Havana, Cuba: City of Contrasts

Until recently, I shared a personal trait with the majority of Americans.   I am not referring to my comical fantasy about winning the lottery.  (Unfortunately, I still cling to that pathetic delusion.)  Rather, I am talking about the fact that I had never been to Cuba but had always wanted to.

Like so many others, I wanted to visit Cuba before the American invasion that will inevitably occur if all barriers to access are ever removed.   When I was invited to participate in a Travel Leaders Owners’ Cruise that included a stop in Cuba, I leaped at the chance.  As it turned out, we were only in Cuba one full day and late into the evening.  I can claim to no longer be a Cuba virgin but hardly a Cuba Casanova, so take my limited  observations with a chaser of Cuban rum.

Havana 3

Keep in mind I was part of a group sharing an itinerary.  The day and evening we spent there can be divided into three parts:  a morning walking tour, an afternoon coach ride to Finca Vigia, Ernest Hemingway’s farm (among other stops) and a dinner at the famous Havana restaurant Paladar San Cristobal.  So I invite you to don your Guajiro straw fedora and Guayabera shirt or your Bata Cubana dress, as you prefer, and join me for a whirlwind Rumba down the backstreets of Havana.

The Morning Walking Tour

When I say, as I do in my title, that Havana is a city of contrasts I mean that both internally and externally.  The first contrast with the US that practically runs you over (and will if you are not exceedingly carefully when crossing the streets), is the ubiquitous nature of the 1950’s cars.  From the moment you exit the cruise port and customs hall and cross the street to the Plaza of San Francisco, theCuban Vintage Car 1 first thing you notice is all the vintage automobiles zipping about.  Not all are as well maintained as this one but for someone who remembers the 50’s (as recounted to me by my Grandfather, or course), the wave of nostalgia was palpable.

As you might imagine, a country as poor as Cuba forces the populace to capitalize (note the irony) on the tourists in any way possible.  The expectation of tips is not exactly subtle from the street performers of various stripes to the attendants outside every toilet.  If you merely glance, you may be forgiven.  If you pause, however, to appreciate or certainly to snap a picture, it is is expected that your free hand will be reaching for a small gratuity.   In pointing this out, I am not acting as a critic, simply a chronicler.

Street Performer Statue

As we wended our way through the narrow streets, an internal contrast emerged between a few relatively well maintained edifices (mostly of government, historical or touristic importance) and the majority of buildings in various degrees of disrepair, if not more accurately, dilapidation.

Without a doubt, my three favorite stops along the way were the Hotel Ambos Mundos Hotel Ambos Mundos 2where Ernest Hemingway famously occupied a room on the 5th floor, a nameless sidewalk cafe where the group paused for a Cuban coffee (that, parenthetically, ripped off the already paltry number of chest hairs I could previously boast) and best of all, a stop at the La Bodeguita del Mundo.

If you are conversant with Spanish you might have guessed that this bar began as a small store before it graduated to the most famous bar in Havana.

La Bodeguita Del Mundo 1

In actuality, this modest little tavern has not one, but two claims to fame (however dubious they may be).   It was the haunt of many famous people, while among them is purported to be Ernest Hemingway.  I will leave it to others to determine if the inscription inside the bar, “My mojito is La Bodeguita, my daiquiri is El Floridita” with his signature beneath is genuine or a forgery.  The same may be said for the claim that my drink of choice, the Rum and Coke or Cuba Libre, was invented here by US soldiers who cut the strong Cuban rum with Coca Cola to slow down the rush to inebriation.  Some stories are just too good to be questioned!

I am not normally one to buy souvenirs but when you run across the first car you ever owned by yourself, how can you resist.  I believe when I bought the car the color was blue but I almost immediately plopped down the $39.95 (yes, the decimal is in the right place) with Maaco (as I recall) to have the entire car painted this exact shade of yellow (unlike the two tone below).  When I turned into the school parking lot, I wanted to turn all the girls’ heads, which I accomplished.  I just didn’t realize they would be heaving at the same time.

My First Car '55 Olds 2

 

As usual, I have waxed eloquent (or maybe just waxed) to the point where common decency demands I bring this little post to a merciful close.  But before you imagine you have escaped my Cuba musings permanently, think again.  We are just up to noon.  We haven’t even had lunch at the Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski yet.   So tune in next time for the coach ride to Hemingway’s farm and our night on the town at San Cristobal.

If you really enjoyed this first post, you can buy me a rum and coke when we reconvene!

 

 

 

Imbibing In Iberia (or if you prefer) Cuba Libre Continental Style

For the next several posts you will be transported through Portugal and Spain with a dash of London thrown in for flavor at the end.  You will not be boarding a luxury Globus motorcoach, as I recently did, but rather you will be borne along on the fluffy clouds of my velvety prose.

Globus Touring CoachThose of you who live for my next pulsating post no doubt have noticed a dearth of such missives of late.  The explanation is as simple as it is depressive.  For the past few weeks I have been toiling like a serf rather than traveling like a sovereign.  Oh, the humanity!   I feel your compassion oozing across cyberspace even as I write these words but, take comfort, dear heart, I have learned how to steel myself against life’s injustices.

Thank goodness my interminable season of discontent ended on September 23rd when the wife and I boarded a British Airways flight bound for Lisbon by way of London.  Simply return to this site on a regular basis and you can follow along on my grand adventure.

Where to start?  Why don’t we begin with a theme that emerged quite by happenstance?  On the evening of the first full day in Lisbon, I wandered into the bar at the Sofitel Lisbon Liberdade (I am sure I was looking for the sundry store) when I decided to pause for an ever so modest libation.  I ordered a rum and coke, my cocktail of choice, and was quite delighted with the presentation.  So, I snapped a picture and posted this comment on my Facebook page:

“Every bar has a rum and coke. Leave it to the Sofitel Liberdade Lisbon to add the nuts, cranberries, olives AND a bowl for the pits!”

Rum & Coke Sofitel LiberdadeWhen we arrived to the Gran Melia Colon in Sevilla who would have guessed they also had a bar!  Is it my fault that they place the darn things so close to the sundry shops?  I ordered my customary drink and here is what they brought.

Rum & Coke Gran Melia ColonThe post on Facebook read:

“OK, tonight’s rum and Coke in Seville #GranMeliaColon is served with orange slices, peanuts, chocolate and gumdrops.”

I thought this was a particularly nice glass.

I know my readers are unusually astute so no doubt you see the pattern developing here.  Unconsciously (which is, by the way, how I operate most of the time), I was developing my own metric for comparing the various hotels on our itinerary.  The pressure started to build to see if the next venue could rise to the rum and coke test.

Our third stop was at the Alhambra Palace Hotel in Granada. I suppose it is pointless at this juncture to pretend there was a sundry shop anywhere near the bar.  Anyway, I was oRum & Coke Alhambra Palace Hoteln a mission.  I was not succumbing to self-indulgence, I repeatedly told myself, but rather performing scholarly research.

My Facebook post for the evening read:

“Tonight’s rum and coke at the Hotel Alhambra Palace in Granada comes with a sunset!”

Our fourth and final stop in Spain was at the Gran Melia Fenix in Madrid.  With my Rum and Coke Gran Melia Fenixresearch pad in hand, I went in quest of the bar.  Have you ever noticed that in nice hotels the bars are hardly ever difficult to find?  The evening comment in Facebook read:

The Gran Melia Fenix in Madrid offers dark rum and coke with green cherries and a beautiful mural and red rose behind the bar.”

At this point, you might assume that our little rum and coke tour has mercifully ended but you would be wrong Spanish olive breath!   Unless you have been playing your own drinking game and downing a rum and coke every time I said the word “Facebook”, you might recall I mentioned that there was a brief stop in London at the end.

Our final two nights were spent at the One AldwychMy final Facebook post (time for another swig, game players) read:

“Tonight’s rum and coke at ‪#‎onealdwych‬ London features black cherries, green olives, nuts & the most cosmopolitan city in the world!”

Rum & Coke One AldwychNow we really have reached the end.  What would research be, however, without a scientific poll?  Here is your chance to participate.

You can view all the pictures I took on this trip here.

Be sure to come back soon and we will visit each of these spectacular hotels and much of the Portuguese and Spanish countryside.  It will be fun, I promise . . . especially if you bring your own rum and coke!