Havana: a digital tour by way of meals, music, movies and books | Havana holidays
A The 1950s freeway, bleached sepia by the Caribbean sun, runs from the beaches of Santa María in Cuba through palm trees and hibiscus. It runs near the fishing village of Cojímar, climbs a small rise and there is Havana, the front of which is wounded but upright against the turbulent waters of the Florida Strait.
In Havana’s first centuries, the vast natural harbor was full of Spanish treasure ships waiting to be brought home against British and Dutch wolves. Alexander von Humboldt, who visited in 1800, wrote about “the view of the fortresses that crown the rocks east of the harbor … and the city itself, which is half hidden by a forest of spars and shipping sails”.
Soon sirens stood on this rocky bank to sing travelers. Graham Greene wrote in his memoir Ways of Escape that he was drawn to the “brothel life, the roulette in every hotel”. The 1959 revolution swept all of that away, but in truth, in half a millennium of city life, it just swept it under another layer.
“If Havana was the most fascinating, beautiful and rhythmic city in the New World in 1820,” wrote Joshua Jelly-Schapiro in his 2016 book Island People, “it was also these things in 1920 – and that remains under the crust of decay and politics, also towards 2020. “
In Cojímar, this fishing village, Ernest Hemingway kept his fishing boat Pilar, but there is a feeling that Habaneros want to shake off Papa’s cult. In the neighboring district of Alamar, where refugees from the wars in Latin America have created a nervous community, there is a sign outside in the Chanchullero restaurant that reads Hemingway nunca estuvo aquí (Hemingway was never here).
Joggers and fishermen in the rain on the Malecon, Havana’s famous dam. Photo: Ramón Espinosa / AP
The tunnel under the bay opens and I prepare for the guagua (bus) to dive under the fortresses described by Von Humboldt. I look at the city into which I am about to be thrown: the Havana Libre Hotel, the golden dome of the Capitolio, the waves that foam white on the Corniche, or the Malecon.
Adrenaline rushes the blood like it always does. I’m just as guilty as any foreigner objectifying this city, but let me try to get under your skin.
Bandleader Perez Prado (center) in the 1950s, who appeared in Oscar Hijuelos’ novel The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love in 1989. Photo: Frank Driggs Collection / Getty Images
From the tunnel I emerge in front of the Museum of the Revolution, the neoclassical heap decorated with Tiffany on which the dictator Fulgencio Batista (who built the tunnel) fled from heavily armed students. I get off near the statue of José Martí, one of maybe 10,000 in Cuba. The poet falls dead from his horse when he stormed Spanish lines almost single-handedly during the Wars of Independence. To understand Cuba, it helps to imagine an abandoned, romantic poet rushing to certain death.
The old town lies ahead: the nostalgia for life in these narrow streets has fueled many of the city’s best novels, often written from abroad. “Flowers spilled from balconies and lichens on the rotted walls, astragal fences and antique doors,” wrote Oscar Hijuelos in his award-winning The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.
Often the buildings are so rotten from the rain that they slide onto the street. But others, restored by the recently deceased city historian Eusebio Leal, shimmer in new splendor. It all adds up to what Cuba’s best writer Alejo Carpentier calls the “City of Pillars”.
Here the residents suck on passers-by, machismo flourishes and tolerance must be fought. Anna Veltfort’s great graphic novel Adiós mi Habana portrays her disenchantment after being assaulted on the street as a lesbian in the 1970s and then prosecuted by authorities for immorality.
Havana’s streets are now incredibly safe. To find crimes in Havana, you need the novels of Leonardo Padura Fuentes and his worn-out cop hero Mario Conde.
Four Seasons in Havana Trailer
Conde can also be found on Netflix in the adaptation of Four Seasons in Havana. He is played by Cuba’s most famous resident actor Jorge “Pichi” Perugorría (non-residents include Andy García and Ana de Armas).
Yarini, a bar that Pichi’s son just opened, is now the hippest spot in town. It’s a Louche rooftop bar named after a pimp who represented the Cubanidad national identity at the turn of the 20th century with Cuba, which was newly independent from Spain. Chew on it next to Yarini’s excellent fried snapper.
When I walk west, I cross Parque Central, where I almost get run over by one of the iconic cars, a ’57 Chevy. Those jalopies were the stars of an extended chase that launched Fast and Furious 8, a blockbuster Cubans remembered as a moment of hope when Hollywood arrived along with the Rolling Stones and Barack Obama in 2016 when it looked like the Relations with the US may change.
In the Barrio Centro, the city becomes even darker. I pass La Guarida, a large mansion that serves as the setting for Cuba’s most famous film, Strawberry and Chocolate, and now the setting for Cuba’s most famous restaurant.
The stories these streets produce attract documentary filmmakers, most recently Hubert Sauper and his wonderful Epicentro. Yet so much material remains hidden. “Most of the archives here have yet to be put online,” says Emilio Suárez González, a young archivist who teaches at the University of Havana. For now, this is where you can find the best material online.
Me Dicen Cuba by Alexander Abreu and Havana D’Primera
There is no music on the malecon at the moment, which feels wrong. It’s the most disturbing aspect of the lockdown.
Rafa Escalona, editor of the music magazine AM: PM, measures the sounds of the city: “The rhythm of pop music – reggaettón, reparto, timba, rumba that people used to play on speakers.” AM: PM is the right place for Spotify – Playlists, say the 20 songs and albums from the last 20 years.
Music supplies Cuba with oxygen and triggers memories: A moment in the Karl Marx Theater when the great Pablo Milanes Yolanda sang in an age-related voice. It didn’t matter because of the 5,500-strong audience sang along and I had started to worry that we would float away with common tears.
And where there is music, there is dancing, from the sportiness of Carlos Acosta – a dancer who rose from poverty to become the hero of the London Royal Ballet – to the salsa, which attracts a large number of visitors who want to learn their Latin from those they know how: here, Havana D’Primera and Los Van Van are your bands. Shows like Soy de Cuba and Kings of Salsa also provide inspiration. Lia Rodriguez played in the latter; From the Malecon I look at Bleco, a bar that the dancer is building on a roof. She has developed an alternative online personality: the great Zafraca, arguably the current example of Cubanidad – or at least of the creativity of the Cubans who drive under lock and key.
Ruaridh Nicoll in Havana
I walk around the gardens of the Hotel Nacional and enter the Vedado district. Jagüey tree roots push up the paving stones in front of elegant villas. Estudio Figueroa-Vives in Victor Hugo Park is a private gallery depicting a favorite artist, Belkis Ayon, who will soon be the subject of an exhibition at Madrid’s Museo Reina Sofia. Dead at only 32 years of age, her impressive prints plunge into the secrets of Abakuá, the secret slave society that still exists today.
On the way to the sea I meet Rafael Villares, a young artist with a flourishing international reputation. What does he miss when he’s gone? I ask. “The smell of the salt,” he replies. As if to illustrate his point, a breeze from the north brings the taste of the sea.
“Before you start cooking, have a daiquiri”. Photo: John Dambik / Alamy
When food writer AA Gill visited Cuba, he thought so little about the food that he insisted on calling it “goofy”. Slowly, however, a more sophisticated culinary story is revealed. There’s casabe, crispy flatbread that was first made by the Taino indigenous people of the Caribbean. spicy salsa criolla to cut through the suppleness of pork; and congrí – rice and beans – which is delicious when made with a lot of fat.
I particularly recommend Ajiaco. It’s a soup with so many ingredients – ground beef, a “little” hen, yam, plantains, sweet potatoes are just the beginning – that it has become a metaphor for Cuba itself. Cuba even had its own Nigella, Nitza Villapol, whose show may now appear as a comedy soviet whose ability to adapt recipes for shortages and hunger brought her love.
Have a daiquiri before cooking. The mojito may be more famous, but it doesn’t travel, and certainly not in winter. The daiquiri, a mixture of white rum, lime juice and sugar syrup, is a cocktail that stands on a slim leg next to the martini.
I’m at my front door and from my terrace the sun is setting over the sea. So I leave you Cuba’s biggest hit in two years. “Me voy pa ‘mi casa”, sings Cimafunk, Cuba’s newest superstar, slang for: “I’m out of here.”