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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

Mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio

Mojitos at La Bodeguita del Medio

My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita

-Ernest Hemingway

The Cathedral plaza is lively. Creole women and men with fat cigars walk around. Fortunes are told and with a flash of black and white, drinks and lunch are served. Round the corner, the street is dancing, the red, blue and white flag is swaying, people salsa, a hand grabs my hand and I salsa.

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La Bodeguita del Medio, Mojitos, Cohibas, musicians. Squiggles and signatures, faces press against the wooden bars.

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So many people, such a small space. Mint leaves are torn, limes are squeezed. It all spills out, spills out outside.

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La Bodeguita lays claim to being the birthplace of the Mojito cocktail, prepared in the bar since its opening in 1942. The rooms are full of frames, photos and the walls are covered by signatures including some  of the bars famous clientele, Ernest Hemingway and Pablo Neruda. The drinks were expensive and slightly watery ($7). It is very touristy, but I would recommend walking in and having a quick look inside to see the decoration, if not a cheeky cocktail on your way back to your hotel from Cathedral Plaza.

 

La Paella – an Unchained Melody

La Paella – an Unchained Melody

We found a splendid little oasis of calm called La Paella located at the Hostal Valencia, between Clles Lamparilla and Obrapia in Old Havana. We had walked quite some time from the crafts market down to the Cathedral Plaza and this was a great place to relax, cool off and recharge.

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The restaurant’s design is typically Andalusian. The interior is dark and sombre.But at the heart, a beautiful courtyard flourishes with vines and plants and color.

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An architectural Heathcliff.

The food was very good, really quite authentic but slightly meager in the chicken/ vegetable to rice ratio. However, the rice was very well cooked, sticky and not hard. In all the meal tasted great.

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The Cuban trio came round and serenaded us.  I must say that these were best ones that we encountered in Cuba and boy we met a few. The lead singer had an incredibly delicate voice and we loved it so much that we had to request a CD.The whole atmosphere was great and we smiled when we heard a large group sing along to a wonderful rendition of Unchained Melody.

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3* Hotel Sevilla Old Havana, Cuba

3* Hotel Sevilla Old Havana, Cuba

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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

Picture 195118b2bae4b0242fc17312b4View from our bedroom window

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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.

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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

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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.

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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!

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Dinner at Roof Gardens Hotel Sevilla Havana

Dinner at Roof Gardens Hotel Sevilla Havana

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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

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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.

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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!

Sumptuous Lunch at El Floridita

Sumptuous Lunch at El Floridita

The interior of the restaurant was exquisite. Murals adorn the walls, velvet curtains hang heavily, separating the dinners from the noisy hustle and bustle of the El Floridita bar where musicians play and frozen Daiquiris are served. A great way to relax and sample the best of Cuba.Magnum Champagne bottles are lined up, the walls are adorned with murals. The decor is very 1950s, very seductive, very luxurious. The whole experience was wonderful and I would definitely recommend it.

The service was incredible. I am going to be like a child and talk about my favorite part of the meal, the dessert, first. Order the frozen Alaska and you will get a flambe display that you will never forget. At least I never will. The waiter wheels in a table with paraphernalia, liquors, a frying pan and stove. The signal is given and someone dims the lights. Your pudding is turned into a show for all the dinners to enjoy, but remember the most important thing, that only you will get to eat it! The show last around 5-10 minutes and the pudding is only $6. The fruit platter can also be flambeed if you are going for a lighter end to the very filling meal.

We ordered some of the lighter, smaller meals that were on offer. That evening we were preparing for the New Year’s Eve 7 course dinner banquet held in the Cathedral plaza. The presentation was lovely, the seafood was plentiful, although could have been a bit fresher. The bar was full but the restaurant was fairly empty so we had ample time and space to enjoy the surroundings and the atmosphere.

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See also Frozen Daiquiris at El Floridita for more pictures and information on the front bar