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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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.
— 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Teresa, Linda and Steve loved the frozen lemonade drink.
Augie’s choice was sea bass.
To top off the meal, Steve and I had Cuban coffee, elaborately prepared by colorfully-dressed woman barista.
Steve 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?!!”
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.
Earlier 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.
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.
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.
Steve 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.
The driver explained he had traded up for this beautiful car, and it has the original engine. He described the color as Ferrari red.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A 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.
The 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.
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.
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,)
We then headed back toward Old Town into the San Francisco Square and Terminal. The limestone buildings were distinctive. 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.
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.
It 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.
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.