Havana: More than just cars and cigars…

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Summon up an image of Cuba.  Perhaps you think of Havana nights. Are you envisioning open-air nightclubs and sweet sweat soaked dancing? Salsa music pumping, hips swaying rhythmically to the beat whilst the scent of cigar smoke quietly drifts through the air? Do you see a city of contrast and contradictions? Exquisite colonial buildings entangled with crumbling ruins. Do you see old American cars slowly cruising the streets? You do? Good because this is an image Cuba’s capital (Havana) has iconized and it’s not just wishful nostalgia.  When imagining Havana your first thoughts and images are correct: it does possess all of these wonderful charms however Havana has so much more to offer…

The Cuban flag

The best way to acquaint yourself with this vivacious city is on foot. Havana or La Habana, as it is known by locals, is a place drenched in history- and you can feel it seeping into every footstep you take. Habana once the setting for swashbuckling pirates, buccaneers and French corsairs has been a fortified slave port for the Spanish, conquered by the British and provided a playground for the American mafia. Havana has gone from revolution to communism but most impressively has survived – with a sunny smile.

Strolling through old Habana (a UNESCO world heritage sight) grand architecture runs in contrast with crumbling buildings, gloomy alleys and an artists palette of pastel houses in mint green, pale lemon, baby blue and pretty pinks that have all long since seen their glory days. This combination is both fascinating and beautiful. You may be sipping a mojito from the rooftop terrace of a 5* hotel but lean a little to your left and you are looking past the laundry hung out to dry into the tiny one room property of the average Cuban.

The streets are crowded with Cubans wishing to make a Peso from the passing tourists “where are you from?” is a question you will be asked constantly. Stray dogs roam the streets, old American cars rule the road (though most are now literally being held together by duct tape) and the sun beats down relentlessly. Yet none of this takes away from the beauty of the city; it is in fact what makes it so enchanting.

Palacio de los Capitanes Generales

If you are feeling the need for a moment of rest and quiet reflection walk over to Hotel Santa Isobel and order a delicious mojito at their rooftop bar. The hotel stands on the eastern side of the Plaza de Armas, the city’s earliest and most beautiful colonial square and offers stunning views over Old Havana and the harbour. I suggest waiting for the golden, pink tinged sunset and seeing the magical Palacio de los Capitanes Generales (old presidential palace) become a darkened silhouette against the coastline.

Che Guevara's image in Plaza de la Revolución

A convenient way to move further a field is by hopping on a Havana city tour bus. They come both open-air and air conditioned and are the ideal way to get dropped off at all the sights.  Tours include a visit to Plaza de le Revolución. Originally called Plaza Cívica (Civic Square). After the Cuban Revolution (1959), it was renamed “Plaza de la Revolución” or “Revolution Square.” The square is home to a José Martí Memorial , which features a 109 m (358 ft) tall tower and an 18 m (59 ft) statue.Be sure to take the lift to the top for a spectacular view of the city. However, most fascinating are the iconic images of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro both featured larger than life on the sides of buildings. Measuring 72000 square meters (making Revolution square one of the largest in the world) it is easy to imagine Fidel Castro rallying the masses and thousands of Cubans flocking to listen.

No tour of Havana is quite complete without a visit to Ambos Mundos Ernest Hemingway’s hotel of choice in Cuba and where he completed most of his book ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ during the 1930s (his room, 511, is today a much-frequented museum).

Of course you will need a place to hang your hat and take a siesta after wandering the labyrinth of cobbled streets this sultry city offers. NH Parque Central is one such hotel. Located in the heart of old Habana it has all of the amenities you would expect to find in a 5* establishment.

Panoramic view of old Habana from NH Parque Central

The delicious buffet breakfast is not be missed (and included in the price) fruits, pastries, chef’s cooking omelet’s to your personal specification and every other breakfast food you can possibly think of are available each morning. The hotel offers a rooftop pool and absolutely stunning panoramic views of the city. A truly postcard picturesque sight and you can take it all in whilst you swim!

A feast for the eyes: One of the many glitzy costumes & dance numbers from Tropicana

For entertainment you shouldn’t miss an evening at the famous Tropicana cabaret- Cuba’s equivalent to Paris’s Moulin Rouge. The dance numbers are fantastic and that’s not to mention the glitzy colours and countless costumes. The experience truly is a sensual feast for the eyes. The dance numbers are absolutely breathtaking- at one point a dancer literally dives off of the top stage tumbling 20 feet towards the ground only to be caught at the last second by dancers below. The entertainment takes place under the stars and in the warm balmy night air. Worth every penny or peso to be correct. Prices start at around 70 CUC’s.

Cuba may not be famous for it’s food but that doesn’t mean you can’t have a unique dining experience. Paladar’s are privately owned restaurants often found in the living rooms of hard working Cubans trying to make a living. La Guarida is a famous one due to Juan Carlos Tabío using the house as a set for his 1994 film Strawberry and Chocolate.

Habana’s most magical quality, the city’s heartbeat, is its decidedly infectious passion and energy.  You are encouraged to look beyond the 50’s timewarp and just feel the city. Life is unhurried yet urgent. Habaneras may not have much to sing and dance about but boy do they do it in abundance! Music is a way of life and Habana will have you toe tapping all the way to your doorstep.

A traveler without observation is a bird without wings – Moslih Eddin Saadi

I visited  Cuba (Havana and Varadero) last summer. I recently decided to use my travel diary to help me turn my trip into an article. So what do you think? Would this encourage/discourage you from visiting? All thoughts and opinions valued! & please let me know if you would be interested in an article on the Varadero portion of my trip…

Stealing a moment: an Urban Eden

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It’s a delectably warm, sunny afternoon in Cabot Square, Canary Wharf. The sky is azure with tiny whispers of pearly cloud hanging high above the towers of high-rise glass offices that surround this pretty square.

I am in the heart of East London’s frighteningly fast paced financial district but being a weekend the atmosphere is decidedly calm – lazy even. A spectacularly circular fountain takes centre stage and stretched out cat-like people are kicking off their shoes and laying out in the scrumptious slices of sun.

The fountain bubbles like champagne, foamy water spraying high into the air and descending in a murmured splash. Children and adults alike dip their toes in the cool, refreshing water; taking a moment to enjoy the quietude. Middle aged women, faces hidden behind dark glasses, are rolling up their trousers to sun their  legs; whilst leaning in close for a good natter. Individuals are cosied up on wooden benches sipping icy frappuccino’s and leafing through the pages of glossy magazines. Couples are sharing cream cakes bought from nearby bakeries and children are running in small circles around their parents laughing and clapping their hands together. Even the pigeons are taking it easy today; laying their bodies down flat, dark wings tucked in, on the beautifully smooth marble slats that double up as convenient sunloungers.

On this late afternoon the usual hum of traffic and clicking of high heels in a hurry is replaced by the rhythmic flow of the fountains and the occasional squawk from a passing bird. For just a moment I have found the rarest of things – an urban Eden.

I hastily scrawled this in a notebook last weekend. Anyone else managed to find a quiet moment or a cosy corner in a surprising part of the city? Tell us about it! The floor is yours…

P.S. Here is your quote of the day.

When we are present in each moment, the past gently rolls up behind us and the future slowly unravels before us. ~ Rev Richard Levy


Blog off (and running….)

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The skill of writing is to create a context in which others can think. ~ Edward Schlossberg

This is certainly a noble goal, for do we not read to imagine, escape, create, craft and reflect?

In recent weeks I have had an insatiable urge to put pen to paper and pour out my passions… whatever they may be. It began with words hastily written on the backs of envelopes, story subjects spider scrawled on receipts, napkins, bookmarks: whatever was closest to hand. This led to some longer diary entries (and me purchasing a notebook). Now I can’t go anywhere without pen and paper. I have even found myself stopping in the busy centre of Canary Wharfs Canada Place shopping mall just to scribble the title for an unwritten article- as the suits swarmed around me hurrying  towards their glass towers. The writing bug had truly taken hold. Before I knew it I was reading every travel magazine, blog or paper I could get my hands on and knocking out my own articles. I was inspired.

I have a degree in journalism but little cause to use it; so since my university days my love of writing has lay dormant, waiting. Now, however, it has erupted like the Vesuvius with an all-consuming need to detail and document my thoughts, musing and articles. I hope you will use The London Letters to guide you through London’s labyrinths and into the suprisingly peaceful  places you can steal a moment in this sultry city. Of course we shall not be bound by the big smoke we will also take in international tales of travel.

I am new to blogging (and rusty in writing) so constructive comments, ideas, thoughts and links to your own blogs will all be very much appreciated! Now lets get this show on the road…Just remember wherever you go, whatever you read imagine, dream and discover.