Farewell to Cuba

Farewell to Cuba

The last dance is always the one that I remember most. Today was our last day. The thought made my heart clench. I look back now at the photos, like a lover smelling scented clothes. I am propelled by my feelings and by my memories into a place which is unique, even to the world. The sounds become real, the smells the colors. I know I am not there and yet somehow this feels so real.

The impressive Grand Theater of Havana looms ahead, the Cuban flag perched proudly blows in the wind.

DSC_0795

Pass the ever grandiose buildings and arrive quickly at El Capitolio. Domed and all white, it cuts an authoritarian figure and towers over the dainty colorful houses, which are opposite it. I can see myself laughing and joking. I press the camera shutter, but never quite at the right moment. Half a car, no car but somehow never a whole one.

DSC_0792

DSC_0784

DSC_0923

DSC_0921

 DSC_0832

Round and round we go up as far as the gate to China Town. The  Old Railway repair yard is still rusty. The cigar factory is shut, although I don’t think it was like that when I was there. Sometimes memories play tricks. If I am wrong, it doesn’t matter, tomorrow I will go back but this time I will open it.

DSC_0855

DSC_0846

DSC_0844

DSC_0842

Lunch in a sumptuous Italian in China Town. We are served by Cuba’s own Abercrombie and Fitch models.  White shirts tight over their strong muscular frames. The sugar is sweet but not as sweet as Carlos. They have blankets for if we are cold (such gentlemen), and probably spare shirts for when their old ones split from too much muscle flexing. Obviously they all fancy me. This is how I remember it anyway…

All the clientele are locals and many parties are couples on dates – Was it lunch or was it dinner that I had here? Either way its not the best place in the world to bring your girlfriend if your trying to convince her that you are the most attractive man on the planet. So yes, the food is really good, best ravioli outside of Florence and great price… Anyway back to the service…

DSC_0868

We walk back to the hotel, passed El Floridita, and back down towards the sea to our hotel.  I feel sad. This is when the bags are loaded and when we hug our new friends goodbye. The journey back to the airport, back home, back to reality is short. Too short.

I will miss you Cuba but I will see you soon, I promise this is by no means goodbye. I never say goodbye because goodbye means going away and going away means forgetting.

Cienfuegos – the city of a thousand fires

Cienfuegos – the city of a thousand fires

DSC_0483

It felt as if we had well and truly left the countryside as we rolled through the grandiose gridded city of Cienfuegos. The heat rose from under our feet, and crept up our bodies quickly stifling our senses. This is the city of the sun, the city of a thousand fires.

 DSC_0455

Cienfuegos lacked Havana’s charm, it was less lively, there was no music. The main square was however beautifully done up, with gardens, large revolutionary symbols and drawings of Che and his slogans.

DSC_0468  DSC_0472

DSC_0473

DSC_0465

DSC_0463

The highlight of the plaza, the Casa de la Cultura Benjmain Duarte.

    DSC_0478

The tuk-tuk sprinted down the main boulevard down to the sea. The heat made the lagoon air smell of the city’s sewers. Lovers sat under trees and boats glided motionless on paper still water.

DSC_0503

DSC_0494

Down the main boulevard we careered. Sat on the bicycle we gained a little height and so we were able to escape the heat emitted by the tarmacked road which had become overwhelming, especially when we were engulfed by the fumes of the cars spluttering past. Now we could enjoy glimpses of sea through gaps in the lavish houses with the wind in our hair.

DSC_0485  DSC_0502

DSC_0495

The mansions were grand, their architecture fascinating but somewhat lacking in taste. The Only Way is Essex but on Mojitos. Although it is said that wealth can seldom be subtle, double exterior staircases cascading down pastel facades must be seen as a step somewhat in the wrong direction. Indeed, is a great social success not a pretty girl who plays her cards as carefully as if she were plain?

DSC_0499

Past the yachting club and the double fronted domed house with tennis court and tropical garden.

 DSC_0505

DSC_0507_2

We finally saw looming ahead of us at the end of the Punta Gorda, the diamond of the crown, the real gem, the Palacio del Valle.

cienfuegos-city-palacio-valle-tower cienfuegos-city-valle-palace-aerial-view

Once a casino, this Palace now stands as a beacon of culture. Magnificent and towering, it is built in a style  reminiscent of Spanish-Moorish art with influences of Gothic, Romanesque, Baroque and Mudejar arts.

DSC_0522

Spanish carvers made the gateways, mosaics and Spanish ceramics adorn the walls and stained glass taints the views. Beautiful crystal allegories are painted on the marble staircase. Cornices crown the entrance to the halls and doorways, the ceiling are high and the rooms spacious. The living room is  Empire in style paneled in gold and pink marble with applications of bronze and white marble floors.

DSC_0515

DSC_0517

Palacios del Valle stands aloof at at the end of the Punta Gorda, a reminder and testimony of a golden age of Cuban opulence and wealth.

DSC_0490

I feel that it is not worth spending a full day at Cienfuegos. It was though a great way to break the journey from Trinidad to Havana. We stayed at a really nice casa particular called Apartamento Independiente Eduardo & Odalys on Avenida 56 number 5306 (Altos)/ 53 y 55. We had our own little apartment with bedroom, living room and kitchen. The shower pressure was better than in the casa that we stayed in Trinidad but there was no air-conditioning. It was very close to the station so it was easy to get there from the bus on arrival from Trinidad.

Dinning in the Colonial Era -Sol Ananda

Dinning in the Colonial Era -Sol Ananda

Diego Velázquez de Cuéllar, conqueror of Cuba, founded Trinidad exactly 500 years ago, in 1514. The city is a living museum piece. Not only is it older than almost every building in Paris but this World Heritage Site is one of the world’s best preserved colonial cities.

DSC_0199

Sol Ananda is one of Trinidad’s many good restaurants. It is set in a house which looks onto the Plaza Mayor that was bought by an architect, re-done and transformed back into what it would have looked like a hundred years ago, when Trinidad was a very affluent area thanks to its blossoming sugar industry.

DSC_0186DSC_0181

All the furniture is antique. Tables are set amongst bedrooms, with ornately decorated beds, wardrobes and rocking chairs. A real old Cello is propped up and is used by locals who play at the restaurant museum in the evening.The concept is clever, dinning tables are interspersed amongst these old heirlooms, so there is ample opportunity to really feast upon the items. I felt that it was a much more enjoyable way to contemplate and admire these great pieces of craftsmanship than by glancing quickly at them whilst walking through a museum gallery.

DSC_0192

We ate off antique plates with antique silver cutlery from an old colonial ship

 DSC_0182

DSC_0194 DSC_0197 DSC_0198

The food is pricy for Cuba, like normal London prices, but the menu offers a variety of India, Caribbean, Mexican and Spanish food. This is what we had for lunch, but I would highly recommend the lobster which I had on our last dinner in Trinidad.

DSC_0177 DSC_0178

For our final dinner in Trinidad we up to the restaurant’s roof terrace. The sky was alight with color as the sun set. Stone angels became shadows against the fiery sky. DSC_0425

   DSC_0437

Between Mountains and Sea – Trinidad

Between Mountains and Sea – Trinidad

“Homage to the Greats”, the very best of John Travolta and Patrick Swasey. More than an hour of their very best moments from Greece songs to Saturday Night fever dance routines, to Dirty Dancing finales and romantic moment from Ghost. So much jiving, pelvic thrusting, tight trousers and comb backs. Only in Cuba would a macho cigar smoking bus driver have the balls to choose and then play such a video on the long trip down from Havana to Trinidad. Probably the best bumpy coach journey I have ever done, with air-con and great scenery, which was interrupted only when a pit-stop was announced where sandwiches and recommended pina coladas could be bought.We had wondered how early was too early to start drinking in Cuba, apparently according to the driver, 10am would be considered fine.

DSC_0167

DSC_0387

It took a little bit of time adjusting from the grand boulevards of Havana to the tiny narrow streets and low houses of Trinidad. The coach stopped, randomly it seemed, on a relatively wide road, surrounded by low lying houses. It was all a lot more rural than the vibrant city which we had left behind. Trinidad, Havana’s Country Bumpkin cousin. There were almost no cars. We could not see the main square so at first it was difficult to get our bearings.

Our plan had been to compare the different casas particulars which were apparently around the main square, but as we weren’t sure where that was and where the main boulevard was, we could not do this. No need to panic though, although we did slightly at first. As the coach pulled up my sister turned to me with watering eyes and with a little lip quiver said the words: “Don’t like it”.

Luckily, as we got out of the bus, we were greeted by locals offering us their homes to stay in. After talking to a few, after some recommendations from others, I decided to trust and go with the flow. A young man, very well spoken, very professional, told me in a couple of quick sentences above the chaos, that he his family had a casa particular, that we could come and look at it and see if we liked it. That it had air-conditioning, a double room with refrigerator, on suite bathroom, a patio and offered breakfast and meals if needed. He told me it wasn’t far, and that his friend would take us and our bags to the house and that if we didn’t like it we could go elsewhere. The price of all casas particulares in Cuba are 35 pesos per night.

I looked through the chaos, people grabbing bags, tourists like sheep amongst wolves, wide eyed and scarred, and decided I had to go with the young guys. I couldn’t see any alternatives. I hoped it would be fine, but if it wasn’t we would probably have spent the first night there anyway. All our bags were loaded onto the tuk tuk. It would have been impossible anyway to lug them around, as all the street of Trinidad are cobbled.

DSC_0216

The fit young driver put on some pumping music and pedaled away. We even made a quick stop to buy rope to help secure an extra bag we had to the bike. This took us up a massive hill, a sort of unnecessary detour, but all done for our comfort. I offered to get out and push. The young cyclist looked at me as if I was insane and laughed. He was man enough for this and in no way wanted the villagers to see him being pushed up the hill by a girl. He egged my sister to get on, even though we were already full to the brim, and turned the music up louder. This was his public challenge, a real peacock display of masculinity. He made it up the hill very slowly, beads of sweet forming on his toned arms. He had made it. I was impressed, the villagers shouting encouragement were also impressed. My gamble had paid off, the house was lovely, probably the best in the town. We ended up staying 4 nights instead of 2.

Trinidad is in fact picturesque and charming. Together with the nearby Valle de los Ingenios, it is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. The journey down from Havana is long but definitely worth it. The houses are colorful, pastel with wrought iron gates. The streets are cobbled and many people still get around by donkey and trap. The Plaza Mayor, is an open air museum, statues and brass canons adorn the streets, the church is framed by tall palms. Every other house and restaurant is also a museum. They are filled with antique furniture, musical instruments and cutlery from ship wrecks. Roof terraces look over the city and stone angels watch over you as you eat. We went to Sol Ananda twice and would highly recommend the experience of dinning in a museum. Your stay here will be peaceful and really relaxing as the town is very tourist friendly without loosing an ounce of its authenticity and heritage.

We really enjoyed walking around. Every day we did something different. Go before 5pm to the Museum Municipal and make sure you climb the very rickety and windy, extremely narrow staircase to the top of the museum’s tower for a stunning view over the town. Look at the San Francisco Convent and mountains down to towards the see. We tried to go as late as possible, as the sunset in Trinidad is legendary. This would be a great place to see it from, but unfortunately the place closes before the sun goes down. In fact, we almost got locked in waiting for it.

Another great place to see the sunset from is from an old abandoned abbey at passed the main plaza, at the back of the town up a small hill. The area which is walked through to get to it is quite poor, so we didn’t stick around until dark, but the view of the sea down below and the sunset was beautiful. Even if you don’t go out of your way to see the sunset, the sky is light up orange and pink most nights and the buildings glow.

DSC_0323

Just beyond the main plaza, there are casas de la musica, free open air spaces where musical performances are conducted by bands which go on long into the night. Locals show off their moves and will encourage others to join in. An old man teaches a young Australian backpacker salsa and both have an amazing time and laugh despite the language barrier. He has to be more matcho, lead with confidence and look her in the eyes. This is is a local hang out for the towns young and is enjoyed by both tourists and locals. The party is then continued at the cave nightclub, a nightclub in a cave which is great fun!

Trinidad is between mountains and the Caribbean sea. One of Cuba’s most famous beaches, Playa Ancon is a 15 minute drive away. It was very hot, hotter than in Havana. Every day we would go to the beach at around 9am. The family’s uncle Miguel would take us in his 1954 Buick and would collect us at our arranged time, usually 3pm. We would talk and he would tell us about life in Trinidad. He said he was saving up to go and visit his family in Miami as the laws in Cuba were to be relaxed soon. It was a great way to spend the hottest hours of the day. One of the days we paid 10cuc each and went out to the coral reef and snorkeled.

The sea was teaming with multicolored fish. The Catamarans were moored on the shore and there was no need to pre-book. We went early,  just paid on the spot and were the only ones on the boat and at the reef, it was really magical. There are a few resorts along the coast and so the beach is comfortable and there is ample shade and places to get cocktails and drinks, although I would bring your own food. Our family made us sandwiches, which were included as part of the breakfast so we took those.

Trinidad is unspoilt and a true Caribbean gem. Its petrol station sells no water or juice only rum and gasoline.The history of the place is unmissable and the colonial architecture and scenery is very special. The people here live in true harmony with their surroundings, so the city although a museum is also making history itself. There are some great items made locally, and everyday streets become markets. We bought hand embroidered table clothes, which will one day become our family air looms, hand made Cuban hats for 3cuc, necklaces, wicker work baskets and musical instruments. The quality of the souvenirs here are incredible and all from locals.

Now all I have to do is go back and share this secret and bring all those who I love dearly to Trinidad.

DSC_0308

3* Hotel Sevilla Old Havana, Cuba

3* Hotel Sevilla Old Havana, Cuba

hotel-sevilla-cuba-restaurante-torre-oro

A popular meeting place for Cuban high society from the time of its inauguration in 1908. Well known visitors grace the guest book of Hotel Sevilla including Al Cappone, luminaries like Enrico Caruso, Graham Greene and Josephine Baker. havana256front-of-hotel-sevilla

The Hotel is situated off El Prado and is a short walk to the sea promenade El Malecon and places of historical historical and cultural interest such as the Capitolio and Gran Teatro.

DSC_0495

 Horse drawn carriages await suitors outside the elegant facade of the grand hotel entrance. DSC_0768

Inside a large spacious lobby, with art deco fountain. It is here that Cuban music is performed and where on our first night we watched a professional flamenco performance. Once a month, original silent films are projected on a screen assembled in the lobby area, to an amusing piano accompaniment that tries to set the mood, attesting to the establishment’s inventive commitment to culture.

SofitelSevilla_b DSC_0864

Outside, there is a large swimming pool, with gym and sauna, which offers an oasis of cool and relaxation in the heart of the vibrant busy city. Other features include an arcade with shops which adjoins the lobby at its far end.

DSC_0865

The rooms are spacious and clean, reminiscent of Havana’s gold era. Don’t miss the towel Origami!

Picture 195118b2bae4b0242fc17312b4View from our bedroom window

Picture 23

The most impressive part of Hotel Sevilla is the palatial Roof Gardens, where breakfast is served and a great place to have dinner.

A cheaper alternative to Hotel Sevilla is its sister hotel Hotel Caribbean, a two minute walk away. This is its much smaller, less grand counter part, with darker rooms. It is however half the price and enjoys the same great location. Food is served at the Hotel bar and breakfast is included in the 30cuc per night price tag. Guests of the Hotel Caribbean can use the pool facilities of Hotel Sevilla, and the clean rooms come with en-suite bathroom with plenty of hot water, air-conditioning. Some however have only internal windows onto the Hotel’s landing.

DSC_0455 DSC_0771

Both hotels have an incredible location and all of Old Havana can be explored easily from here on foot. We loved the fact that it was so easy to get to the sea and we walked there often early in the morning and to watch the sunset

A trip to Playas del Este

A trip to Playas del Este

IMG_6695Culture, culture, culture, museums and buildings. If you want to go to the Caribbean though you will want at least a few days at the beach! Perhaps Havana isn’t the right place for us to go? Perhaps an all inclusive resort would be better to get the sun and enjoy the sea!? Don’t be fooled, Havana really does have the best of both worlds!

IMG_6726Havana’s sea is rocky and there is no way you will be able to swim off the Malecon. Instead, take an air-conditioned public coach from Plaza Central to Playas del Este. The  coach comes every half an hour and the journey last approximately 15 minutes. There are different stops at numerous different beaches. Some are more lively with musicians and bars, others very secluded. IMG_6739

IMG_0260

We opted for the more picturesque beach called Playa Santa Maria del Mar. Don’t forget to keep your ticket that cost 3 CUC because it is also a valid return. Once you have had enough tanning, just go to the other side of the road and the coach will come passed and take you back to the centre of Havana. See! I told you, no need for a resort! IMG_6802  IMG_6753

Playa Santa Maria del Mar was beautiful. The fine granules of sand were white and made up of tiny little shells. Coconuts lay washed ashore. A little hut served fresh fish and food in front of the sea. We were allowed to take the tables and chairs and place them wherever we wanted to eat, closer to the water or further away. The meal cost next to nothing and was delicious. I had a mojito which I had to chuck into the sand because it was throat burningly strong and it was here that I had my first fresh water coconut.

IMG_6797 IMG_6795

It started to cloud over, so around 4pm we walked 5 minutes back to the road where the coach had dropped us off and waited with the others. Soon enough the coach arrived and there we were back in the heart of old Havana. We walked down to the Malecon and watched a magical sunset. Paradise beach, a stones throw from a UNESCO World Heritage Site!

DSC_1175

DSC_1138 DSC_0605_2DSC_0561

Dinner at Roof Gardens Hotel Sevilla Havana

Dinner at Roof Gardens Hotel Sevilla Havana

DSC_0768

The Roof Gardens of Hotel Sevilla was once the hotel’s grand ballroom, now an enormous and supremely elegant restaurant with great views of the city and the sea.

hotel-sevilla-cuba-restaurante-torre-oro

If you can get a table next to one of the balconies and you can enjoy the blissful ocean breezes.

The creative French-inspired menu and stunning setting make this one of the finest dining options in Havana. The dining area has massively high ceilings with windows lining the walls, marble floors and chandeliers. Entrees range from $15 to $35 and include dishes such as lobster stewed in rum and monkfish in basil-curry sauce.The menu is quite limited though and the price it is expensive compared to other restaurants in Havana.

DSC_0442

The portions were reasonable compared to most french cuisine served and the vegetables and  lobster which we had were fresh.

roof_garden_hotel_sevilla_cuba

We had the privilege of being serenaded by opera singers, the soprano in particular was incredible. The  whole atmosphere was the the epitome of elegance and class. A night to remember.

Picture 27

Dirty Dancing in Havana – My New Year’s Eve at the Cathedral Plaza

Dirty Dancing in Havana – My New Year’s Eve at the Cathedral Plaza

DSC_0961   DSC_0998

The clocks chimed twelve. I looked into his big brown eyes. Somewhere far off into the distance music was playing. I didn’t notice though, or all the people twirling and spinning around me. All I saw was him. His hand was stretched out. I felt a sensation, like no other felt before, this made me scarred.

I hesitated but his gaze was fierce. I gave my hand and it fit delicately into his. I muttered some apologies. Our dance began. I would like to say that people parted from our path as we span to the song, but they didn’t. We managed to punish a few chairs though. Crash! Another one to the floor. I stammered through the first few steps, the rhythm was fast and rigorous. Breeze turned to wind in my hair and we spun round and round in a blur full of color and light. It was wild, it was fantastic. A massive crescendo and then clapping.

The world righted itself. Javier, the overweight middle aged waiter shook my hand and smiled. Thank you Javier for my very own dance in Havana.

DSC_1097 DSC_1096 DSC_1100 DSC_1075

New Year’s Eve at the Cathedral Plaza was incredible and was by far the best New Year’s Eve party I have ever been to. Book your tickets in advance, at the tourist office (there is one at the Hotel Sevilla) and you will not be disappointed. We were greeted by actors dressed in fancy dress as we walked down the red carpet to the event. Come early and get a table closer to magnificent light facade of the Cathedral, where some of Cuba’s best musicians and dancers will perform all night long. The variety of the music, the quality of the dancing was outstanding.

The meal consisted of 7 courses, with additional side plates, such as paellas if desired. Drinks flowed freely all night. Cava, red wine, all cuban cocktails, whisky and any other drink under the sun were all included. The tables and seats were beautifully decorated and each person received masks and a party bag, which are often given to children at the end of the party. All groups had their own separate table but as the night went on we built up great relations with the neighboring parties.  People got up and dance, some by their tables, others on the stage. A giant magnum was then cut with a saber?! and a giant cake flambe after midnight. After the count down, everyone danced together and the night turned into one massive party. Can not recommend this enough, the best place in the world to spend new year!