Monday, 12 February 2018

HOW WE SPENT OUR LAST DAY IN HAVANA

Hello dear friends,

If you are following my narratives about the holiday my husband and I took last year as a celebration of our 10th wedding anniversary, then you would know that today's post is going to be the last chapter(#4) dedicated to our stay in Cuba.  And if you happened to be  a new reader, you can find out what we did on Day I, Day II and Day III here.

AND NOW THE TIME HAS COME TO SAY GOO-BYE TO THIS FASCINATING CITY AND WE WANTED TO DO IT IN STYLE
You might recall that on Day II during our touring around Havana, we were lucky enough to snap up tickets for the ballet, Carmen, at the Ballet Nacional de Cuba that happened to take place on our last night in Havana.  Since both of us have been great admirers of this art, we couldn't think of a better way to end our stay. 
HOW WE SPENT OUR LAST DAY IN HAVANA
When it came to choose a venue for a pre-theatre dinner, we had a pretty clear idea of where we wanted to have it, at Gran Hotel Manzana Kempninski, one of the best luxe hotels in Havana.  One of its benefits  that it is situated just a four minute walk from the Theatre and about ten minutes walk from our hotel, the other was the presence of the hip rooftop restaurant called San Cristobal Panoramic restaurant with, as its name suggests, has a spectacular view over the city.
HOW WE SPENT OUR LAST DAY IN HAVANA
In the morning we walked to the Almacenes San Jose Artisan's Market to buy gifts for our children and grandchildren, visiting art galleries and old book stores and other bits and pieces that we had missed in the days before.
HOW WE SPENT OUR LAST DAY IN HAVANA
I am not sure if I mentioned it earlier that the shopping for shoes or clothes in a conventional way as we know it does not exist in Cuba.   There don't have department stores, shopping malls or boutiques  stocking the well known brands nor would you find any shops selling luxury goods that are so common all over the world.
HOW WE SPENT OUR LAST DAY IN HAVANA
Instead, there are a number of market places filled with myriads of small stalls where you can buy anything from the wide variety of souvenirs to clothes, jewellery, art and Cuban cigars and refresh yourself with the juice of the freshly cracked coconut.  Not only we were able to find appropriate gifts for our brood but I actually scored a string of beautiful river pearls for a fraction of the Sydney price which I will model for you in a future post.
HOW WE SPENT OUR LAST DAY IN HAVANA
Loaded with packages, we returned to the hotel and spent the afternoon packing.  We both felt really excited and charged with anticipation of the upcoming evening.  When we walked into the lobby of the hotel and by just looking around the interior we new that the room charges here must be quite high and the sleek lift took us all the way to the top with the view of the brightly lit up Theatre right in front of us.
HOW WE SPENT OUR LAST DAY IN HAVANA
We started with the pre-dinner drink of a delicious frozen daiquiri, one of traditional Cuban cocktails, followed by a superb dinner of lobster for both of us.  In a previous post I told you about the scarcity and simplicity of food supply in Cuba and how people have to make do with what they have.
HOW WE SPENT OUR LAST DAY IN HAVANA
Well, the one thing that they have in abundance is lobsters.  You can find them on the menu at almost every restaurant and at a very cheap price at that. The Cubans cook them very simply:  on the grill over charcoal. We ate them by the bucketful.  And so it was only logical that when we saw a lobster dish on San Cristobal's menu, to order it.
HOW WE SPENT OUR LAST DAY IN HAVANA
After a quick coffee, we hurried outside and it took us less then five minutes to walk to the Theatre.  As I mentioned previously, we had fantastic seats in row B.  In my earlier post, I blogged about how beautiful the Theatre building looked inside but due to the rehearsal, the main chandelier was not lit up.  This time all the lights of it were on and we could admire it in its full glory.  Soon after we took our seats, the lights were dimmed and the ballet began.  If you are familiar with Carmen's music, you would agree with me that it is divine on its own.  Add to it the highly professional excellent performance exhibited by the dancers and the whole experience became sublime.
It was truly unforgettable, thoroughly enjoyable evening, a perfect way to end our Cuban journey.

When the next morning we woke up and went downstairs to ask the concierge to arrange us a transfer to the airport, we couldn't help but wonder what kind of transportation would it be.  Turned out, it was one of those old vintage cars,  Chevrolet 1966 in its "original" condition.
HOW WE SPENT OUR LAST DAY IN HAVANA
I don't know how they do it, giving the lack of tools, spare parts and gasoline but somehow they made do with what they have at hand to keep these cars on the road.
HOW WE SPENT OUR LAST DAY IN HAVANA
It was a little bit like a cliche and at the same time it was fittingly perfect sequel to the night before.  Besides it was the first time for both of us to be driven in a car of this age and it was a lot of fun.

Farewell Havana, Rio-d-Janeiro, here we come!!!

Until then,
Anna
xoxo

Monday, 5 February 2018

EXPLORING HAVANA - DAY THREE - VISITING THE VINALES VALLEY

The next day, following the recommendation of friends of ours, we decided to make a field trip to Valle de Vinales (Vinales Valley) situated on the western end of the island they are inscribed in the World Heritage list.  If you miss my previous posts about Havana, you can re-capture Day One and Day Two here.

The Vinales Valley is known for its lush greenery, gorgeous landscape, tobacco plantations and an enormous mural of world history depicted over the face of a rock.
ROCK MURAL VINALES VALLEY
It has always been a very popular resort destination for the locals and tourists alike but in recent years it is also become home for many health and eco-retreats, sports camps and wellness centres.  The demand for accommodation grew and more and more home owners have converted their houses into B&B or small hotels.  They also quickly adopted "field to plate" philosophy and transformed their kitchens and dining rooms into the private restaurants where everything on the menu is home produced or grown in a purely organic environment.
VINALES VALLEY
We wanted to see Cuba outside the city life and for that reason we went to the nearest travel agency, San Cristobal Agencia, to book a tour.  This travel agency represents the City Historian's Office and its income helps finance restoration of the old buildings.  It also holds the reputation of offering the best tours in Havana.
The package included a driver with a comfortable and relatively new car, a tour guide, a visit to the tobacco factory, lunch at a private house and a boat trip down underground river to see the caves. 
"
SMOKING A CUBAN CIGAR AND VIEWING A HUGE ALFRESCO CLIFF PAINTING
ARE JUST A FEW THINGS YOU CAN DO WHILE IN VINALES VALLEY
"
Our tour guide, a lovely young woman named Suzanna, came to meet us at our hotel after breakfast and together we walked to a car parked nearby.    The drive took us a little more than two hours which we spent doing Q&A with Suzanna.  To our greatest delight, her English was impeccable and she possessed a deep knowledge of her country, from politics to arts.
VINALES VALLEY
Once we reached the Vinales Valley, we drove to the lookout to have a full view of the area which was absolutely lovely.  Suzanna pointed to us some major land marks including the beautiful pink coloured hotel Loz Jasmines that looked like a cake with pink and white frosting against the dark backdrop of the mountains.
HOTEL LES JASMINES VINALES VALLEY

VINALES VALLEY

VINALES VALLEY
The famous rock mural was a short drive away.  It was painted in the 1959 by the former Director of Mapping at Cuban Academy of Science, Leovigildo Gonzales Morillo and is officially called Vinales Mural de la Prehistoria.  The mural is about 120 meters long and is one of the largest alfresco paintings. 
ROCK MURAL VINALES VALLEY
 It was absolutely amazing.  We were looking at it in total owe trying to grasp its magnitude.
ROCK MURAL VINALES VALLEY

VINALES VALLEY

VINALES VALLEY
The next item on our agenda was a visit to a tobacco plantation to participate in cigar rolling and, of course, smoking.
VINALES VALLEY
We were also invited inside the cottage but as we looked inside, there were so many visitors in the house that we decided to skip it.

We did however, go inside the barn where one of the owner's sons explained to us the process of cigar making and then rolled one himself, lit it up and handed it together with his hat to my husband.  Both of us are ex-smokers, we quit smoking more than 10 years ago but in that particular situation my husband felt compelled to take a couple of puffs.

SMOKING CUBAN CIGAR
Luckily for him, another group of visitors just arrived and we left taking the stinking cigar with us.  I offered it to the driver but he was a non-smoker, so I extinguished the flame, wrapped it into a tissue and handed it over to the concierge at our hotel when we returned.  He was extremely grateful because it was a really good cigar.

It was time for all of us to have lunch.  It was set on a veranda overlooking the back garden and the field below from where all the ingredients were sourced.

Cuban diet is so much different from what we are used to eat:  there are no potatoes nor pasta, their main staple is either rice or beans.  When it comes to fresh vegetables, its mainly cabbage, corn or beans.  When it comes to bread, forget sourdough, rye or multigrain.  It is plain white bread made out of corn flour.  There are no supermarkets but rather ration shops where people get their food supplies and some other necessities in exchange of coupons issued by the Cuban government.  Nevertheless, we enjoyed the food that was served to us and thanked the hosts for their warm hospitality.   
The last item on our itinerary was a boat ride along the underground river to see the caves.  We entered the caves through an opening in the rock and took stone steps down toward the area where we could got into a boat and sailed off.  
VINALES CAVES

VINALES CAVES
 Although some formations looked really dramatic and quite beautiful, I was relieved to see sunlight again shining through the rock's opening.
VINALES CAVES
We had a very enjoyable day and were quite pleased that we went and now it was time to head back to Havana.

Until then

Anna
xoxo





Tuesday, 30 January 2018

EXPLORING HAVANA - DAY TWO

On the morning of our second day in Havana, over breakfast was served on the front patio of the hotel which overlooked the square and the park behind it, and we laid out our plans for Day Two.
If you read my previous post, you would recall that after spending Day One in this city we had quite mixed feelings about it.   However, we agreed that we will not make up our minds until we spent more time here.  And with that we walked out of the breakfast room into another hot and steamy day in Havana.
EXPLORING HAVANA
We took a walk along Calle Obispo admiring the architecture of the government building along the way towards  Parque Central, the cultural hub of Havana to visit Palaceo de Bellas Artes (Fine Art Palace) also known as  the Universal Art Collection situated nearby.

The museum's collection holds international exhibits dated from as far back as 500 BC such as a Roman mosaic from over 2000 years ago to items from modern times as well as temporary exhibitions.  As we approached the ticket counter, the clerk informed us that due to the recent hurricane that had raged across the Caribbean, the top floor of the museum was closed hence we wouldn't be able to view the works of many famous artists.
Palaceo de Bellas Artes
Nevertheless, we bought tickets and went inside.  True to the clerk's word, not many rooms were opened for viewing and didn't take us too much time browsing through the ones that were open.  While we were on the landing, admiring the beautiful glass work of the ceiling, a very unusual sight caught my attention - a big hole in a wall right underneath it that mustn't been caused by the latest storms and hadn't been repaired yet.
Palaceo de Bellas Artes
Not daunted by this small incident, we left the museum for our next destination, Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonco, a home to Ballet Nacional de Cuba.  As we approached the building, we noticed a sign announcing the schedule of the English speaking guided tours of the theatre and joined the queue.
Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonco
While my husband was waiting for our turn, I approached the box office and enquired about any  performances that might be running during our stay.  To our delight, the was a perfomance of  the ballet Carmen on our last night in Havana.  We couldn't wish for a better way to conclude out time in Cuba as Carmen is one of our favourite productions and immediately purchased the tickets.

When the clerk told us the price of two tickets in row B, we thought she made a mistake.  Bearing in mind that we had to pay almost twice more as tourists, it cost us about 40 Australian bucks.  Back at home we would pay around 200 dollars each!!!
Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonco
Our spirits soared, we went inside for a tour.  The interior of the Palace looked exactly what one would expect from a traditional European Opera House - marble staircase, red plush chairs, crystal candelabras, slim marble columns supported the high vaulted ceilings. 
Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonco

Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonco

Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonco
 The tall windows have opened onto panoramic view of the Parque Central on one side and to the El Capitolio (National Capital Building in Havana) on the other.
El Capitolio

El Capitolio

El Capitolio
There has been some controversy about its architecture and and its close resemblance to the Capitol building in Washington.  Previously shunned as a symbol of US imperialism, this neo-classical marvel is undergoing a renovation which commenced in 2010 and once completed, will be the home of the Communist Government's National Assembly.
El Capitolio

The building and the area around its perimeter looked immaculate, the grass and the hedges were trimmed, the pavement smooth and clean.  A lot of money, millions of dollars, I believe, have been poured into this project of national pride and glory.
EXPLORING HAVANA
But once we walked past the Government edifices proclaiming the glory of socialism and ventured further afield just to the other side of Parque Centrale, we were met by the same sad picture of  poor living conditions that we saw on our first day in Havana.  And that was the reality.
EXPLORING HAVANA
What we admired though, was the spirit of people around us.  You can feel their optimism for a better future, their energy contagious, their love for life spills onto the streets from early morning till late at night and the sounds of TV loudly blaring from the open windows and doors of their humble dwellings, laughter and music follows you everywhere.
EXPLORING HAVANA
I can't recall a meal whether it was breakfast, lunch or dinner without a group of musicians playing and singing music to the crowd's delight.  What impressed me the most was how talented and skillful they all seemed to be, given the fact that most of the instruments were so worn out to a point that  a guitar may not have all of its strings.  Still the music which they played was sublime.

EXPLORING HAVANA
 We were smitten.  Our perception of Havana had totally changed, it  grew on us and we slowly began to understand its life, its rhythm and people who live here.
EXPLORING HAVANA
And on this high note we went out to dinner over which we discussed our plans for Day Three.
EXPLORING HAVANA
Until then,

Anna
xoxo













Monday, 22 January 2018

EXPLORING HAVANA- DAY ONE

As a former citizen of now defunct USSR, I quite often wonder how my former Cuban counterparts are doing since the revolution, particularly after the USA has imposed their embargo on all imports to Cuba.  While I was living there, we were constantly informed by the Russian propaganda about Castro, liberation from the Americans and proclamation of socialism and all the good things that come with it.  Even when things turned sour with their American neighbours, Soviet media tried to convince us that the Cubans are doing great.  However, since we jumped the fence and left the socialist camp for Australia twenty five years ago, we didn't hear much about Cuba anymore.
The main reason that we included a trip to Havana into our trip was our neighbours who went to Havana last year and liked it a lot and their recounting of this place sounded fascinating enough to convince us to go and see it for ourselves.  And thus we added it to our itinerary.

We landed in Havana airport late in the afternoon on a flight from Italy and the first thing that greeted us was the heat and the high level of humidity.

Our elegant Spanish Colonial style hotel, Santa Isabel,  was situated in the Old Havana, a block away from the sea and the famous Malacon promenade and in walking distance from the Calle Obispo, the most travelled pedestrian drag connecting Old Havana with the city centre.
Hotel Santa Isabel, Havana
Originally a 19th century palace build for the aristocracy, the hotel's features still retain the regal feel of historic Havana and in its rich history is proud to name Jimmy Carter as one of their many distinguished guests who came here to stay.
Hotel Santa Isabel, Havana

Hotel Santa Isabel, Havana
In keeping with our tradition, the first thing we do when we arrive at a new destination, is take a city tour and Havana was no exception.  We wanted to go on a Red Hop-on hop-off bus but when we found a ticket office and asked for the tickets we were told that due to the recent hurricane that swept over the Carribean, some parts of the city were not accessible by the buses and so our next option was to take a private car tour.  We were not prepared for that and as we didn't have Plan B.  While we were  standing under the hot sun in the middle of the street pondering what our next step, we were approached by a man named Rene who after a short introduction had offered his tour guide services to us.  He said that he would charge us about 200 CUC (Cuban Convertible Peso that must be used by all the tourists) which was an equivalent to AUD 250 for three hours of his tour guide services that sounded reasonable under the circumstances so we agreed.
It was a bit of a gamble, we didn't know him at all, he had no paperwork or any credentials on him but somehow we sensed that we could trust him and followed him to his car that was parked a few meters away from the tourist agency.
We first thought that he is going to drive us in one of the shiny brightly coloured Cadillacs parked alongside but we jumped into an ordinary old car, that was originally imported from Russia about 40 years ago, believe it or not.  What an irony.
Despite the fact that the car was very old and rusty on all sides, which is the condition of almost all the cars that we saw in Havana anyway, it was, to our pleasant surprise, air-conditioned and Rene turned out to be very knowledgeable not only about city landmarks but about the history of Cuba and its political situation.
Our first stop was Havana's fortress De San Carlos de la Cabana build in the 17th century, it is the second largest fort structure in the Americas.  It was built on the eastern side of the Havana port to defend the city from invaders and its elevated position provided a perfect opportunity to view the city from an expansive point of view and put its topographical layout into perspective.
Next stop was a short drive to Plaza de la Revolucion, where political rallies take place and where Fidel Castro and other political readers addressed the Cubans.  The Plaza is dominated by the memorial to Cuba's National Hero, Jose Marti which features a more than 100 meters tall tower and his statue.  Many other government ministries and buildings located in and around the plaza, and behind the Plaza, is the Palace of Revolution, the seat of Cuban government and Communist Party.
Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana
The other eye catching memorials of this Plaza are the two matching gigantic steel portraits of two most important heroes of Cuban revolution, Che Guevara and Camilo Cienfuegos gracing the facades of the Ministries of Interior and Communications.
Plaza de la Revolucion, Havana

Plaza de Revolucion, Havana
Following the recommendation of our friends, we asked our driver to take us to the place called Fusterlandia, a ceramic wonderland in the northwestern end of Havana which owed its name to the Cuban pop-artist Jose Fuster  who lives and works there.  
Fusterlandia, Havana

Fusterlandia, Havana
 Influenced by work of Gaudi, Fuster's stepping stone was a redecorating project around his small wooden home and over the last 10 years has grown into an amazing spectacle of his imagination to the locals and visitors delight.  Using ceramic and bright paints, Fuster has covered over 80 of his neighbours house each according to the character of its owner.
Fusterlandia, Havana

In Fusterlandia, Havana
It took us good 30 minutes to get back to the city centre.   Rene stopped the car in Parque Central, Central Park  - one of the busiest places in Havana and from there we meant to return to our hotel by foot. But before we did that, we went to sit one of the stone benches in the centre of the park where we could appreciate the grandeur of the buildings surrounding the perimeter of the square. 
Parque Central from above, Havana

EXPLORING HAVANA
At the centre of the park is a marble statue of Jose Marti surrounded by 28 palm trees signifying his day of birth, 28 of JanuaryRaised on the 10th anniversary of his death, this marble statue was the first of thousands to be erected in Cuba.
A statue of Jose Marti in Parque Central, Havana
After a while, we took Calle Obispo, a pedestrian cobble-stoned thoroughfare connecting Parque Centrale with Old Havana.  Lined with bookstores, coffee house, paladars (private restaurants) and narrow shops where newborn entrepreneurs sell revolutionary paraphernalia and souvenirs, bars, restaurants, pizza houses and many more is the place to see and be seen.  
EXPLORING HAVANA
Not a day went by that we didn't take a walk along Obispo, discovering something new about it as we went admiring the richly decorated facades of the old heritage buildings crumpling under the passage of time and neglect and awaiting a capitalist makeover while the others have been restored to their original glory.
EXPLORING HAVANA

EXPLORING HAVANA
Cubans love for the bright colours extends well past the old cars and it is very seldom that you would find a building not painted in retro pink, blue, or green
EXPLORING HAVANA

EXPLORING HAVANA

EXPLORING HAVANA
As I mentioned earlier, the day was quite hot and very humid so when we finally made it back to our hotel, we couldn't wait to step into our air-conditioned room.  Once cooled down and refreshed, we both agreed that the initial impression of our first day in Havana was a bit disappointing.  We new that life in Cuba could be challenging and that people don't have enough money to buy what they need but we were quite shocked by the state of the dwellings where they live, the absence of grocery shops and supermarkets and other common characteristics that define a modern city.
EXPLORING HAVANA
However, we went to bed with open minds, hoping that tomorrow we will discover another side of Havana but that is for the next post.

Until then,
Anna
xo