Travels take me to many cities described as "unique," but the faded beauty that is Havana, Cuba is in a class by itself. In fact, Old Havana and its fortifications are designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Many areas are being restored to their past glories, but sadly, many crumbling buildings remain, and the day-to-day lives of Cubans is difficult as they struggle with severe shortages of basic items in less-than-ideal homes thanks to a US embargo that has lasted over three decades.
Yes, they welcome American dollars for imported goods second-hand clothes and gifts of soap, shampoo and so on which are in very short supply. Yet, the city seems vibrant, and the people cheerful as they take advantage of climate to associate on streets or balconies. You see groups of neatly uniformed schoolchildren, women rushing home with gaudy cakes, flowers sellers and their customers, horse-drawn carriages for tourists, puppies for sale in a wheelbarrow, artists offering to sketch your likeness and many roadside tables of small businesspeople who mend shoes or your watch while you wait.
Many invent novel commercial enterprises. Some exotically-costumed ladies with turbans, long flounced skirts and baskets of flowers pose for photographs, kissing your husband or partner, a similar deal struck with the bizarrely dressed old woman in ruffles and sunglasses holding a small dog and smoking a cigar in her doorway. Every afternoon, a cacophony of trumpets and drums announces progress through the streets of a troupe of brilliantly dressed stilt walkers and dancers. Have plenty of dollar bills and you will be rewarded with great photographs.
There are bargains galore for enjoyment and entertainment, old buildings and antique American cars to photograph, music spilling from café terraces, enjoyed in passing or by sitting with a beer, and on week-ends, public dancing exhibitions in the squares. In fact, everyone may dance anywhere, and many do. Perhaps you will see the elderly gentleman in Plaza de Armas who dances to the music from nearby restaurants, often joined by younger men who seem to be learning from him.
Roads and sidewalks are in a terrible state; watch your step. Yet, the city is very clean and few beg. If you enjoy walking, you will become familiar with the central, historical area of Old Havana. The walk from Plaza de Armas to Parque Central takes you 12 minutes.
Many old hotels are worth a visit, some with literary links such as Hemingway and Graham Greene, many with rooftop terraces for good views, and the courtyards, bars and restaurants offer lots of atmosphere. Live music is ubiquitous, musicians at the outdoor bars in Cathedral Square awaiting a tip. A drink on the terrace or the courtyard of the fabulously-restored Hotel Santa Isabel in the corner of Plaza de Armas is a great place to watch the goings-on in the pretty, tree-shaded square. From here, you can set out to visit the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales and the City Museum on the other side of the plaza. Then, walk up lively Obispo to the gracious Parque Central, overlooked by the famous Hotel Inglaterra and the impressive Gran Teatro. The former is another great place for a terrace drink, before or after taking a tour of the neoclassic/art nouveau theatre next door. An English-speaking guide appears as soon as you enquire and takes you around the theatre and into the neighbouring ballet/music school where you witness ballet classes in progress, perhaps even a rehearsal, and you can enter the great gallery where the scene painters work, alongside displays of their smaller offerings adorning the walls, which visitors may purchase.
The famous tree-lined Prado promenade way leads from the Parque Central. If you ignore the colourful riot of architectural offerings on each side - from fancy renovations and fine hotels to crumbling shells of buildings standing thanks only to a few supporting beams - you might think you were in Paris. Cubans enjoy promenading here and you will probably encounter some school groups using the wide space for their gym glasses.
The National Fine Arts Museum is 'world-class.' There's a large oil of Niagara Falls by Regis-Francois Gignoux! Many of the works, including paintings by such artists as Turner, Gainsborough and Canaletto, were appropriated from wealthy Cubans in 1959. And there are not only paintings here, but also splendid collections of artifacts from around the world, all splendidly displayed.
Other tourist pastimes include stopping for an overpriced daiquiri at the place where it is said they were invented - El Floridita - frequented by Hemingway and Castro. And don't miss the unlike-anywhere-else La Bodeguita del Medio - "the grocery store in the middle of the block" - now a bar and restaurant, whose graffiti covered walls are said to include autographs of the rich and famous.
Don't expect too much in the way of food here. Those with deep pockets may find meals of a high standard in the dining rooms of the fine hotels, but the offerings in tourist restaurants are nothing to get excited about. However, they are inexpensive and the live music, wonderful courtyard and terrace settings and mojitos make up for the standard fare.
I stayed at Palacio O'Farril on a corner in Old Havana, near the picturesque Bay of Havana and Cathedral Square, a perfect example of neoclassical architecture in vogue at the dawn of the 19th century. The property has been awarded a Class 1 Heritage Degree and has recently been extensively restored and refurbished by the City Historian's Office. With its central courtyard, soaring arches, stone pillars, beautiful tiles and plain but atmospheric rooms, I couldn't have asked for a better place to lay my head on my first visit to Havana.
The property's history is fascinating. Don Ricardo O'Farril, whose family came from County Longford in Ireland, was a wealthy merchant who made his fortune from the lucrative slave trade. He was owner of several sugar mills. Don Ricardo arrived in Havana in the early 18th century and is attributed as founder of the O'Farril family in Cuba, which gained reputations in administration, commerce and in the country's cultural development. They were further distinguished by a plethora of noble titles. Among O'Farril's descendents were Juan Montalvo y O'Farril who owned the first steamship used in Cuba, while Jose Ricardo and Rafael O'Farril were listed among the 18 most influential and richest people in Havana under the rule of Spanish Governor Miguel Tacon.
Two other splendid mansions in Old Havana perpetuate the memory of the family. One, on the corner of Habana and Chacon streets, was acquired by the Church and until recently was the site of the Archbishop of Havana's office. The second, on the corner of Cuba and Chacon streets, built in the first half of the 19th century by Jose Ricardo O'Farril, Don Ricardo's great grandson, has undergone some architectural changes in the 20th century. Before becoming a hotel, the mansion housed several important institutions: the Property Register, the Supreme Court and Attorney's Office, the Justice Secretariat and the Lawyers College. It also contained the Public Works Special Funding office, a section of the Treasury Department responsible for the registration of motor vehicles.
A visit to Havana is an experience that shouldn't be missed. The city exudes a powerful impression with its atmosphere, beauty and romance, full of life, culture, music and politics and replete with people of every colour, dressed in donated t-shirts from around the world. Havana boasts a history unlike any other place in the region. Visit once, and I'm sure you will return.
Ann Wallace is editor of The Travel Society Magazine www.thetravelsociety.com.
Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
Embassies/Consulates (Embassy World): http://www.embassyworld.com/
Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/