Cuba

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Day 1: Havana Old Town & classic cars

Text By AUGIE FAVAZZA
Photos by Teresa Favazza

Amazingly, on short notice, Teresa and I find ourselves in Havana, Cuba and taking an enchanting step back in time to the 1950s.

Ten days ago, Havana was the furthest thing from our minds, even though recently we enjoyed a Netflix movie “Papa”, about Ernest Hemingway, his troubled personal life, love of Cuba and alleged connection to supplying guns and ammunition to the rebels in the late 1950s with the rise of Fidel Castro.

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Then Old Orchard Beach neighbors and newlyweds Steve and Linda Chasen contacted us about joining them for 4 days of touring Havana and surrounding areas.
We rendezvoused in Miami for a 6 a.m. morning flight to the gem of the Carribean. Havana Air travel office advised us to expect SNAFUS in this laid-back Cuban adventure.

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We soon experienced a “Cuban Epistle Crisis” when around 4 a.m., a check-in agent took our passports and provided visas and boarding passes but FAILED to give back our printed email travel itinerary and vouchers. Linda realized the problem just before boarding. She dug in her heels, alerting the gate agents, and the important paperwork was hand-delivered to us on board. We flew Eastern Airways, and it was quick and comfortable flight.

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The exchange rate was 1-to-1 U.S. dollar for Cuban Cuc minus 13% cut to the government

It took an hour for Steve to get his bag — longer than the flight — but fortunately after clearing customs, there was our full-time tour guide Santiago and van driver Eduardo.

We had a wonderful first day in Havana hitting numerous points of historical interest and marveling at the constant, passing parade of colorful 1950s classic car everywhere in the streets and thoroughfares of Cuban capital. We will take a classic car taxi later in the trip. Santiago is promising a pristine 1950s automobile ride. Santiago said there are 100,000 vintage vehicles on the island.

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The 32-year-old Santiago, soon to be father for the first time, is one of the best guides we have ever come across in years of travel. He is a classic car aficionado, narrator of the history, culture and economy of Cuba. Santiago delicately commented on the tumultuous times of Castro, U.S. involvement in the Bay of Pigs, the Guantanamo Bay controversy and alliance with the Soviet Union. I felt like we were reliving many of the events though the eyes and ears of an articulate, proud Cuban. He obviously had a different perspective of Cuba’s place yesterday and in today’s world, and not afraid to say that there are some things he and his countrymen just don’t hear about. We were not expecting such candid political discussion, taking a page out of the present strife with the Trump presidency. I think he also ascertained that as U.S. citizens, we had established impressions of this communist island nation, 90 miles from U.S. shores.

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A view of Revolution Square and Havana

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Jose Marti Founder of Cuban Spirit of Independence
We dropped our bags at our Melia Cohiba Hotel on the outskirts of the Old Town but directly on oceanfront promenade and took off for the Revolution Square. There looms a statue of Jose Marti, the man who planted the idea for independence in late 1800s. Marti had roots in Tampa, Fla. just across the bridge from our St. Petersburg winter home.  Secret orders to commence the initial revolution were rolled into a cigar in Tampa and smuggled into Cuba. Behind the memorial is a tall, star-shaped building with a observation deck 40 floors up. Here you get a great lay of the city. Large

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Steve orates from the stone chair Fidel Castro sat in when addressing the Cuban people.
murals of Che Gaverra and Carmilo Cienfuegos dominate the square where Castro often spoke for hours to the proletariat. Santiago remarked there are no statues, murals or memorials of the late Fidel Castro. The Cuban President for life did not want such notoriety, preferring to be remembered as a common man, which, of course, he was not.

Our next stop was Fraternity Park in the center of Old Town. Cuban men gathered around benches debating baseball. Santiago wanted to introduce me to the raucous group after I told him I covered the 1975 World Series in which Cuban Luis Tiant was a star pitcher for the Red Sox.

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The central focus of the park is the Friendship tree that’s about 100 years old, planted with soil from a number of countries of the Americas, including the U.S. Santiago often reminded us that the U.S. and Cuba had good relations for years, and Prohibition paved the way for golden age of Havana.

Santiago took us to Guarida Paladar, one of the best restaurants in Havana, where many celebrities have dined including Madonna. The motion picture Strawberry & Chocolate was filmed there. It is the only Cuban film ever to be nominated for an Oscar. The restaurant was on a third floor with the lower levels and a floor above still being renovated.  IMG_6471.JPG

We visited two luxurious hotels, the Saratoga and Parque Square, both places were unavailable when we planned on short notice. Rooms were a lot more expensive than our Melia Cohiba Hotel property, which is very nice ($250 a night).

Old Town architecture is a mixture of colonial and art noveau. The buildings look much older than their 100 years. We saw preservation and renovation going on. Despite the worn edifice, you can see that Havana with proper rebuilding could be returned to its former glory and rival the great cities of the world.

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Floridita Bar…. Hemingway’s favorite hangout.

Santiago then took us by the “Floridita” bar, made famous by the frequent patronage of Ernest Hemingway. Teresa snapped a photo of me and a Hemingway bronze statue. My fraternity brother from Mizzou, Steve Underiter, bears a strong resemblance, I thought to myself.

We decided to return for the daiquiris that Hemingway supposedly drank 12 in an hour for eight hours straight.

Our long introduction to Havana drew to a close as we enjoyed Mafia Mojitos in the National Hotel where American Mafia gang leaders frolicked in the time of U.S. Prohibition, setting up rum running to the States.

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Santiago embraces his mother. He seemed to know someone at every Havana turn.

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Relaxing with a Mafia Mojito and music at the National Hotel.

The National has a spectacular veranda and lawn area overlooking an ocean front promenade. Cannons from the war for Cuban independence stand guard still. A plaque recounts the sinking of the Maine in 1898 and nearby is a tower dedicated to the U.S. and Cuban sailors who died in the naval strike by the Spanish.

This beautiful hotel setting reminded Teresa and me of the Art- Deco Vinoy Hotel in downtown St. Petersburg. We couldn’t get over the fact that everywhere we went Sanitago seemed to know someone. While we sipped our Mojitos, a Cuban trio played and sang love songs as our guide interpreted the Spanish lyrics.

Day 2: Farmlands, mountains, cigar Heaven

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Pinar del Rio

I shrugged off the frustration of trying to post blogs because of the practically non- existent WIFI internet coverage here at the hotel. Steve wondered what went on there as we drove past the State Communications building as we headed west to the countryside to the province of Pinar del Rio, the Valle de Vinales and town of Vinales. The area is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The landscape and topography looks like you are in the Far East.

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During the 2 hour drive, we saw people of all ages standing on the shoulder of the 3 lane highway. Some were hawking roasted chickens on a stick or blocks of cheese. Majority were hoping to flag down a shared taxi or truck ride. It made me think of the days when hitch-hiking in the States was a mode of travel for those stretching a buck.

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In addition to Cubans lining the road, horses and cows, on a rope, were grazing in the shoulder grasses. We agreed many Cubans still need to scratch out a living in this socialist system. Horse & cart was a common mode of transportation. Santiago said at times there are organized races, a rustic similarity to harness-racing in the States.

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We encountered some panhandling, and small-scale capitalistic spirit at every turn. We stopped for refreshments at a road-side cantina where Cuban cowboys/farm workers were having a lunch-time cervesa. They didn’t seemed bothered as we took photos of them and a group of horseback riding tourists.

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We then arrived at Juan Luis organic tobacco plantation to learn about the fermentation and production of Cuban organic cigars and to enjoy Cohiba, the Cuban Indian word for cigar — actually meaning gathering of tobacco leaves.

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We were greeted in a wooden hut with an overhanging roof made of palm leaves. Here the tobacco is dried and stored for three phases of curing. Roy — a Joe Pesci type character — comically lectured us on the process. The tobacco leaves of each phase were of different hue and scent.

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Palm leaves form the roof for the curing hut.

Smoking great Cuban cigars leads to many children, Roy proclaimed. He has 4 to prove it, and he is still a young man. (My brother Mariano loves cigars, and he has eight kids!) Roy proudly described in detail how the tobacco plants are harvested by hand in three stages, the last leaves harvested are used for the superior Montecristo cigar. A milder grade Cuban cigar is named Romeo & Juliet. (When Juliet asked “where art thou Romeo?” He, of course, was below her balcony smoking a cigar!)

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Roy also suggested dipping the cigar tip you puff with rum, cognac, bourbon or honey. Steve was enthused about the honey-dip technique. We would soon put that to test.

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Steve and Cigar expert Roy
We next stepped onto a veranda where a demonstrator rolled the cigars and deftly applied the band. A small crowd of men and women — generally novices — were being coached how to puff but not inhale. Steve and I puffed like professionals.

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Three Amigos enjoying Cohibas
My father always had a cigar in his mouth. Like Groucho Marx, when asked how many cigars he smoked a day, he would reply, “how many you got?”

I seldom smoke cigars unless bonding with my brothers or close male buddies. But I couldn’t pass up an offering of a free, fresh organic Montecristo. It had an even, slow burn, a sign of a fine cigar. It was indeed the best cigar I had ever smoked, especially with honey-dipped tip. With each puff, I thought how nice it would have been to smoke such a great cigar with my dad. He would have preferred a dip in bourbon, for sure.

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Enjoying a fine Cuban cigar

For Steve, this was a new pleasure, and we bought a package of (14) cigars to bring home ($45) Twenty cigars was $60. That is probably a third of the price you pay in the States. You can take as many back as you want or for cigar-smoking friends up to 400, according to a custom agent.

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Usually you finish off a great meal with a cigar. Instead, we headed to Casa del Confianza, an excellent organic farm restaurant. The rich, red farm land was beautifully terraced with a variety of ready-to-harvest vegetables.  It was genuine farm to table. We sat next to a Boston couple and their little boy. We have met several Bostonians. U.S. Americans (we were reminded by Santiago that Cubans are Americans geographically as well) were everywhere.

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Serving plates kept coming of yucca, red snapper, shredded pork, roasted chicken, pasta salad and rice and beans. The bill for 6 of us, counting our driver Mario and Santiago with beverages, was 54 cucs (about $54). I had the signature Piña Colada, which came with the bottle of local rum to mix to your delight.

On the subject of currency, there is a double standard here. The much less valued peso is used by locals. Cucs (pronounced Kooks) are exchanged for U.S. dollars or Euros at about 1-to-1. However, there is a 13 % exchange rate. We learned that goes straight to the government. I wondered if President Trump could sell that idea to the American people. Tourists exchanging money in U.S. and paying such a rate could help pay down the national debt.

It was another colorful, action-packed day, and we decided to stay around the hotel for a light dinner. The main lounge featured a very talented young pianist. The next morning after breakfast, I sat down at the Yamaha baby grand. A security guard came over, and I politely asked if it was okay to play a few songs.
“It’s impossible,” she replied in English.
“Is that a song request?” I asked before closing the cover to the keyboard.

Day 3: Hemingway Mansion, Art School, Classic Ride

Ernest Hemingway loved everything Cuban, including baseball as evidenced by the Santiago character of the “Old Man And The Sea” who worshiped the great Yankee Clipper,  Joe DiMaggio. So today, Teresa and I completed the  “Hemingway double play combination”,  touring the famed author’s residence in Havana and having visited his home in Key West, Fla.

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The Key West visit was three decades ago. We spent a great deal of time at the Hemingway Mansion, now a Cuban state museum, a gift from Hemingway’s widow to the Castro-run government after some negotiation. The estate named Finca Vigia (Lookout Farm) sits on several hectares (well over 15 acres) about 10 miles from Old Town Havana.

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I had yet to see anyone playing  their (and our) national pastime of baseball in our travels the first two days in Cuba. I was surprised and disappointed not to see fields of young Cuban dreamers playing sandlot baseball.

Alas, as we entered the gates, there was a makeshift baseball diamond with young boys playing slow- pitch baseball.

Santiago knew of my affection for the game and quickly introduced me to their coach Jorge. In his 60s or maybe older, he had a rangy look of an aged ballplayer. He voluntarily instructs youngsters from several schools and exhibited a true passion for the game.

IMG_6772.JPGI gave him a small donation to go toward his coaching efforts.  We took a photo together, taking batting stances.

Jorge smiled widely when I told him I was a former sports writer and covered games in which Luis Tiant pitched for the Red Sox.

He handed me a short aluminum bat and coaxed me into the batter’s box. Now I had not swung a baseball bat in maybe 30 years.  The young pitcher tossed a pitch, not in my wheelhouse, and I managed a weak foul ball down the third base line. I anxiously  missed the next two offerings that did not quite reach the plate. Jorge offered some instruction in Spanish,  and we had a good laugh.

It was time to head up the hill to Papa’s house.  It is a comfortable-looking framed house almost completely sided with large windows. For that reason, you were not allowed to go in and take photos. Still good photo ops were available through doorways and windows.

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Some of the highlights were:
— The library desk and Royal manual typewriter where Hemingway probably wrote the Old Man and Sea and For Whom The Bell Tolls.
— Over 8,000 books on shelves in every room.

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— A  newspaper front page that falsely reported the death of his wife in a plane crash in Africa.
— A small table with bottles of liquor in the living room.

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Half-empty bottles remain from the last days Hemingway lived in Cuba.

–Hemingway’s bath room where markings on the wall chronicled his battle with weight.

— Photos of Hemingway in his prime in the 40s and the remarkable transformation into an old white haired man a decade later.

— A large swimming pool where Hemingway, his wife and guests swam naked but always out of view of house staff.  Santiago told the story of an unabashed Ava Gardner disrobing in front of servants and taking a dip. Hemingway’s wife took her clothes. The movie starlet thought nothing of it and paraded into the main house. Hemingway announced it was the greatest day of his life.

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Martha had urged him to buy the house and property for the sum of $18,500 in 1939. At that time, Hemingway was beloved by the Cuban people, especially by the fishermen in the nearby town of Cojimar.   His  38-foot fishing boat, the Pilar,  is in dry dock on display nearby. It cost $7,500 in 1934, a great deal of money in the Depression era. Hemingway willed the double-steering craft to Gregorio, his longtime friend who taught him how to fish.  Gregorio refused the boat, and it rightly became a part of the museum.  After his suicide in 1961, those fishermen raised funds to build a bust of Hemingway looking out toward the Cojimar fishing wharf.

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The house did look like he one in the movie “Papa”, I thought. Santiago confirmed that scenes of the house were indeed shot here. However, scenes of Hemingway and a befriended young Miami newspaper reporter witnessing a rebel attack on the Presidential palace were filmed in Puerto Rico.

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The original driveway to Finca Vigia

Afterwards, we had another bargain, tasty lunch at a Ajiaco Cafe. Teresa, Linda and Steve have become hooked on frozen lemonades. Santiago was amused that I prefer the local soft drink he calls the Castro Coca Cola.

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IMG_6854.JPGTeresa, Linda and Steve loved the frozen lemonade drink.

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Augie’s choice was sea bass.

To top off the meal, Steve and I had Cuban coffee, elaborately prepared by colorfully-dressed woman barista.

IMG_6864.JPGCoffee Cuban-style

IMG_6867.JPGSteve ordered a post-meal cigar and honey. The proprietor politely lectured him that the honey dip technique was an insult to the Cubans who toiled to produce the Cohiba. Steve intently listened and finally asked, “I have one question. Can I still buy a cigar?!!”

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Ah! Honey-dipped Cohiba

We stopped at the waterfront of Cojimar to see the Hemingway bust. Young children were at play drawing with chalk on the pavement.  I couldn’t resist and drew “Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse” which the youngsters liked very much. We wish we had brought candies to hand out.

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IMG_6883.JPGEarlier in the day, we toured a  neighborhood community art center, Casa Cultural Communitaria (Speaking Of Art).. Neighborhood artists and supporters got state permission but no government funds in 2001 to transform a huge old water tank, dating back to 1911, into an arts center for youngsters and adults.

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The project is ongoing with several levels still in rubble. We couldn’t fully understand why the government which owns most of everything would not directly fund the project. Nevertheless, the adults were proud to show off their progress with several small classrooms for art, crafts and music.

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We purchased a few items from adult artists.  A small class of boy drummers were pounding a Latin beat. Before we left, we were entertained by a self-proclaimed Bicycle Percussionist.  This neighborhood character sang and performed on his rhythmic creation of cymbals, bells and drums. Several of the boy percussionists came out of class and danced conga style for us.

IMG_6761.JPGSteve gets instruction from the Bicycle Percussionist.

It was nearing 5 o’clock and a few streets over we met our driver and vintage car, a sure highlight of the trip, much like taking a Gondola ride in Venice (the classic taxi was much cheaper, $40 an hour.)  Santiago had promised an exceptional vintage vehicle, and he delivered. A  gorgeous red 1957 Ford Fairlane 500 convertible.

IMG_6942.JPGThe driver explained he had traded up for this beautiful car, and it has the original engine. He described the color as Ferrari red.

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We rode through the streets of Old Town a short way. Then we headed out to a park where we had fun taking photos.  Quite a few onlookers kept getting in the photo ops. It certainly was a fun finish to the day and the $40 price was reasonable, we thought, not much more than an ordinary taxi for an hour.

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That evening we took a taxi to Old Town and walked around and had a light dinner at the Parque Square Hotel. We went to the rooftop where the view of the lit- up hotels and the Grand Theater was wonderful.

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Day 4: Art communities, beach

Our final day in Havana was again filled with more colorful Cuban art.

We started out an hour later at 10 a.m. and leisurely enjoyed the outstanding breakfast at the hotel. Every morning we were treated to a trio of instrumentalists. The breakfast fare was excellent with fresh omelets made by an artist in his own right. He cracked open two eggs with one hand while handling other orders on the grill. We passed on the complimentary champagne.

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Our first stop was to Jaimanitas, another arts community, spearheaded by the marvelous artistry of Jose Rodriguez Fuster.  Vibrant color tiles and mosaic patterns pull you into the multi-level exhibit. You couldn’t tell where the exhibit ends and Jose’s home begins in this unusual compound. In fact, the entire neighborhood has been redecorated in his trademark style, funded by the sale of his paintings and ceramics.

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The artist himself was humbly walking about the property, and he and his sons were very friendly explaining the various sections of art work.  The style definitely has the influence of great Spanish artists – Gaudi, Dali, Picasso.  Teresa and I had seen a great deal of Gaudi when we toured Barcelona a few years ago. Luckily, St. Petersburg is home to the Salvador Dali Museum.

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Fuster’s style has a carnival magical theme, I thought. Bright colors and characters delighted the youngsters in the crowd.  I could hear parents asking their children which animal they saw in the different scenes in the mosaics and tiles. Love is over-riding theme with hearts of all sizes adorning walls, doors, windows.  I told Steve it reminded me of the 1960s television set of the Dating Game.

IMG_6996.JPGIMG_6990.JPGA combination of painting, ceramics and Fuster’s love of family.

Santiago pointed out a large section of roof of hand-laid mosaics pieces.  The exhibit featured a pet Galapagos turtle named Coco who was being served his morning meal of tomatoes. IMG_6989.JPG

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IMG_7012.JPGThe artist used everything as a canvas, including a Russian water tank.

Before leaving the neighborhood, we stopped into one of the colorful homes across the street. Of course, there were items on display with an entertaining Cuban salesman hawking the goods. He even was offering 1-to-1 U.S. Dollars to Cucs with no 13 % government cut.

Our next venue was another art filled neighborhood, Callejon de Hamel,  known for its African roots, music and art of Salvador Gonzales Escalona.

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An entire street was mobbed with people swaying to a rumba beat, which Santiago said was brought to Cuba from Africans from Nigeria and Congo along with Yoruba religion.

We were led through the crowd into a small gallery where we met Salvador and viewed his paintings.  The crowds in the street covered up much of his African-Cuban street mural art. Steve and Linda did purchase an example of his work.

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We left the studio and climbed some narrow steps to a cafe area and had a drink, whether we wanted one or not, I thought.  We also were pressed to buy an African CD to help fund the neighborhood project. (We wondered if it would work in the U.S. It did not,)

IMG_7034.JPGWe then headed back toward Old Town into the San Francisco Square and Terminal.  The limestone buildings were IMG_7051.JPGdistinctive. The street in front of a former palace was paved with wooden bricks because the wife of a dignitary complained about the street noise. We came upon the La Plaza Vieja (Old Square), and its buildings had been refurbished and looked like a nice place to come in the evening.  Santiago pointed out a few bed and breakfast establishments, which might offer  a more economic way to visit Havana.

We rounded out the trip with a visit to one of the local beaches. The tide was strong, and the ocean water was nice, near 80 degrees,.  The beach was crowded with locals dancing and partying. We were disappointed to see how much trash was strewn about. Santiago said a maintenance crew would clean the beach thoroughly. IMG_7081.JPGIMG_7080.JPG

                                                  Post Scripts

We also visited impressive-looking Havana University,  Santiago had us pose for a picture where he was presented his degree in Geography. Tuition is free to those who qualify academically. We saw many schools with young students in uniform.

 

IMG_6487.JPGIt seems tourists must be guided, and it appears you can not rent a car.  We did see one rental agency near the hotel, but it may have been for Cubans.

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Street-side game of Dominoes. 

Teresa and Linda wanted to go inside a supermarket and peruse prices and merchandise. However, we were stopped at a nearby store in a mall and told we had to leave our bags in cubicles outside with an attendant.  We declined.

One reason Steve and I bought only a few cigars is because credit cards are not accepted.  You need cash.  We were instructed to exchange money at the hotel, Cash advances on credit cards was not likely available, according to our guide.

Santiago’s father and brother immigrated to the U.S. years ago and live near Atlanta.  Our guide has never visited the U.S. but reads a lot about its history and geography.  Santiago was familiar with the conspiracy theory that Castro was behind the Kennedy assassination. He has been to Russia.  We saw a lot of boxy, but sturdy Russian cars and trucks.

I offer this closing thought.  The people we saw looked happy. Maybe we were viewing the best of Cuba and what the government would allow tourists to see.  Reminders of the Revolution in  1959 are everywhere here.  I wonder what might have transpired had Fidel Castro successfully took power and not introduced communism and instead had developed strong ties with the United States.  Santiago proudly noted that Puerto Rico, an American territory, and his homeland are very much alike. In his words, the two can be represented by the wings of a dove.  I wanted to ask him if he wished Cuba had become an American territory.

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Day 13 & 14 – Liverpool

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The Cavern Club where the Beatles performed over 200 times.
By AUGIE FAVAZZA, PHOTOS By TERESA FAVAZZA

The Beatles were the reason for this overnight visit to Liverpool to celebrate my 66th birthday.

The 3 3/4 hour train ride to Liverpool was fine, except I was surprised there was no WIFI which makes it difficult to post blogs in a timely manner. That’s frustrating for a former journalist accustomed to making deadlines.

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Posing with statue of John Lennon
I have been blogging mostly by writing in the wordpress.com app on my Droid cell phone.  Once I reach WIFI zone, I switch to my IPad where Teresa’s photos are downloaded from the camera.  I continue to use the IPad wordpress.com app to upload photos to the text of my blog post.  I am usually publishing a post around midnight, which is 7 p.m. EST., while Teresa is asleep. I find I write best in the late hours, perhaps a carry over from my sports writing days when many games stories were written at that hour.

We had to transfer trains to reach Liverpool, but that went smoothly thanks to a concession worker’s tip confirming the right track and train.  We struck up a conversation with a woman from Liverpool.  She made many suggestions about what to do, although we sensed she was not a big fan of John, Paul, George and Ringo.

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I have always enjoyed the Beatles, especially since I play many of their popular ballads on the piano.  However, I am not a fanatic,  although I recall listening to LPs played backwards on a turn table in my freshman dorm room with my roommate Steve Berra . I was an usher at Busch Stadium in August, 1966 when the Beatles played before 55,000, mostly screaming teenage girls.

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Paul McCartney’s home as a teenager. He and John Lennon wrote over 100 songs there.
Teresa, Joanie and Steve were willing to celebrate my 66th birthday with the Beatles Story exhibit and Magical Mystery Tour bus tour. Steve summed it up by saying, ” I loved the Beatles’ music but really didn’t know much of their history. ”

Well, we saw plenty of that. Liverpool is Beatles Mania on steroids  for several square miles of the city center. Everywhere you looked, you saw their likenesses.

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Early Days of the Beatles before Ringo replaced George Best.
We stayed at the Hampton by Hilton in city center, a short walk to Albert’s Dock where the Beatles Story exhibit is located and the Magical Mystery Tour bus embarks. I would recommend the Hampton by Hilton because it is reasonable, modern and clean, if you are planning a Beatles pilgrimage.  Our rooms were free due to my Hilton Honors Diamond points status earned during beauty school accreditation work.

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A marquee of bricks outside the Cavern Club.
The cabbie who delivered us to the hotel praised the Beatles Story exhibit but said if you are a serious Beatles’ fans, you might find the Magical Mystery Tour boring.  Obviously loyal to his fellow cabbies, he recommended the  Beatles taxi tour instead. The Liverpool native had that distinctive Beatles-sounding accent. He and every local we met seemed to have a great sense of pride in the city of half million people. It reminded me of a recent  trip to Memphis and a tour of Graceland.

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You can rent the Yellow Submarine houseboat that sleeps 12.
Liverpool’s Albert Dock has plenty of restaurants and the harbor area is quite interesting. We got a kick out of several elaborate house boats. Some you can rent sleeping up to 12, particularly the Yellow Submarine and Liverpool Titanic, complete with 4 smoke stacks.

We first went to the Beatles Story. Tickets were reasonable and good for 2 days.  I guess a real hardcore Fab Four enthusiast could spend 48 hours listening to the audio hand-set presentation that included narration and individual videos of Beatles, promoters (especially manager Brian Epstein who died during the bands’  run of gold records, fans. ) Actually, a good friend, Russ Garvey of Sarasota, is a Beatles’ aficionado with every vinyl album. He is planning such a trip next year.

The exhibits that document the Beatles ‘ story are well put together with music, pictures, videos and props. We enjoyed sitting in rows of airline seats seeing the Fab Four arriving at JFK Airport and following their first American tour.

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According to our guide, the four bells of the Catholic Cathedral are named after four apostles — John, Paul, George and Ringo
We were impressed with the perseverance and struggles of the band known by various names — most notably  the Quarrymen in their early years.

Toward the end of the tour — you go at your own pace, you come to individual exhibits of each Beatle. I learned that McCartney has financially supported his old performing arts school, and it is now one of the most sought -out schools of its kind. He personally hands graduates diplomas.

Noon the next day, we boarded the Magical Mystery Tour bus. That ticket was reasonable too. Jay, our guide, was very knowledgeable and grew up in the same neighborhood and attended the same high school as John Lennon.

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Boarding the Magical Mystery Tour bus.
Beatles songs, of course, were  played at  appropriate locations of interest — Strawberry Fields, Penny Lane and at the churchyard where Eleanor Rigby is truly buried. There was a  back story to each place

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Strawberry Fields where John would go to check out girls at the school for unwed mothers
The bus gave us a good look at Liverpool neighborhoods. The grand Anglican Cathedral, the fifth largest in Europe, where Paul McCartney was rejected  by the choir leader who said didn’t have a strong enough voice. Years later, McCartney would perform there . He invited the choir master, who told McCartney he was responsible for his success.

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George Harrison’s neighborhood called Arnold Grove. He used that name when registering at hotels.
The bus stopped at the teenage- year homes of John, Paul, George and Ringo. Ringo and George grew up definitely poor. Ringo was very ill as a youngster. The woman who lives in the former Harrison tiny brick home has been offered a half million pounds for it. John’s more upper class home is owned by a national trust as is McCarthy’s.

The bus tour ends near the Cavern Club  where the Beatles performed over 200 times. A singer-guitar player was performing Beatles classics.
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Day 12: Edinburgh

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The Royal Palace of Scotland
By AUGIE FAVAZZA, PHOTOS By TERESA FAVAZZA

Steve and I dropped the car off at the Edinburgh airport after our round at St. Andrews. We took a tram into city center not far from the main train terminal where we purchased tickets for Liverpool.  We then met Teresa and Joanie on the Royal Mile that links the palace and the castle.

Teresa and Joanie had spent the day touring the castle and the palace and definitely enjoyed the royal residence more than the fortress that dramatically overlooks the city.

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The Great Hall in Edinburgh Castle.

I guess it was the case of my glowing build-up of how spectacular the Edinburgh Castle was when I visited over 20 years ago.  Back then, you were treated to midday  changing of the guard that I recalled was better than the Buckingham Palace experience.

20160924-124936.jpgTeresa would love to ride horseback with Queen.

They reported no changing of the guard, and the castle was very commercial.  The crown jewels of Scotland paled in comparison to those at the Tower of London.  That’s not how I remembered my viewing, but what do I know about jewels and precious gems? Teresa and Joanie are far better to judge.

They were impressed with the Royal Palace. However, the  Royal Mile was also very commercial with souvenir shops.

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A closer look at the Palace fates.

Photography, as in the case in many of the castles and palaces, is not allowed in many areas. However, Teresa noticed a picture of Queen Elizabeth on horseback. She couldn’t resist taking a photo because of her love of horses, too.

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Deacon Brodie Tavern.
They had lunch  at Deacon Brodie’s Tavern. Teresa related that the Deacon was a Jeckyl and Hyde sort of character. By day he was a master carpenter — they saw his wood-working genius in the bar. By night, he was a thief stealing from the rich homes he worked in.

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A bagpiper on the Royal Mile.
We decided to visit an attraction called Mary King’s Close before grabbing dinner.  A close is a term used to describe a Midieval narrow street off the main thoroughfare connecting the castle and royal palace. Mary was a rare businesswoman,  well respected in town and thus the close was named for her.

This exhibit takes you down deep below the present city streets. You got a sense of the claustrophobic “close”  viewing businesses and crude homes where families lived in very squalid conditions. Of course, there was no plumbing and very little light and heavy stench.  The poorer the family; the smaller the living conditions. Some were hardly more than a 15 x 15 room with as many as a dozen family members.

Livestock were even kept underground. Animal and human waste were collected in buckets and tossed out on the narrow, steep street at an appointed time in the morning and then at night.

Our tour was conducted by young lady playing the role of a domestic during the Medieval times. She interacted with framed talking halograms of contemporaries and described several scenes of  mannequins and props showing family life. She took us back to the harsh conditions, explaining how the black plague claimed the lives of so many.  Parents sometimes would move on and leave an inflicted child. A visiting psychic claimed one such child approached her in tears.  The psychic brought back a small doll for the young female spirit. The report went viral and there is now a growing collection of dolls, trinkets and notes from people all over the world. The plague doctor was a caped -crusader wearing  beak mask to ward off the spirits that spread the disease. The get-up did actually prevent the fleas of rats from biting him, which caused the infliction.

We came out wondering why would anyone live in such unsanitary conditions? But evidently, it was better than trying to live outside the city without Royals’ protection. 

Edinburgh is the financial and cultural center of Scotland. The Gothic architectural skyline is impressive and leads your eye higher to the  majestic castle peering down upon the city center.

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Edinburgh was lively at night.

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Day 11 — The New Course at St. Andrews

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Steve Brunette hit great drives throughout a memorable round.
By AUGIE FAVAZZA

Steve and I rose at 5 a.m. to leave our apartment in Edinburgh to make sure we had plenty of time to drive 90 minutes to Royal and Ancient St. Andrews Golf Club.

We were among the first golfers to arrive at the New Course starter’s  window.

The sun was also just making an appearance over the horizon of the beach. It was a gorgeous sunrise. There was no wind and temperature was just right for a sweater.

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This photo is a set-up to illustrate the deep pot bunkers. Steve alluded the traps all day.
The starter let us know he could get us off at 7:20 a.m. once we rented clubs. We had to buy golf balls, too. I purchased 3 sleeves, giving me nine, which I hoped would get me through 18  holes. Hopefully,  I would stay clear of the rough’s heavy grouse and heather.

The greens fee was £75 or $100. The clubs were £35.

Steve is around a 10 handicap. I shoot high 90s and into low 100s when my putting fails me.

We rented pull carts — they call them trolleys– because there is no riding on the hallowed links. I prefer to walk to savor the good shots,  lament the bad and ugly passes on the ball. Walking helps me find the ball, too.

No one was ahead of us and we both hit good drives — Steve as usual a good 30 to 40 yards beyond my tee shot. Steve’s tee shots consistently were 250 yards.

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Pointing out where I planned to put my tee shot.
The fairways were closely mowed. Steve remarked the fairways were like apron areas of American courses. We could tell we were going to get a lot of roll here. My kind of conditions with no water but quite a few deep pot bunkers.

Steve alluded the high-walled traps throughout the extremely enjoyable round. I found greenside pot bunkers only twice. Somehow I escaped, not really knowing how. On the third hole, I barely  lifted the ball up over a 3 foot bunker wall right onto the green and made bogey.

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It was a memorable round to smile about.
On the back nine, I was in an even deeper pot bunker. I purposely hit the ball into the wall hoping to ricochet and find relief behind the trap. However, the top-spin on the ball,  I think,  caused the ball to climb the wall and land just off the green. I again made bogey.

The front nine was a bit shorter and easier. The back nine was far more demanding with more blind shots and many par 4 holes measuring near or more than 400 yards . My best shot of the day,  an 8 iron from 125 yards over a huge hill guarding the green, must have hit the hard putting surface and bounced  into the grouse . I then realized I was hitting the ball 10-15 yards longer with the excellent quality rental clubs.

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One last look at the Old Course after our round.
We finished this memorable round in 3 1/2 half hours, a good clip. However, on the third tee, a ranger came up to us and exchanged pleasantries and instructed us that we needed to pick up the pace.

After he left us, I told Steve the very same warning was given to the foursome I was playing in at the Old Course in 1995.

Steve carded an impressive 79, and I scored a 93, a very good round for me. This round at the birthplace of golf was truly a  highlight of the trip for Steve and me.

Day 9-10-Carnoustie, St. Andrews

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Steve Brunette and I at St. Andrews Old Course.
By AUGIE FAVAZZA, PHOTOS By TERESA FAVAZZA

We pulled into our bed-and-breakfast in Carnoustie around 7 p.m. Our host Phil was cheerfully waiting, saying it was good timing, he was just.gettting ready to sit down with his wife June to eat supper.

He showed us to our rooms that look out onto the beautiful Carnoustie Club Golf Links. It was just getting dark,  and Steve and I were amused to see groups of towns men walking on for a few free holes of golf. I thought to myself — now that is a true twilight league.

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View of Carnoustie Golf Links from our bedroom .

Phil asked us if we were golfers, and we told him we were. But we could not a secure a tee time in advance.

I still chose this overnight location in hopes we could show up the next morning as walk-ons. It was not to be,  although this was a relaxing and comfortable B & B. experience .

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At breakfast the next morning, we talked with a non-golfing couple from Australia. Always nice to meet people from far away.

Before embarking for a look-see of the famed birth place of golf, the Royal & Ancient Club at St. Andrews, we strolled about the Carnoustie modern pro shop. I expected an older building. It did have a nice observation deck. We watched a foursome tee off from the first hole before meandering down to the beach . There is a lot of parkland adjacent to the courses here.

We then headed off for St. Andrews, a 90 minute drive.

Steve loves to drive and stayed behind the wheel for the driving portion of our trip. He took nicely to driving to the left side of the road — with the steering wheel is on the opposite side — and maneuvering the many roundabouts.

In the heavily -congested town of St. Andrews, he really impressed by parallel parking in one try into a tight spot just a short walk to the historic Royal & Ancient Clubhouse of St..Andrews.There was a tournament in progress, but still many people were walking the spectator path on the right side of  the first hole.

We went into a visiting center just to the right of the first tee and putting practice area. Steve had gone on line and saw there were no tee times available on any of the six courses while we were in the area.

We asked what was the chances of playing here, anticipating rejection?

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Steve and I pose at the Old Course. Tomorrow we play the New Course!
The young man on the desk said he could give us an 8 a.m. tee time the next morning on the Eden course. Steve had a look on his face as if he died and gone to the first tee in Heaven. Then the young man suggested, ” Better yet, show up early tomorrow morning before 8 at the New Course (the legendary golfer and course designer Tom Morris designed the building of that course in 1895; hence the New Course name as compared to the Old Course that evolved centuries earlier, first with 22 holes and later establishing the standard  18 holes.)

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The remains of the St. Andrews Cathedral
Before leaving the old but bustling town, we walked up to the ruins of the Cathedral that was blown down in a storm — not sure if you would call that a  Nor’easter – and later destroyed in a fire.

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Teresa takes a break from photographing for the blog.
Just up the street we also saw the ruins of the St. Andrews Castle. Off to the right was a path to the beach. It was extremely low tide reminding me of the tidal basin in the Canadian Maritimes, northeast of Maine.

Day 8 -Glamis Castle, Dewar’s Distillery

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Glamis Castle, another striking fortress
By AUGIE FAVAZZA, PHOTOS By TERESA FAVAZZA

We winged it for hotel accommodations last night  and settled for a MacDonald’s Hotel property- not the Golden Arches corporation — in the town of Aviemore.

It was a higher-end hotel, one  of several in the area under the same ownership. We agreed the $200 plus night B & B rate was fine after finding nothing cheaper. A nearby Italian restaurant was excellent and had good vegetarian items and gluten free choices for Joanie.

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By mid-morning we took off for Aberfeldy , en route to Carnoustie, and stopped at the Dewar’s Distillery. None of us are Scotch drinkers,  but we wanted to see how one of Scotland’s most well-known exports is produced. Dewar’s is America’s favorite Scotch, so documented here, although I thought it was Cutty Sark.

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Dewar’s Scotch ages 12-15 years in wooden casks for additional flavor.
I’ve toured quite a few breweries, and I could see some similarities with the Dewar’s operation. Like the Anheseur Busch Brewery in my hometown St. Louis and Dublin’s Guinness, the production plant was first-class.
It never dawned on me that Scotch can only be produced in Scotland. I will pass that off as a senior moment, two days ahead of my 66th birthday.
The distillery here started by John Dewar in the mid 1800s — he was a middle age entrepreneur — produces only a single malt that is blended with other Scotches in Glasgow  for various distinctive tastes before being marketed globally.

Our handle-bar mustached guide Thomas took us through the 3 stages of production -each time tripling the alcohol content. The three building ingredients are barley, yeast and water piped in underground from Pitilie Burn. There are no hops in the distillery process . In the final stage, Dewar’s Scotch takes 12-15 years to age, stored in wooden casks, bought second-hand from American distilleries because they feel the older wood adds flavor to the scotch. Now bourbon is whiskey produced in the U.S. south. Thomas said during the second stage 20 ℅ of the alcohol is evaporated. That is affectionately known as the Angel’s share.

20160921-194255.jpgSample tasting of Dewar’s Scotch

We bellied up to the tasting bar, but none of us really tossed back a full shot glass of the assorted Scotch samples.
However, we did more sampling at nearby Highland Chocalatier, prior to arriving at Dewar’s.

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Master-piece of chocolate, The Mona Lisa
The chocolates were great but awfully expensive. We have found that food items in the grocery stores are much cheaper than in the U.S.

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Making our way further toward  the next accommodations in Carnoustie, we found the -Glamis Castle that was the childhood summer home of Queen Elizabeth and a favorite residence of the Queen Mum — Elizabeth Bowes Lyon, who passed away a couple of years ago. She was Queen and wife of King George VI. He was thrust onto the throne when his older brother abdicated the Crown over marriage to American divorcee

This privately-owned castle is still home to several families of nobility. They had hosted a summer-ending ball the evening before. However, the ball event did not interfere with the tourist schedule. I guess old money must make way to new money from the the burgeoning tourist trade.

We marveled at the size of the castle because we saw only one section with additional sections of apartments on both sides. The section we toured seemed to be comparable to interior square footage of Highclere Castle.

A massive dining room table really caught Teresa’s and Joanie’s attention as well as exhibits of wedding and ball gowns.

We got to see the Queen Mum’s private apartment. It was very small, but we were told she liked it and tried often as possible to be here in the summer months. If Queen Elizabeth pays a visit, it is done quietly .

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Of course, ill-fated Mary Queen of Scots spent summers here . A servant in recent times claims she once saw her spirit praying in the chapel, according to our guide.

One of Mary’s sons studying in London in the Elizabethan age became friends with William Shakespeare. The Bard likely visited Glamis Castle. Our guide commented that Shakespeare often took literary  license and based scenes in the tragic play Macbeth in and around this castle. You may recall the three  witches foretell that Macbeth’s demise would  occur when Birnam Woods comes to Dunsinane Castle. Glamis Castle is surrounded by woods.

Macbeth historically died in battle elsewhere. However, in the play, he dies when MacDuff’s forces advance on castle, camouflaged by foliage fastened to his men’s armor fulfilling the prophecy.

I wondered if the Bard had stood in the very spot I was standing when the guide mentioned the probability that Shakespeare spun Glamis Castle into one of his finest works.

Days 6 -7: Skye, Eilean Donan, Loch Ness

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The Eilean Donan Castle
By AUGIE FAVAZZA, PHOTOS By TERESA FAVAZZA

We explored the town of Skye after breakfast. We had arrived late the previous night and the Kings Arms hotel is not quite to our liking. I woke up in the middle of the night and thought I was drunk stumbling to the bathroom. But I had only a nightcap of Scotland’s favorite soft drink Iron- Bru. The hotel built in the 1600s had very slanted floors. It did have an excellent view of the North sea.

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We located brightly painted cottages Teresa was seeking for a photo op
There were some very colorful townhomes Teresa had seen in a magazine. We located the row of homes along the harbor in Portree. Teresa had hoped to see an entire neighborhood of brightly- painted homes . But it was a tour stop example of a photographer’s artistic hook.

We headed for the nearby  Eilean Donan Castle. Eilean is Gaelic for island and Donan refers to the town. We are on a quest of viewing a variety of castles throughout Scotland,  and this one looked impressive as we drove into the car park.

We learned the fortress situated where three lochs converge with the North Sea was built by the MacRae clan. Of course, there were other clans trying to take possession of the fortress. But it was the English who destroyed the castle by blowing it up with the very gun powder on site and then took command of the strategic waterway.

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New doormen at the castle
After the English occupation for the next 200 years, the Eilean Donan lay in ruin. In 1912, John MacRae purchased it. Actually, it was his wife’s inheritance that bankrolled the restoration. Steve laughed and quipped that seemed to be par for the course, much like in the Downton Abbey saga. MacRae and clerk of the works Farquhar MacRae spent the next 30 years at a cost of today’s equivalent to 50 million pounds to bring the castle to its former glory, finishing in 1932.

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Teresa and Joanie –ladies not in distress, enjoying the castle
Like so many castles, the current high cost of  maintenance results in commercial property management. Present owners rely on tourist and event revenue, as is the case with Highclere Castle.

The furnishings here were in impeccable condition and more high end compared to Highclere, we thought. However, this was complete restoration that takes away some of the historical appeal.

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Getting on board the Nessie Hunter
Satisfying our castle viewing fix for the day, we went to Loch Ness in search of the creature that is referred to in Gaelic as Eich Uisge  (Water Horse)

We caught the last boat excursion of the day, and the weather was still good and very little wind.

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Captain George Edwards answers my questions
Captain George Edwards was a one-man show picking us up in a small bus at the info bureau and taking us to his boat, the Nessie Hunter.

Leaving the slip and heading out into the 24 mile long loch, he announced he has been sailing here for 5o years, and yes, he has seen the creature and is convinced there are more than one. It is the media that has named the creature Nessie or the Loch Ness monster, not the locals who prefer the Gaelic moniker.

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Teresa noticed right away the darkness of water caused by small particles of peat and great depth
In several places on boat he has photos he had taken showing something in the water. His photos were taken in 1985 and the most recent 2009. The earlier photo looks more convincing of some type of creature.  Captain Edwards reports best sighting time is dawn or dusk. We, of course, were out near dusk.

He maneuvered his craft toward the far shore reading depth levels of more than several hundred just 10 feet offshore.

Captain George, a HMS coast guard veteran,  lectured about the depth and the darkness of Loch  Ness which makes it virtually impossible to locate any creature. He has recorded the Loch’s deepest point 800 which bears his name.

We were sitting on the top deck listening him smoothly narrate the legend and the Loch.

Near the end of the 1 hour cruise, I went below to ask a few questions. Captain George has no use for the Discovery Channel which he claimed staged a possible siting a few years for a documentary.

We talked about fictional films about the Great Sea Horse of Loch Ness.

He laughed when I asked his opinion of the movie on the legendary Loch Ness monster  that starred Ted Danson. Evidently, news of shooting in the area drew so much fan interest and distraction for cast and crew,  the film editor moved the sight elsewhere on the seacoast.

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Captain Edwards took us by the The Loch Ness castle
” If you look closely, my man, there is a scene showing sea weed on the shores . Loch Ness is freshwater — there is no sea weed. ”

At least the movie, I recall showed more than one of the mysterious  creatures.