Havana’s Buildings – Part 2

Welcome to Part 2 of Havana’s buildings; if you have missed Part 1 just follow the link.

One of the things I photographed the most in Havana was its buildings; each one of them has something different to offer. The majority of the buildings are looking much worse for wear, but their former glory does shine through, whether it’s the little architectural touches, the large arches, cast iron balconies or just the vibrant colours; everywhere you look there is something wonderful to discover about each and every building and house you walk past.

The Malecón in Havana has some wonderful buildings (see my previous post for more of them), and this wonderful green highrise was just one of many that caught my eye.

Along the Malecón, Havana, Cuba

This building has some wonderful little details just above the arches.

Despite the state of the buildings, the former grandeur is shining through

I cannot remember where in Havana we came across this building, but I could not walk past without taking a photo; the colours are just so wonderfully vibrant.

The balconies remind me of Paris, but the colours are so Cuba!

And last but not least (for this post) this is the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba. It was built in 1930 and is a copy of the Breakers Hotel in Palm Beach, Florida. In the 1940s the hotel and casino hosted the largest ever get-together of the North American Mafia, organised by US mobsters Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. They used the guise of a Frank Sinatra concert for their purposes; the event is depicted in the movie “The Godfather II”, but the actual scenes were filmed elsewhere.

The hotel has had famous guest throughout its history, from Fred Astair, Rita Hayworth to Walt Disney in the early days to Steven Spielberg and Leonardo Di Caprio in more recent times, as well as hosting a number of world leaders and diplomats, such a Vladimir Putin and former President Jimmy Carter.

Hotel Nacional de Cuba, Havana

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Havana’s Buildings – Part 1

There are so many amazing buildings in Havana, it is hard to just showcase a few, so this is Part 1 of a yet undetermined amount of parts.

Capitolio Nacional de Cuba

One of the most iconic buildings in Havana is the Capitolio Nacional, which was still being renovated when we saw it in May this year. It looks like the Capitol building in Washington, DC, but apparently is modeled on the Panthéon in Paris. It was built in 1926 and took 5,000 workers 3 years, 2 months and 20 days to construct. It used to be the seat of the Cuban Congress, in 1959 it became the home of the Cuban Academny of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology. In 2013 it closed and renovations started; it is scheduled to open sometime in 2018 and will then house the National Assembly of People’s Power, the legislative parliament of Cuba.

Museum of the Revolution
Museo de la Revolución, Havana, Cuba

The Museum of the Revolution is housed in the former presidential palace, which was built between 1913 and 1920 and used by a number of Cuban presidents. Tiffany’s of New York decorated the interior and it even has a Hall of Mirrors, based on the famous hall in the Palace of Versailles.

The museum tells the story of the events leading up to, during, and immediately after the Cuban revolution. It is told in English and Spanish, and we found it very interesting, albeit tinted with propaganda. The interior architecture is just as fascinating; the sweeping central staircase (closed to visitors) still retains the bullet holes made during an unsuccessful attack on the palace in March 1957 by a revolutionary student group intent on assassinating President Batista. In fact, bullet holes were to be seen in a number of walls all around the museum.

There are a number of exhibit-free rooms, some you can step into, others, like the president’s office where Fidel Castro was sworn in in 1959, you can admire from the doorway behind a barrier.

Also on show is SAU-100 tank, which was used by Castro during the 1961 Bay of Pigs battle and behind the museum you can look at Castro’s 18m yacht (a replica kept behind a glass cage) and a number of other vehicles, planes, and rockets. Overall, we enjoyed this museum and while it could be a little crowded around some of the exhibits and I would highly recommend a visit.

 

Gran Teatro de La Habana
Great Theatre of Havana

The Great Theater of Havana is home to Cuba’s National Ballet, unfortunately we did not see a performance during our visit (a good reason to visit Havana again!). The very first performance took place in 1837, with its formal inauguration the following year. However, the building you now see is not the original; which was torn down in 1908 and in 1985 it received its current name – The Great Theater of Havana.

Catedral de la Habana

Havana’s cathedral, Catedral de la Habana, was designed by Francesco Borromini, an Italian architect. Construction begun in 1748 and finished in 1787, it is one of the oldest cathedrals in the Americas. The cathedral on the outside is dominated by its 2 unequal towers and framed by a baroque facade. The interior is neoclassical rather than baroque and fairly austere. The frescos above the altar are originals dating from the late 1700s, however, the paintings on the side walls are copies of originals by Murillo and Rubens. The smaller of the two towers can be climbed for a small charge. Entry is by donation and when we visited it was not busy at all and provided a nice, cool, and calming reprieve from the hustle and heat of the city’s streets.

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Trees of the Valle de Viñales

One thing I noticed on our recent trip to Viñales were the trees, they were big and very good-looking! Driving from Havana to Viñales it was the first thing I noticed, the trees changed and all the way leading into the valley mango trees line the roads. I had never seen mango trees before, and mango being my favourite fruit, I was very excited to see them. All along the roads you can see little boxes with mangoes standing on the side of the road being sold by the locals to passers-by.

Mango tree

I could have spent all day just photographing trees, however, I think my other half would not have appreciated that.

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Viñales, where agriculture is still king

A thatched hut where tobacco is aged

Agriculture is still very much the main industry in Viñales, but tourism is a very close second. When in Viñales a tour of a tobacco farm is a must, even if like me, you don’t smoke the stuff.

There are lots of tour operators that will offer a tour of a farm or you can arrange a tour privately through you local casa owner. Ours was just a fairly quick tour, but still gave us a good understanding on the growing process. Tobacco plant seeds a very tine and fine and planting happens in the winter.

Into the fields

Once harvested, about 6-8 weeks after planting, the leaves need to be cured, fermented, and aged, all of which takes a total of one year (in some cases aging continues past the two-year point!). Due to the microclimate found in the Viñales area, the soil is full of flavour, which helps the Cuban tobacco to stand out from the rest of the world. Each tobacco farm is required to send 90% of their harvest to the state and the remaining 10% is theirs to use and sell locally. Each farmer has their own recipe for fermenting and aging, our farmer uses pineapple as one of the ingredients.

Hand rolling a cigar, Viñales, Cuba

Once the leaves are ready, cigars are rolled by hand. Firstly, the leaves are stripped of their main veins as they contain 70% or so of the nicotine (the veins don’t go to waste, as they are used as fertilizer, pesticide, and other items) and then are expertly rolled into cigars. The outer layer gets particular attention to ensure it is even and seamless. Then each cigar gets rolled into some paper for further aging, anywhere from a month to a year, before it is ready to be enjoyed.

Ox and cart, or horse and cart are used by the majority of locals

Nearly everyone seems to have a horse and cart

 

Traditional methods are used to plant, grow and harvest the tobacco plants as mechanical methods will have an affect on the quality of the soil and the plants, which would devalue the harvest, so Cubans are sticking to their time honored traditions of using ox and horse.

Manual methods are still the norm in Viñales

When buying cigars outside of Viñales make sure you go to a Casa del Habano, the official Cuban cigar shop, they can be found all over Cuba, and in Havana they are also to be found in some of the modern hotels. Under no circumstance (unless it is for research) should you buy cigars from a street vendor. The cigars offered are fakes and are usually made from banana leaves (wrapped in a tobacco leaf) or substandard tobacco leaves that would not pass the quality control of the regular factories. As everywhere in the world these fakes look very realistic, and the price is very attractive, but you will be deeply disappointed once you light up!

 

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The lush landscape of Viñales, Cuba

The Valle de Viñales

Viñales is a 2 1/2 hr car ride west of Havana, and if you haven’t got the time to stay for a night or two, a day trip from Havana is more than achievable. We had our Havana casa owner arrange it all for us; our taxi driver was also our guide for the day.

First thing to note is that Viñales is famous for its tobacco farms and agriculture and has retained its small town charm. However, when we drove through it was busy with tourists from all over the globe and every house we passed was either a casa (B&B) or a restaurant, so be prepared for crowds in town.

The landscape here is markedly different to any we encountered on our Cuba trip. The dome-shaped limestone hills in the Valle de Viñales are known as mogotes, some of which rise as high as 300m.

The limestone hills called mogotes

Other than the tobacco farms Viñales is also known for its caves; we visited the Cueva del Indio which is much smaller than the Cuevas de Santo Tomas, but did not require us to climb and clamber around. The caves were fantastic and the pathway through was lit, at the end of which you take a boat ride through the rest of the caves which then deposits you at the other end and the exit. We loved our visit to these caves and would recommend it, especially if climbing over slippery rocks is not your thing.

Overall, I was just taken with the landscape and if we visit again I would like to stay at least 2 nights to be able to do some horse riding to enjoy more of it.

Viñales

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El Morro – Guardian of Havana’s port

El Morro, guardian of Havana’s harbour

El Morro, or Castillo de los Tres Santos Reyes Magnos del Morro to give it its full name, stands at the entrance of Havana’s port and has done so since 1630, when the building was finished; the famous lighthouse was not added until 1844. El Morro is one of 4 forts build along the water built by the Spanish.

The fort has an irregular polygonal shape, 3m thick walls and a deep protective moat, and is a classic example of Renaissance military architecture. For more than a century the fort withstood numerous attacks by French, Dutch and English privateers (including Sir Francis Drake), but in 1762 after a 44-day siege a 14,000-strong British force captured El Morro by attacking from the landward side.

El Morro hosts a maritime museum which includes an account of the fort’s siege and eventual surrender to the British in 1762 using paintings, artefacts, and narratives in English and Spanish.

Walking into El Morro

The fort sits opposite of Havana’s old town (Havana Vieja) and your best option to cross the water is via a taxi or take a bus (there is a ferry, but that stops at the Fort Casablanca, about a 20 minute walk further down). To enter El Morro you go down some steps to something that does not look like an entrance to a major attraction and once you have paid your 6 CUCs you walk down a narrow walkway to get into the fort.

The views from El Morro out to Havana are fantastic and the travel guides tell you to try to visit to take in a sunset over Havana from the fort; we decided to go during the morning and had El Morro almost to ourselves.

The view towards Havana’s port

The exhibits in the fort are really interesting and the cannons are truly spectacular to see despite some of them looking a little worse for wear.

One of many cannons at El Morro

This building contains the story of the fort as told through paintings, artefacts and narratives

A view down into the fort from its roof

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El Floridita – Hemingway’s favourite bar in Havana

When in Rome… and so, when in Havana a visit to El Floridita was a must for my husband, who is a fan of Ernest Hemingway, and who favourited this bar.

Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bar in Havana, Cuba

The bar is on the corner of Obispo and Monserrat in old Havana (Habana Vieja) and is open from 11am to midnight every day. Be warned, it is a tourist attraction and always full, so be prepared to wait for a table or seat at the bar. There is also a restaurant in the back and the bar serves some sandwiches; as we didn’t try neither, I cannot comment on the quality of the food. We did find that the service was very good though, especially when you consider the amount of tourists coming through every hour.

Papa’s life-size statue in his favourite corner

The majority of tourists come to just take a photo of themselves with Papa’s life-size statue, which is placed in his favourite corner. The bar is decorated with photos of Hemingway and other famous patrons and there is always some live music. The atmosphere is great, and you hear every language under the sun here in any given day. Like most people who stay for a drink we tried the famous daiquiri, which has to be said, is very expensive here, but you pay for the privilege of being in the space once occupied by Hemingway!

It is said that the daiquiri was invented here, other stories say that it was invented in Eastern Cuba, but refined in El Floridita.

The bar itself was first opened in 1817 named “Piña de Plata” and was changed in 1910 to “Florida” and in 1914 it was renamed to “El Floridita”.

If you visit Havana try to visit this most famous bar, sample their daiquiri and take a selfie with Papa; you will regret it if you don’t.

 

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Havana’s Streets – where life happens

Almost every night in Havana we spent an hour or so sitting on the balcony of our casa particular, enjoying a coffee and listening and watching life go on in the street below us. In Havana life happens on the streets; people sit in front or in the door of their homes, they catch up with news, they buy everything from bread to household items from roaming street vendors, and kids play football (soccer) in the roads.

The balcony of our casa particular

We loved sitting on the balcony and listen to the locals going about their evenings. I particularly enjoyed hearing the roaming street vendors shouting what they had on offer as they would come around the corner; each night we tried to guess what was on sale before looking down to discover that most times we had gotten it wrong (our Spanish is not up to much!).

All life is here on the streets of Havana!

Street vendors roaming Havana for trade

The view from our balcony, I loved all the colours

Some fabric being worked on

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Sunset on the Malecón

In my last post I introduced you to Havana’s Malecón, the world’s longest sofa.

On our walk along the walled path we were serenaded by this guy playing his trumpet.

On the Malecón in Havana, Cuba

A little further along this line fisher was trying his best to catch a fish or two.

Line fishing on the Malecón, Havana

This was my final image from that evening; looking towards Plaza de la Dignidad, which happens to be right opposite the US Embassy.

Havana sunset

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Havana’s evocative Malecón

On my list of must-visit places for our trip to Havana was the Malecón; the 7km long road going alongside Havana’s waterfront. Here you will find families going for a leisurely walk, lovers meeting for a date, friends debating the latest issues, musicians playing their instruments, street sellers hoping for a sale, fishermen trying to make a catch, and tourists with their cameras trying to capture it all. The Malecón has been dubbed “the world’s longest sofa”, and sure enough, it was exactly what we found, people sitting on the wall and enjoying the evening.

The City’s Historian Office has given special status to 14 blocks of buildings on the Malecón, in order to stop the rot the buildings have experienced over time thanks to the corrosive effects of the ocean. There are days when the road is closed to cars due to the crashing waves and you are able to walk down the middle of the empty thoroughfare and still get very wet.

Every Havana travel guide tells you to visit at sunset, so that is exactly what we did.

Waves crashing against the Malecón, Havana

Some colourful buildings at sunset on the Malecón

Havana’s waterfront with El Morro (one of three forts) at the end

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