Hello from Cuba (13) - Exploring Downtown Havana
By Susanne Pacher
The last few days I have spent quite a bit of time walking around downtown Havana - or Habana Vieja, as they say around here. It is an extremely fascinating place and one of the most architecturally consistent colonial city centres in the world.
A few days ago, my local friend Pedro and I went to explore the Capitolio, which is a beautiful building, ironically very reminiscent of the Capitol in Washington. Built between 1926 and 1929 as the former seat of the Cuban government, its neoclassical exterior is complemented by an absolutely astounding Roman interior with all sorts of meetings rooms, a library, a souvenir shop and an Internet cafe. In the front entrance hall there is a huge statue that greets you upon entering, truly an astounding building.
The park outside the Capitolio is one of my favourite places, despite the missing seats and backrests of the benches. Yesterday I also had a chance to visit the Partagas Tobacco Company, a cigar factory in existence since 1845. I took the $10 tour and we saw the tobacco rolling school where students learn cigar production for 90 days. Later we moved upstairs to the area where the real cigars are made. Workers have quotas of between 80 and 200 cigars a day (some of which miraculously find their way into the black market...) and the workers sit at old wooden work stations and manually roll the tobacco, while at other work stations the exterior leaf and later the label and the boxes are added. I really wanted to see a tobacco factory since tobacco still remains a key industry in Cuba to this day.
Due to its architectural beauty, and not surprisingly, Havana has been declared a Human Heritage Site by the UNESCO and it is definitely one of the most beautiful cities I have ever visited, despite the physical decay that is visible in so many parts of the city.
Along these lines, I had a chance to see residential areas in Habana Vieja, where people live in extremely cramped conditions in crumbling houses, with the occasional house that has already collapsed in between others. Everybody's life unfolds in the street, you see children, couples, old people, dogs and cats at all hours of the day, people generally just sit around and chat, and the children play street versions of "la pelota", which is baseball, the national sport. This street life is something truly different from a nordic city like Toronto where there are only a few areas where there is significant pedestrian traffic. And people generally don't sit around in front of their houses or apartments to chat in the m iddle of the night.
I also had a chance to see Havana's train station, of course absolutely packed with people, the port area and some rather derelict industrial areas with crumbling buildings. The lack of money is apparent everywhere.
On the other hand I have also had a chance to sample some of the beauty that this city has to offer. I have travelled a fair bit, particularly to historic southern places in Europe such as Paris, Milan, Madrid, Barcelona, etc. But in my opinion Havana is in a category by itself. The colonial architecture downtown is so consistent, with almost no new buildings interrupting the visual impression.
Beside the Capitolio is the Teatro Nacional, which is just next to the famous Hotel Inglaterra and in front is the Parque Central, where men of all ages get together to discuss news related to their national sport. 2 days ago was the final of the playoffs between Havana Campo (if I am correct) and Santiago de Cuba, the second most important city in the country. Obviously a huge deal in this country, and Havana ended up losing 2 to 1, but despite the loss a great opportunity for the locals to party.
Walking down the famous pedestrian street Calle Obispo, which has numerous expensive stores for tourists, you approach the really old historic part of Habana Vieja, places such as the Plaza de la Catedral (where there was a mass for Pope John Paul II about a week ago), Plaza Vieja and, my favourite place: Plaza de Armas. This square dates back to the early 1500s, and houses the centuries old former city administration office as well as several other Spanish colonial buildings that surround a beautiful park with a statue of Carlos Manuel de Cespedes, the founder of the Cuban homeland.
Yesterday I also had a chance to explore a market that is put up every Wednesday to Saturday just off the Malecon, near the Plaza de Armas, where they sell all sorts of trinkets and merchandise for tourists. I had a chance to pick up a few little souvenirs for my husband and my colleagues and then sat down at a little outdoor cafe where there was a young Cuban band playing traditional old-fashioned Cuban music. The really interesting thing was an organ that they were playing that must date back to the 1920s, accompanied by all sorts of Cuban percussion. I really love Cuban music, but I haven't yet had a chance to listen to it a lot. My friend and I wanted to go and visit the "Casa de la Musica" yesterday where they play live music at a reasonable price, but for some reason it was closed, something not unusual around here.
I also had a chance to walk down to "Prado", a long avenue with a pedestrian walkway with trees on both sides, and two lines of traffic on both sides of the pedestrian area, somewhat reminiscent of the Ramblas in Barcelona. Very close to the Prado is the Museo de la Revolucion which used to be the palace of the last Cuban dictator, Fulgencio Batista, prior to the Revolution. Fidel Castro's yacht, the "Granma"which he used to cross over from Mexico with his rebellious companions, is displayed in a glass-encased building just behind the palace-like Museo de la Revolucion, and surrounded by various tanks and military vehicles dating back to revolutionary combat. The Revolution is definitely present whereever you go.
I think I have seen most of the important sights of the city, excluding the Plaza de la Revolucion, which houses the Comite Central and the political apparatus of the Cuban government. I still have to make a little excursion to that area and also take a photo or two of the memorial of Che Guevara, who still appears to be a very revered individual around here, often admittedly more so than Fidel Castro.
2 weeks is a pretty long time to spend in a city and due to the fact that I have completely immersed myself in the culture, I think I have a pretty good feel for La Habana and I am slowly but surely mentally getting ready to go home. It's been great, but I am also happy to get back home to see my husband, my friends, to have my normal life back. There are only 2 and a half days left now for my Cuban experiment and there are a few more places to see, but I am also looking forward to coming back home to Toronto.
About The Author
Susanne Pacher is the publisher of a website called Travel and Transitions (http://www.travelandtransitions.com). Travel and Transitions deals with unconventional travel and is chock full of advice, tips, real life travel experiences, interviews with travellers and travel experts, insights and reflections, cross-cultural issues, contests and many other features. You will also find stories about life and the t-ransitions that we face as we go through our own personal life-long journeys.
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