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You haven’t been to Cuba yet?

Travel Writing

This article was first published in the Times Online, on April 11, 2007

Our globe-trotting literary traveller Sarah Anderson hits the road again with her books, this time to Cuba

It was my 22-year old niece’s idea to go to Cuba, she only had to twist my arm vaguely, since I’m always keen to go somewhere new: “If you haven’t been to Cuba yet – what have you been doing?” (Stephen Smith Cuba: The Land of Miracles).

We flew to Havana and stayed in the Palacio Ofarrill in Old Havana; originally the home of Don Ricardo O’Farrill, the hotel has a wonderful atrium and we were assured that we had a very quiet room. It turned out to have no window, so be sure to specify your needs – especially since: “It was a town constantly exposed to the invading air, thirsty for land and sea breezes, with its shutters, lattices, doors and flaps all open to the first cool breath” (Alejo Carpentier: Explosion in a Cathedral).

Walking around Old Havana is extremely pleasurable if you manage to avoid the falling masonry. “The way Havana looks as you enter the port makes it one of the most pleasant and picturesque places on the American equinoctial coasts (Alexandre von Humboldt Personal Narrative).

Old and crumbling residences, still lived in by many families who hang their washing outside, are juxtaposed with newly renovated buildings in many of which there are tiny museums of cigars, playing-cards and chocolate (where you can indulge in chocolate drinks), as well as the larger Colonial and City Museums. Enormous old-fashioned American cars squeeze down the narrow streets and music is indeed played everywhere; a cup of coffee becomes far more of an occasion with a live band playing.

Paladares are the places to eat. They started out by being just a table in somebody’s front room but some have become successful businesses. We went to La Guarida which featured in the film Strawberry and Chocolate (the first Cuban film to be nominated for an Oscar). Booking is essential (Jack Nicholson and Uma Thurman have eaten there) – but take any reservation you can get – the fish is excellent and cooked in an original manner.

We walked along the Malecon where people were strolling, relaxing and playing music: “Visiting the harbour café in the first cool of the evening had become a social habit of the city. People sat there to calm and steady their vision with a pacific vista of ships, and to catch a little of the emotions of travel, the gaiety of arriving and the melancholy of departure” (Norman Lewis Cuban Passage).

We went to the Hotel Nacional where we sat in the courtyard drinking mojitos and musing over its famous residents: Buster Keaton. Errol Flynn, Marlon Brando, Winston Churchill and of course Ernest Hemingway whose novel, set in Cuba, The Old Man and the Sea, won him the Nobel prize. The Nacional also hosts one of the famous floorshows – the Parisiens – (the other being Tropicana) – we sat drinking cocktails and watched the energetic dancers dressed in a variety of colourful clothes and feathers.

Another famous drinking place is Floridita (Obispo No.557 esq. a Monserrate), where we drank daiquiris, observed by a statue of Hemingway leaning on the bar: “It seemed such a short time ago that he had come to Havana and met with her family in the Floridita bar, the girl who was Milly’s mother” (Graham Greene Our Man in Havana).

The bus for Trinidad, a Unesco World Heritage Site, in the south of the island left Havana on the autopista: “It was empty, a long flat highway patrolled by turkey vultures. There was nothing to see on the road apart from the occasional truck, and no other sign of life” (Stephen Smith Cuba: The Land of Miracles). The town is full of well-preserved colonial Spanish architecture centring around the Plaza Mayor, dominated by the Iglesia Parroquial de la Santisima Trinidad, the largest church in Cuba: “Trinidad had cobbled streets.

The sewerage system was similarly antiquated, and water percolated through the stones. There was a story that the gutters ran down the middle of the streets because one of the city’s governors had a right leg shorter than the other” (Stephen Smith Cuba: The Land of Miracles). We stayed at the Playa Ancon about ten minutes taxi-ride away. The resort is enormous – you wear a band round your wrist and everything is included – but extraordinarily enough although I was told the hotel was full, there was never anyone in the swimming pool and few people on the glorious beach. Very mysterious.

Maybe I fell into the trap referred to by Alejo Carpentier in Explosion in a Cathedral: “Strangers praised the town’s colour and gaiety after spending three days visiting its dance halls, saloons, taverns and gambling dens, where the innumerable orchestras incited sailors to spend their money” – I too was seduced – but I was only there for a week – however Graham Greene was obviously won over too:

“‘This is the New York Times. We’ve received a Reuter’s message about your being deported from Puerto Rico.’

‘Yes, I was.’

‘The message said to Haiti, but we found you’d gone on to Havana.’

‘Yes. I like it better here.’ “ (Ways of Escape).