking the potholed streets – and you will walk because buses are hopelessly infrequent, slow, overcrowded or dangerous you can revel in a tumble of architectural styles.Many buildings literally are tumblingdown. But many have been meticulouslyrestored or are in the process, largelythanks to philanthropic governments andinternational agencies.In Old Havana, the almost-completely restored historic center, you’ll see every architectural style from magisterial Spanish Colonial to wedding-cake baroque, swirling Art Nouveau to muscular Art Deco. And all over town, you’ll come across klatches of kitschy 1950s Moderne.When you tire of walking, there are modern, metered Korean taxis; aging, Russian-model cars; bright-yellow motorcycle Coco taxis fitted with roofs that look like coconuts; man-powered pedal cabs; horses and carriages; and, best of all, vintage 1940s and 1950s cars, genuine Yank tanks in various states of repair, still chugging along.Here’s a random selection of interesting things to do, see and enjoy in Havana: PUBLIC SPACES: To orient yourself to Havana’s astness, take the elevator to the top of the modern, sculptural tower of the José Martí Memorial in the Plaza de la Revolución ($5). On a clear day you’ll get spectacular 360-degree views of Havana and close-ups of government buildings that were off-limits to Cubans during the Soviet’s reign of influence.The most recognizable building is the Ministry of the Interior, with a stylized, 10-story-high, metal etching of Che Guevara’s face.Another notable viewpoint is the observation deck of the stunningly restored Bacardí Building, near Parque Central.Built in 1930, the tiled, sculpture-laden,mini-skyscraper is a golden tribute to ArtDeco, both inside and out. You can ride thevintage elevator to the top for fabulousviews and photos ($2).A stroll along some part of the Malecón, Havana’s 8-kilometer-long sea wall, specially at sunset, is a joy.Habaneros, as they call themselves both old and young, hang out along the wall, enjoying the breezes and using it like a communal front porch.Old Havana’s famous squares are lustrous, large pearls connected by colorful strings of winding, narrow streets.Picturesque and tourist-filled Plaza de Armas, Plaza de Catedrale and Plaza San Francisco de Asís all have a varying mix ofcharming cafés, pretty parks, baroque churches and restored historic buildings.Plaza Vieja, slightly more out-of-the way,combines impressively restored buildings, a functioning camera oscura, art galleries, trendy new cafés and restaurants and an artistic fountain with noisy, fascinatingscenes of Havana street life.Park yourself at an outdoor table at theTaberna de la Muralla, where they serve micro-brewed beer in meter-high, cold flasks, and watch the world go by.High-school girls in mustard-colored skirts amble by in giggling groups; a group of scrappy boys plays a pickup game of pelota (baseball, the national passion); lucky little kids scoot around on new bicycles;and assortments of oddly attired – from zoot suits to Edwardian garb – musicians stroll across the square, instruments in hand, on their way to gigs.Wherever you sit outside, be prepared for the ever-present strolling musicians.Along with tunes popularized by the Buena Vista Social Club, the most request- ed song seems to be “Guantanamera.”You may learn to hate this overworked song butit may soften your antagonism to know that thewords were actually written by 19th century poet and national hero José Martí to immortalize the lowly Cuban farmer, known as the guajira of the song. Most musical groups have a compact disc of their music to sell and they make good souvenirs – if you liked the music!WATERING HOLES: The less said about food and restaurants in Havana, the better. There are some glimmers of culinary tastes budding – a decent paella at the Hostal Valencia in Old Havana; an interesting array of Middle Eastern mezes at Al Medina nearby – but food is not Havana’s forte. Rum is.At the Taberna del Galeón, off the Plaza deArmas, you can sample a selection of rums before buying slightly overpriced bottles. But the best places to imbibe are the atmospheric bars steeped in literary fame.The 19th century grand Hotel Inglaterra, looking onto Parque Central, still has the air of Graham Greene’s “Our Man in Havana.” A mojito – rum, fresh mint macerated with sugar, a little lemon juice and soda – is the traditional tipple here.Across the park and down a side street is ElFloridita, a favorite hangout of Ernest Hemingway.And there he is, a life-size statue in a rumpled shirt, soft belly up to the bar.Tourists come to sip the famed, if overpriced($6), daiquiri here, where the frozen version of the drink was invented, and have their picture taken hanging off Hemingway. The décor is still fabulous 1940s, with bartenders dressed in short red, fittedjackets reminiscent of the Philip Morris pageboy.Another monument to Hemingway’s famousalcohol intake is La Bodeguita del Medio, off the Plaza Catedrale in Old Havana.The walls are covered by photos of the famous(including Costa Rican swimming champion Sylvia Poll), and customers scrawl their signatures on the walls. This is where the mojito was said to be invented, and the place was much frequented by the insatiable Hemingway.Today it’s pricey and very popular with tourists.Despite glowing reviews from friends, the foodhere is ordinary, of the black-beans-and-rice culinary school, hardly a taste revelation to tourists from Costa Rica.MUSEUMS: Even if you are totally apolitical,you shouldn’t miss the Museo de la Revolución($4). Housed rather incongruously in the BelleEpoque former presidential palace, it is a revelation of the Cuban psyche. There is a lot of embarrassing polemic and invective against Yanqui imperialismo.But amongst the blood-stained uniforms of Castroera martyrs, there is also cumulative, damning evidence of how the ruling classes failed Cuba throughout centuries and how the country’s revolu- tionary tradition pre-dates Fidel by centuries.The whole district of Havana Vieja is a wonderful living museum. The Museo de la Ciudad ($3), within the baroque Palacio de los Capitanes Generales in Plaza de Armas is an easily digestible survey of the wealth andsplendor that privileged Spanish-Cubans once enjoyed.All the emphasis on privilege and luxury seems a little out of tune with the non-material tone of modern Cuban society, but the museum neutrally showcases the other,more positive, side of the capitalist coin.One of the most esoteric museums in Havana has to be the Museo Napoleónico ($3) near Havana University.A monument to one man’s obsession, the ornate house was designed to hold a wealthy Cuban politician’s collection of 7,000 Napoleon artifacts. The most compelling item is a bona fide death mask of the Little General. It is quite a thrill to gaze down onto the face ofNapoleon.NIGHTLIFE: From the dirty 1930s up to Battista’s overthrow in 1959, Havana was infamous for its racy girlie revues. There is still a very expensive – $65 per person – Las-Vegas-style spectacular nightly at theTropicana Nightclub in the western suburb of Miramar.At the Hotel Nacional, in the Vedado district, there are more reasonably priced dinner shows, $45 for a decent four-course dinner and a rousing son orchestra,heavy on the percussion, featuring some reputed “stars of the Buena Vista Social Club.” The hotel, a stately deco palace built in 1930 in Havana’s hedonistic heyday, is officially a National Monument. It’s pleasant to sip a sunset cocktail in the garden overlooking the Malecón or sit in big wicker chairs on the huge, arcaded terrace.The Nacional has a museum with oversize photos of the glamorous movie stars and celebrities who used to party here in the 1940s and 1950s. Turning the corner into the vast lobby, you almost expect to see RickyRicardo appear, a conga drum under his arm.GETTING THERE: Fly Cubana (221-7625) directto Havana or Copa Airlines (223-2672) via Panamá City. Making hotel reservations independently via Internet or phone is possible but making the deposits to Cubanaccounts is difficult. Most travel within Cuba is handled by one of four state-run tour companies. Cuba package specialists in San José include Cubasol at 221-7421 andEASA at 256-5458 or e-mail at email@example.com. There are new editions of both “The Lonely Planet” and “Moon Guide to Cuba,” but neither has beenable to keep up with the proliferation of new hotels and restaurants in Havana, so you will make your own discoveries.
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