Reading the brochures on display in hotels and B&Bs, it’s easy to see Havana is filled with museums, restaurants, places of interest and historic sites. But talking to the native on the street, it’s also evident the locals not only don’t visit these sites, they don’t even know where they are.
There was the day when Catherine and Ava, the Red Bank Catholic High School volleyball players on a friendship mission to Cuba, opted to go to the beach with their new Cuban friends. Their mothers, Tricia Curtin and Ava Zockoll, wanted to accompany them; Catherine’s dad, Dan, and I, chose instead to explore a bit of Havana on our own. It was an incredibly informative and enjoyable day.
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With neither of us knowing the language, we agreed early on we were hopelessly lost. We were heading for the Museo de la Revolucion, the city’s most important museum. Located in the Plaza de la Revolution, the city’s largest plaza where those May Day ceremonies are held each year, it is the former Presidential Palace, now home to the history of Cuba. In our best broken Spanish, with plenty of smiles and hand gestures, we sought directions from the folks sitting on door stoops, or working on or polishing those 1950s cars, or concierges in the doorways of hotels, even a couple of police officers, the only two unfriendly people we met throughout our trip. None could give us directions, so we wandered on. We finally located the museum after a fascinating walk through cobbled and paved streets, many in need of serious attention, past numerous natives happy to wave and smile, and past homes also in need of rehab but beautiful with their wrought iron filigree over glassless windows. We stopped in the lobbies of several hotels just for a look, and found them all spotlessly clean, large, sunny, inviting, and staffed by friendly staff.
But it was 15 minutes before closing time when we reached the museum, so we didn’t get to see how the Cubans treat their history from colonial times to the present and, happy for me, we didn’t get to see the display where they poked fun at our Presidents Reagan and Bush. In the courtyard, we did see the vehicles used during the Revolutionary war of the 1950s as well as the turbine from the U-2 spy plane that was downed during the missile crisis of 1962.
Nor did we get to see much of the Museo National de Bella Artes, a fabulous two building museum filled with local art as well as international statues, displays and art from Roman, Greek and Egyptian times and Latin American collections. But the few pieces we did see showed an appreciation for art of all kinds, modern, ancient, oils, pastels, statuary and sculpture.
We did get to stop at Floridita, the bar made famous by Ernest Hemingway and his famous daiquiris. At 4 in the afternoon, the corner establishment was three deep at the bar, tables spilling over with crowds, and a life-size statue of Mr. Hemingway seated in a comfortable chair the most popular spot for tourist’s photographs. Today’s version’s of the author’s daiquiris are still available…and quite good….at $6 a glass, served by friendly bartenders who, though busy, took the time to chat and be pleasant.
More than once in our travels, we also passed the massive monument to national hero Jose Marti perched atop a base shaped like huge five-pointed star, located in front of the Museum in his honor, as well as several churches, some now museums, some still offering religious ceremonies. We managed to join the crowd at a 4 p.m. Mass in a magnificent church, a mass with more than 40 priests on the altar and offered by a Cardinal and several bishops. The overflow crowd including dozens of nuns from many different orders including Mother Teresa’s sisters of the poor, indicated it must have been a special mass or special occasion, but we never learned which.
Food in Cuba is varied and available in both elegant surroundings and on the street. For a few pesos, you can get a freshly carved coconut complete with straw so you can walk and sip coconut milk; ice cream served in cones or cups is delicious, steaks seems to vie with seafood in popularity at most restaurants, and many offer musical trios eager to have customers join in the entertainment even in late afternoon lunch hours.
Tricia, Dan and I opted to try a small but inviting Italian restaurant one evening. The owner, who met us with a huge smile, escorted us to our table and set a staff to wait on us immediately, is Italian, married to a Cuban woman thereby giving him the right to have his restaurant and the three story building housing it, where he lived and also rented out hotel rooms. When Dan ordered pasta, the owner smiled, said he’d return shortly, and disappeared. At the same time, the young chef, operating at a tiny kitchen in the corner of the room, came over to the table to proudly display the fresh fish he wanted to prepare in that tiny workspace not ten feet from our table. Before much longer, the owner reappeared with a steaming plate of pasta, apparently just made by his own hands in his own apartment. The chef appeared with perfectly filleted pieces of the fish he had watched him bone, skin, and prepare with peppers, tomatoes and onions. Both meals were fit for a king and delightfully devoured by an appreciative group.
There was the late afternoon lunch where a larger group of us were seated in front of the musical trio that was singing, dancing, laughing….and before long, inviting each of us to join in the festivities between courses. The table was set with a variety of tapas and great bread, the appetizers preceding the seafood or beef we each ordered for entrees.
Another evening we sat in one of the city’s major plazas, enjoying outdoor dining in the French style while sipping imported wines….Cuba is definitely not known for its vineyards or wine expertise, and local beer, which was quite good.
As in any major city, Havana has a variety of elegant, moderate, and not so good eating places. It’s just fun to seek them out and try as many different styles as possible.
Next: Lessons learned and left