Saturday, April 13, 2019

Havana Cuba 2019: Day 4 - Grand Theatre, Callejon Hamel, Malecon

On Day 4, we spent the morning looking at the buildings on the south part of Paseo de Marti including several elegant hotels, the Grand Theatre, the Capital building and Indian Fountain, before returning to the hotel to swim during the hottest part of the afternoon.  Then in the late afternoon, we headed west to a street art area called Callejon de Hamel followed by a dinner in the area and then a long stroll along the Malecon to end the day.

We took a closer look at the facades and lobbies of some of the gorgeous hotels in the area, before lining up for a 9:30am tour of the Grand Theatre.  Hotel Inglaterra is the oldest hotel in Cuba, dating back to 1844.  Just south of our hotel Iberostar Parque Central, the Inglaterra faces Central Park and has a rooftop terrace with great views of the old city.  We almost chose to stay at the 1908 4-storied Hotel Sevilla because of its beautiful façade which has been described as “Moorish Revivial”.  But I also see elements of Art Nouveau in the portico, which reminds me of Hector Guimard's Paris metro station design.  The Sevilla was featured in the Graham Green novel “Our Man In Havana”, which was turned into a 1959 movie starring Alec Guinness.  Completed in 1888 in Neo-Classical style, the Hotel Saratoga was originally named the Grand Alcazar until it was renamed the Saratoga in 1933.  Famous guests including Jay-Z and Beyonce, Madonna, and Will Smith have stayed here in what we were told is one of the priciest hotels in the city.

We got a closer look at the Capital Building (El Capitolio), which we first saw from the rooftop terrace of our hotel. The building was commissioned by Cuban president Gerardo Machado and built in the late 1920s, using the domed cupola of the US Capital Building in Washington D.C. as inspiration.  It has been under renovation since 2013 and will be used as home of Cuba’s National Assembly.  We tried for several days to see if we could get inside but the doors were never open.  We were disappointed since photos on the Internet show that it is beautifully decorated, especially the gilded bronze “Statue of the Republic” in the main hall.  The front entrance of the Capitolo is flanked by two massive bronze sculptures.  The male figure represents the progress of human activity and the female figure represents the guardian of virtue.  Just south of the Capital Building is the Fountain of India, a white marble fountain sculpted in 1837 in the Neoclassical style.  It depicts an Indian girl holding the city coat of arms in her right hand and the horn of plenty in her left.

Originally built in 1838 as the Tacón Theatre, the magnificent Neo-Baroque styled Gran Theatro de Havana is by far the grandest structure in Old Havana.  The architect Paul Belau also designed the Presidential Palace, which is now the Museum of Revolution.  The elaborate façade is decorated by ornate stone adornments and bronze works as well as white marble sculptures by Guiseppe Moretti which represent charity, education, music and theatre.  The Gran Teatro is currently is home to the Cuban National Ballet and to the International Ballet Festival of Havana with facilities including the 1500-seat Garcia Lorca Auditorium, a concert hall, conference rooms, a video screening room, an art gallery, a choral center and several rehearsal halls for dance companies.  Once again from the rooftop terrace of our hotel, we have a stunning view of the Grand Theatre and the Hotel Inglaterra next to it.  We went up one evening to see both of them lit up at night.

We had walked by the Grand Theatre for several days prior to being able to take a tour of the building.  Each time when we looked through the open doors, we could see the elegant bronze sculpture of a ballerina en pointe.  When we finally took the tour of the theatre, we found out that this is a sculpture of the Cuban prima ballerina and choreographer Alicia Alonso, best known for her portrayals of Giselle and Carmen.  Alicia started dancing at age 10 and performed with ballet companies from Cuba, United States (American Ballet Theatre) and Russia (Ballet Russe) until age 78, despite dealing with major vision problems including glaucoma and a detached retina throughout her entire career.  While living in New York City from 1937-48, Alonso underwent multiple major surgeries including having her retina completely removed, cleansed and reinserted, and being forced to lie motionless for an entire year after a third operation.  Despite these setbacks, she was able to return to dancing and was considered the greatest ballerinas of her time.   Towards the end, she was nearly blind as she continued to dance difficult roles such as Carmen.  Returning to Cuba in 1948 with her husband Fernando, Alicia founded the Alicia Alonso Ballet Company which eventually became the Ballet Nacional de Cuba.  In addition to the sculpture, there are multiple displays honouring Alonso, including full-sized photographs of her in her iconic roles and a chronological history of her roles at the theatre.

Our tour of the theatre took us to all three floors of the beautiful building with its marble grand staircases and columns, domed ceiling, ornate cornices and marble sculptures of winged angels and nymphs.  On the second floor, we saw a scale model of the theatre, allowing us to get a closer look at the façade.  There was also a display listing the famous people who had performed here, including Sarah Bernhardt, the Bolshoi Ballet, Marcel Marceau and Simply Red (?I?). From one of the outdoor terraces, we had a nice view of the Capital Building and classic cars parked side by side in a rainbow of colours.

We learned from our guided tour that the main performance space holds 1046 seats with four rings of balcony seating and is used for all the arts including ballet and opera.  The chandelier, called “The Grand Spider” in Spanish is a reproduction from Czechoslovakia since the original one fell in 1900.  We were given the opportunity to try out the seats and to have photos of ourselves taken at the stage, which the tour guide insisted on doing for us.  The list of what is not allowed in this space is long and includes smoking, eating, drinking, photography or cell phones.  In particular, smoking is considered a major fire hazard in the auditorium since so much of it is made of wood.

We were in for a surprise when we reached the 3rd floor of the Grand Theatre.  In the middle of a large space decorated with all the ornate Baroque trimmings was a major art exhibition that was part of the Havana Biennale.  We saw works by a couple of the same artists that were on display on the first Biennale exhibition opening that we attended on our second day in Havana.  This exhibition featured as many sculptures and mixed media as it did paintings and the juxtaposition against the beautiful historic setting heightened and accentuated the cool factor of the mostly contemporary pieces.  My favourite was an etagere display case that you could walk all the way around to inspect.  It had a set of drawers at the bottom and eight shelves, each holding a small sculpture of one or more humanoid figures made from capless tubes of toothpaste.  The figures were posed in various positions including a pair getting amorous on a sofa made from wine corks.  On the back of the cabinet was a cheeky painting (pun intended) of a nude figure with a male face drawn on each of his butt cheeks.  I’m not sure if these were portraits of specific historic figures since I did not recognize them.

My other favourite piece was a bronze sculpture of a woman seemingly in distress with her hands held to her face and her long wavy hair streaming behind her.  The patterns on her dress and the illusion of motion and speed in her hair give it an Art Deco feel.  The work is by Cuban artist and painter Pedro Pablo Oliva whose paintings are said to be influenced by neo-expressionism, often portraying animals, children and fantastical figures. We really enjoyed looking at all the art and the tour guide was quite accommodating in giving us time to wander around.  But I still wished that we had more time to see everything at a more leisurely pace, or better yet, be given a guided tour of the art works which I’m sure had some interesting interpretations and meanings associated with them.

In the late afternoon, we planned to visit a street art area called Callejon de Hamel, located in Central Havana about 30 minutes west of Old Havana.  To get there, we walked along a major street called Calle Neptuno, which felt much grittier and more “authentically Cuban” than some of the areas near our hotel.  Along this street, we saw residences with the wash hanging from balconies, shops, eateries and grocery stores frequented by locals, people playing dominos on the street, a vendor walking around selling crispy snacks, and many more classic cars.  Many of the buildings and sidewalks were in bad states of disrepair.

Callejon de Hamel is an artsy area consisting of two blocks of back alleyways located behind large apartment buildings, where the walls are decorated with colourful murals and street art, and sculptures made from old car parts and other found objects such as old bathtubs, hand pumps and pin wheels.  Much of the art was created by Cuban painter, sculptor and muralist Salvador Gonzales Escalona beginning in 1990.  His abstract works exhibit the styles of surrealism and cubism and he uses whatever types of paint he can find for his murals, including car enamel.  Many of the art pieces depict rituals and deities related to Afro-Cuban culture.  The area has become a tourist attraction and building off the interest in the art works, there are also psychedelic art shops, a small bar serving mojitos and a small restaurant.  On Sundays, musicians fill the alleys with rumba music and people dance in the streets.  We were there on a Saturday, so the area was much less crowded.  We were able to admire the art without too many other people around and found a table at the bar for a cool drink.

Callejon de Hamel was not far from the AirBnB apartment that our friends Peter and Suzie had rented and so we had made plans to meet them for dinner at El Biky, a restaurant recommended to us by other Toronto friends who had been to Havana a few months earlier and who had also stayed in this area.  Unfortunately, we did not realize until we got there that unlike the restaurants we had been to on the previous days of our visit, El Biky was not a privately run paladar (Cuban family owned restaurant) but rather a government-run establishment that catered to tourists.  So rather than offering traditional Cuban dishes, the menu consisted of items like hamburgers and pasta.  The food was relatively inexpensive and the portions were large, but Rich and I would have preferred more authentic Cuban fare.  Instead, Rich had a cheese burger with cassava chips while I had pasta with cream of chicken (tasted like Campbell’s soup), mushrooms and blue cheese.  The service was slow and inefficient and when we got the bill, the tip was already added in.

Following dinner, Rich and I decided to walk back to our hotel along part of the Malecon, the 8 kilometre-long sea wall and esplanade following the coast of Havana.  It spans from the Vedado neighbourhood to the west to the Havana Harbour in Old Havana to the east.  We would walk a 3.5 km stretch from the famous 1930s Hotel Nacional de Cuba back to our Ibernostar Parque Central Hotel in Old Havana.  We initially had hoped to first have a drink at the Hotel Nacional, where many famous guests passed through, including Nat King Cole Jackie Robinson and Josephine Baker.  But we found the area packed with a street festival at the base of the hotel and could not get near it.  Instead we headed toward the boardwalk and found out that the crowds were there to celebrate the 500th anniversary of the founding of Havana by Spanish conquistadors.  Along the south side of the esplanade were tents and kiosks selling freshly cooked Cuban food including a crispy suckling pig roast!  This made us regret our dinner even more!  Had we known about this festival, we would have enjoyed taking part in it.  However it is so difficult to find out much information about anything in Cuba, so I’m not sure how we could have found out about this, despite doing research on the internet prior to our trip.

When we set out on our Malecon walk around 7:15pm, the sun had not yet set and it was still very hot and muggy with the temperature around 30 degrees Celsius.  But by around 8:30pm, it had cooled right down and the gentle sea breeze was rather refreshing.  The scenery was beautiful along the sea wall.  We saw the Castillo de San Salvador de la Punta in the distance and joined the many people who climbed onto the sea wall to watch the crashing waves.  As the sun set, there was a purple glow in the sky and we had the opportunity to take some backlit photos of fishermen standing on top of the wall.

Along the way, on both sides of the Malecon, we saw more examples of art displays put up for the Havana Biennale.  There were large-scaled sculptures, murals, light displays and more.  We had fun posing for photos behind a couple of gold-coloured evening gowns made of metal that were sitting by the sea wall side of the Malecon, although I was a bit too short for them and they fit Rich much better.  I liked the installation showing shirtless boys hanging on top of (or in?) a set of basketball nets.  Getting to see this art added to our enjoyment of this walk but it had been a very long day and by the time we got back to the hotel that evening, we had walked almost 15 kilometers.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Havana Cuba 2019 - Day 3 - Old Town, Historic Walking Tour

The main event for our third day in Havana would be a 3-hour historic walking tour of the old town which started at noon.  A bit nervous that we would be walking around during the hottest part of the day where temperatures soared over 31 degrees in the blazing sun, I had planned a relaxing late afternoon at our hotel’s rooftop pool following the walk.  But since the walking tour started so late, we could fit in our own “pre-walk” to take in a few sights en route to the start of the tour.  We would try to visit a beautiful old pharmacy, a ceramics museum, a chocolate shop and museum, a small art gallery and finally a gelato place.  This was probably over-ambitious but we would see what we could accomplish.

In the area near Paseo De Marti South where there are street lights with the count-down signals that tell you how long you have to cross the road, it was surprising to see that you are given up to 60 seconds (far longer than any signal that we have in Toronto).  But it turns out the time seems to allow you to cross two streets at a right angle and both lights are green at the same time.  As we wandered the streets of Old Havana, we soaked in the energy and the culture of the city. From the graffiti art painted on building walls to the scenic views of classic cars parked along narrow streets with colourfully painted buildings, there was a distinct Cuban/Latin vibe all around and so many photographic opportunities. 

Back in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries, pharmacies in Havana were not only places to go buy medicine, but also gathering sites for people to meet and converse about politics and daily life.  Three beautiful and luxuriously opulent pharmacies from those days can still be found in Old Havana and each has been turned into a museum that illustrates the pharmaceutical practices of the times.  The two smaller ones, Taquechel and Johnson can be found on Calle Obsipo.  We went to see the largest one, called La Reunion, situated on Teniente Rey,  a few streets south of the others.  Founded in 1853 by Catalonian entrepreneur and apothecary José Sarrá, it is known as the “Museum of Pharmacy Habanera”, but is also still a working pharmacy that sells modern medicines as well as specializing in homeopathic remedies.  The Reunion consists of three large exhibition halls featuring floor to ceiling mahogany & cedar shelves and old fashioned apothecary jars/containers made of 19th century French porcelain.  The museum artifacts, some extracted from archeological excavations, include a large collection of medical bottles and tools, mortar and pesto grinders, books of prescriptions and medical recipes, a century-old French porcelain water filter, a solar microscope, antique measuring pots, scales and more.

Our next stop was the National Museum of Ceramics, which presents Cuban pottery and ceramic art works from 1950 to the present day on its second floor.  The ground floor contains a shop that sells ceramics as souvenirs, temporary exhibition areas, a lecture hall and an archaeological site.  The first thing we encountered was the shop, which offered brightly coloured and kitschy pieces priced around 100-200 CUC (one CUC is equivalent to a US dollar).  The works included whimsical animal caricatures, gargoyles and several unexpectedly shocking, sexually charged items that referenced phallic symbols and the female uterus.

Entrance to the ceramics museum was supposed to be free, but one of the sales clerks offered to take Rich and I on a personal tour for 2CUC each, which we gladly accepted.   We were first led through the temporary exhibitions on the ground floor and saw some interesting pieces of large sculpture including a humanoid figure with arms and legs shaped like parts of a pencil entitled “I Only Want to Write Dreams”.  Our guide spoke in hushed tones so as not to be overhead and surprisingly made a few subversive comments about the Cuban government as she pointed out various works that were subtle (or not so subtle) critiques against the social-political-economical situations in Cuba.  Unfortunately she spoke broken English with a very heavy accent so it was difficult to understand what she was saying at times.  From afar, one piece in particular looked like a series of hands raised in the air, with another set of hands making gestures towards the ground.  A mirror was placed underneath the lower set of hands, reflecting their images.  Upon careful inspection of those hand gestures, especially when viewed via the mirror, you can see that half of them are rude hand gestures including giving the “F*** you” finger and the “Bulls***” or horns of the devil signal.

We saw other works that could have been created to provide political commentary.  One resembled the crumbling buildings in disrepair that we spotted throughout Havana and reflected on how there were no funds available to improve the housing conditions.  A piece from Alexis Acanda’s SOS series may be dealing with the drowning deaths associated with refugees trying to flee Cuba?  A hybrid between a sewing machine and a human arm sewing a Cuban flag brings to mind the plight of workers in the country, many of whom don't earn enough to live on and require second jobs to survive. A particularly disturbing piece called “Hidden Feelings” depicts a nude woman with part of her stomach exposed to show a tiny fetus inside.  The listed materials for this work consisted of red clay, glazes, formol, glass and human fetus?!?!   One of the most poignant pieces that we saw was Osmany Betancourt’s glazed terracotta figures titled “Mirror” from 2002 which deals with the suffering and struggle of the Cuban people through the Revolution, the downfall of the USSR and the US embargo.  You can see the suffering on the faces and arched bodies of the two figures, as well as the faces carved onto the round platform that the figures stand on.  And then to lighten the mood, we came across the metal cage full of what looked like penises (with scrotums) marked with army stripes and wearing metal army helmets.  I don’t even want to guess at what message this work is trying to convey!

I liked a couple of pieces that reminded me of Pablo Picasso’s ceramics, both in terms of shape and painted designs, including a covered bowl shaped like a bird, which was a common motif for Picasso’s pottery.  I am forever amazed by ceramic works that are made to look like other mediums, like the wrinkly paper pages of a book or an old metal typewriter.  The top floor of the museum went on and on as we were led from one room to another.  Throughout the tour, the guide kept promising us a surprise.  It was indeed a head-scratching surprise when she finally led us up to a large piece called “Legend of the Black Bridge”, quickly and furtively picked up the ceramic bird that was sitting on top of three other ceramic pillars, thrust the bird into my hands and took a photo of me holding the object.  She then repeated the same act with Rich.  Apparently it was quite the honour for us to be holding this bird, but to this day, we aren’t really sure why.  Was this something religious? Spiritual? Political?  For us, it was just weird but fun.  This ceramics museum was much larger and more impressive than what we expected and we were very glad that we took the time to visit it, although we actually took much more time than originally planned.

Right next to the Ceramics museum was the Chocolate “museum”, which is more of a chocolate shop/café/tasting room with a few artifacts related to the production and serving of chocolate and hot or cold chocolate drinks.  There was an antique ceramic hot chocolate pot with an ornate handle used to pour the drink, and a hinged lid that had an opening to fit a long wooden handle called a moulinet, which is used to whip the hot chocolate.  We saw many beautiful cups and saucers from across Europe, mostly dating from the early 20th Century and some chocolate moulds to create interesting shapes.  While the small museum was interesting, what we really wanted was the nice tall glass of icy cold chocolate drink, which was great on a hot day.  I was less keen on the piece of Cuban dark chocolate that we tried.

There was a display that provided examples of the various ingredients that could go into creating chocolate including vanilla, cocoa, powdered milk, lecithin (a fatty substance), cocoa liquor, and various types of sugar and cocao butter.  The walls were decorated with vintage tin advertisements for past chocolate shops and cocoa suppliers, while in the back room stands a sculpture of a figure holding what looks like a large cocoa bean.  This was a fun stop and a great way to cool off and rest our feet before continuing our trek through Old Havana.

Our next intended stop was at the Wifredo Lam Contemporary Art Gallery, named in honour of one of Cuba’s most noted modern artists.  The painter, who is of Afro-Chinese descent, is mostly known for his paintings but also dabbled in sculpture, ceramics and printmaking.  When we arrived, we were overwhelmed by the enormous crowd trying to get into the gallery, as it turned out to be the opening day of an exhibition for the Havana Biennale.  It was just as well that we couldn’t get in, since we were short on time after spending longer than planned at the ceramics museum.  Also we found out that the gallery did not actually display works by Lam (who we would see on a future day at the Cuban National Art Gallery), so it was no big loss to skip this.  Instead we continued on to the Helad’Oro, a gelato place that was just a few blocks away from the start of our walking tour.  Having read reviews online ahead of the trip, we went for the two most recommended flavours—mojito and lemon pie.  We also benefited from the seats and the cold air conditioning in the place, and after this final rest and refreshment, we were ready for our 3 hour walking tour.

The starting point for our walking tour was the La Gargola Hostel, featuring a winged gargoyle on its façade.  We were joined by our friends Peter and Suzie for what turned out to be a private tour for the four of us.  We were pleasantly surprised to find that our tour guide Luis spoke perfect English and for the first time, we had no trouble understanding what was being told to us.  The tour would cover the four major squares or plazas of Old Havana, culminating in a late lunch at a local eatery selected by the tour guide. 

We passed by the Hotel Ambos Mundos, known as the first home of Ernest Hemingway when he inadvertently first arrived in Cuba in 1932 after his boat broke down en route to Europe.  Hemingway lived in an apartment on the 5th floor for 14 years and wrote Form Who The Bell Tolls there.  Today, his room has been turned into a mini museum with some of his belongings including books, fishing rods, a typewriter and some Abercrombie suits.  Next we passed by the bar La Bodeguita del Medio, another frequent haunt of Hemingway’s as well as other writers, musicians and journalists who frequented the joint because there was a printing press here.  Open since 1928, it is said to be the place where the mojito (rum, sugar, lime juice and mint) was invented and Hemingway’s bar of choice to order this drink (while La Floridita was where he ordered daiquiris).  Other famous visitors to La Bodeguita included Errol Flynn, Brigette Bardot and Sophia Loren.  It has become a tradition for people to sign their names on the walls of this establishment.  Outside the bar,  the self-professed “Poet of Cuba” Orlando La Guardia sits at his old-fashioned typewriter and composes poetry on demand for money.  While wandering around in this area, we saw an old gent with a large cigar in his mouth, offering to take photos with the tourists (also for money most likely).  I thought he epitomized the definition of “dapper” or “dandy”.

Our first major square was the Plaza de la Cathedral, which contains a baroque 1770s cathedral, a Colonial Art Museum, and multiple cafes and an art gallery.  The location was originally a swamp and the area was once called “Swamp Square”.  Eventually it became the site of some of the city’s grandest mansions including the Palacio del Conde Lombillo, which today houses the Revitalization Master Plan of the City Historian’s office, and the Palacio del Marqués de Arcos, which once housed the post office .  Many of the buildings in the square, as well as the cathedral itself are noted for their beautiful vitreous stained glass painted on wooden frames.  The Cathedral of Havana was initially built by the Jesuits in 1748 but they were expelled from the island before its completion in 1777.  The cathedral is largely built with blocks of coral and you can see marine fossils on the façade.   It has asymmetrical towers built at different times after the central section, resulting in different heights and widths.  One of the bells in the towers is the oldest in Cuba, dating back to 1747.  We saw many locals pedaling their wares in this square, including women wearing colourful headscarves and the traditional Cuban dresses with multi-coloured layers of ruffles, and the man pushing a bicycle with a basket containing two basset hounds wearing spectacles.

The interior of the cathedral was originally constructed with a wood ceiling and floors, which were later replaced with limestone and marble respectively.  Once again we marveled at the stunning windows, which seemed brighter and more vibrant than in other churches, and had what felt like modern, abstract themes as opposed to the religious or political scenes typically depicted in large cathedrals.  The remains of Christopher Columbus were kept here from 1796-1898 before they were moved to Seville, Spain. We saw a life-sized sculpture of Pope John Paul II, who in 1969 asked that the celebration of Christmas be restored, after it was banned in the 1959 Cuban revolution.  There was a sculpture of Saint Christopher, patron of travelers who was de-canonized because it was deemed there was insufficient historic evidence of his performed miracle.  We also saw tributes to the Virgin Loretta, protector of homes and the Virgin of Guadalope, patron saint of sailors saved from storms.

Our next stop was the History Mural, painted along the entire side of a building on Mercaderes Street, across from the home of the Marquis de Arcos, which we saw the back of at the Cathedral Square.  The mural was created in 1990 by Cuban artist Andrés Carillo using the technique of spraying silver on sand.  It depicts 67 important historic, political, artistic, literary, scientific and intellectual figures from 19th Century Cuba including a famous black violinist who stands out as being the only figure of colour in the mural.  The façade of the building depicted in the mural is a mirror image of Marquis’ home, including the positioning of doorways, balconies and windows.  Unfortunately the area around the mural is under construction and the legend explaining who these people were has been taken down, although I probably would not recognize the names anyways.

The second square on our tour was Plaza de Armas (meaning parade ground) or Army Square. The oldest square in the city, it was founded in the early 16th Century and initially named Plaza de la Iglesia after the small church that once was here.  It got its current name in the late 16th Century when its purpose became to house troops who would protect the Governor’s home, which is now the city museum and Vice President’s palace.  Nestled in a lush garden is the statue of Carlos Manuela Cepedes, initiator of the Cuban Wars of Independence, who became the first president of Cuba in 1869 and created the first constitution.  Unfortunately Cepedes was deposed in a coup in 1873, forced by his enemies to flee, and captured and killed by the Spanish in 1874.  The streets in front of the governor’s house are made from a parquet of wood because the wife of Governor and General Don Miguel Tacon did not want to hear the footsteps of the marching troops.  Also in the square is the Central Santa Lucia 1181, part of a a sugar mill locomotive used to transport sugar cane between mills.

Now a police station, Castillo de la Real Fuerza was completed in 1577 and is the oldest fort in the Americas that is still standing.  It was considered to be too far inland to be of use for protecting the harbour. A watchtower was added in 1634 with a weather vane at the top, shaped like a lady with a large cross in her hands.  It is thought that the sculpture is in honour of Isabel de Bobadilla, Havana’s only female governor who took over after her husband Hernando de Soto died while away on an expedition to Florida.  Unaware of his passing, she spent many years scanning the horizon for signs of his return.  The image of this figure has become the symbol for “Made in Cuba”.  The neo-classical temple called El Templete was built in 1827 on the spot where Havana founded in 1519, and where the first mass was held.  Three large murals by Jean Baptiste Vermay depict the first mass, the first council and the blessing of the Templete on its inauguration and a bust of his image sits on a platform in the centre of the building.  People make wishes and leave offerings at the base of a sacred Ceiba tree planted on the grounds.  A ceremony takes place around the tree each November 15 when people circle it three times and make a wish that is supposedly granted.

Plaza de San Francisco de Asís is named after the Franciscan convent built there in the 16th Century.  At one side is a stone fountain with four lions at its base, that was donated to the city by a wealthy patron after his wife rejected the fountain for their home.  The square was nicknamed “Pigeon Square” because of all the pigeons that hovered in the area.  The 1907 Chamber of Commerce building also sits in this square and is where most of the foreign companies have their headquarters.  There is  one contemporary sculpture as well as two magnificent bronze sculptures found in and around the square.  The contemporary sculpture sits in front of the Chamber of Commerce and is called “The Conversation”.  The first bronze is a depiction of Frederic Chopin sitting on the edge of a bench. The second one, found to the side of the convent, is named the “Gentleman of Paris”, referring to  José María López Lledín, an elegant vagabond with a trademark beard who wandered around Havana and became a cult figure.  This bronze was created in 2001 by sculptor José Villa Soberón, who was also the creator of the John Lennon sculpture in Lennon park and the Ernest Hemmingway sculpture in the bar El Floridita. Legend has it that good luck will befall you if you put your right hand on the beard of the Gentleman of Paris and step on his left foot.  From the Plaza de San Francisco, we could see the cruise ships in the harbour.  We were told by our tour guide that there is currently room for 2 cruise ships to dock at one time, but plans are in place to add 4 more.  We were lucky to visit Havana before this happened.

The last square that we visited on our walking tour before heading to lunch was Plaza Vieja or Old Square. Dating back to 1559, Plaza Vieja was home to some of the richest people in Havana and rivaled Plaza de Armas as a residential haven.  Today the buildings house art galleries and photography studios including the Camera Obscura where live 360 degree images of the city are projected for display in a dark room on the roof of a tower.  The water fountain in the centre of the square is a recreation, as the original one was destroyed when the President wanted to build an underground parking lot in the spot.  The most noticeable part of the square is the large bronze sculpture of a nude bald woman in spiked heels holding a fork and sitting on top of a one-legged rooster.  According to our tour guide, the piece references the rampant prostitution in the 1990s, while the fork alludes to poverty and hunger which drove women to the trade.  The rooster (or "coq" which is a homonym for "cock") itself might be a sexual connotation while the one leg symbolizes the unbalanced times.  Called “Fantastic Trip”, the sculpture was created in 2012 by noted Cuban sculptor Roberto Fabelo but it remains unsigned since the Cuban government was embarrassed by it.   This was our second time visiting this square.  We had dropped by on our first day and stopped at the coffee bar for drinks and a piece of cake.  That is when we learned that the bar did not receive its fresh water supply that day and therefore they could only serve hot drinks (that boiled any germs out of the water?).  On our second visit during this tour, the Havana Biennale had started and the square was decorated with colourful floats dangling between buildings.

Having completed our walking tour, we now headed for our lunch at Bar Sarrá, named after the Sarrá Pharmaceutical chain whose museum we saw earlier in the day.  After a long hot several hours of walking around Old Havana, the first thing we wanted were ice cold drinks and the ones we received were the most lush, gorgeous drinks so far.  I had a strawberry daiquiri while Rich had a pineapple daiquiri and Suzie had a lemon/lime icy drink that looked amazing.  When the food came, it was also delicious and full of Cuban flavours including lime and cilantro.  I ordered the lightly fried red snapper fish filet with a tomato and basil salsa while Rich ordered the pork with tamarind and peanuts.  Both meals came with crispy sauteed seasonal vegetables and a "bean rice" which I thought I would not like since I don't usually like hard beans, but I found quite tasty.  For dessert we had a piece of flan with a scoop of chocolate ice cream and an espresso with a complementary piece of chocolate.  It was the perfect end to our walking tour and since we ate around 3pm, we were so full that we skipped dinner that night.

We spent the late afternoon relaxing at the pool and drinking mojitos, then called it an early night after a long, hot tiring day.

Thursday, April 11, 2019

Havana Cuba 2019 - Day 2 - Revolution Museum, La Guarida, Biennale

On our second day in Havana, Rich and I spent the morning with our friend Peter taking a car tour of Western Havana.  Once we were done, the plan was to meet up with our friend Suzie, grab a quick lunch and drink at the famous El Floridita, before heading out to the Revolution Museum in the afternoon.  We were foolish enough to think that we could waltz into this renowned establishment, which was a frequent haunt of Ernest Hemmingway and therefore a major tourist attraction, and be able to get seating for four around lunch time.  We were quickly brought to reality as we could barely make it into the place before realizing that there was not a seat to be had.  At least we were able to take a photo of the bronze sculpture of Hemmingway by the front door, which was the major attraction at this bar, along with their daiquiris.  As it turns out, we were unsuccessful in getting a drink from any of the famous Havana bars including La Bodeguita del Medio (famous for mojitos) and Hotel Nationale, since they were all too crowded.  We did not go thirsty though, since there were icy cold drinks to be had at pretty much any eatery in Havana.  Suzie was so hungry that she declared we would eat at the next place she saw.  We waltzed into one such place on Calle Obispo that I did not catch the name of.  Peter and Suzie each had a plate of egg, rice and beans while Rich and I settled for mojitos since we were still full from the large buffet breakfast that we ate each morning at our hotel.  It occurred to me while I was sucking back my drink that while we were so careful not to drink or even brush our teeth with tap water, that we were probably ingesting large quantities of this in the iced drinks that we consumed.  The alcohol must have killed off most of any substances that might be harmful to our digestive systems since we did not suffer any adverse effects.

The Museum of the Revolution is housed in the former Presidential Palace, which was built in 1920 and was home for all presidents of Cuba from that time, up to the Cuban Revolution in 1959 when the final President, Fulgencio Batista, was deposed.  We first caught a glimpse of this beautiful building while walking south along the Plaza de Marti 13 the previous day, since the long walkway of this square leads directly to the former palace.  In front of the museum stands a fragment from a Spanish fortress built in the 16th Century to protect city, as well as the SAU-100 “auto-propelled cannon” (not a tank since it has no turret to spin the gun around) which Fidel Castro manned and used to fire upon the invading warship USS Houston during the unsuccessful Bay of Pigs invasion in 1961.  From the top floor of the museum, we could look back out across Plaza de Marti 13 and see the monument dedicated to Jose Marti.

Walking up grand steps of Carrara marble, we came across some large rooms, designed by the Tiffany Glass and Decorating Company, that remain decorated as they were during the Presidential Palace days with marble columns, ornate molding, and massive murals and frescos by famous Cuban artists painted on the ceilings and walls.  We were able to walk into the Golden Room which was decorated with yellow marble with gilded trim along the cornice molding and large mirrors flanked by candelabra-shaped lamps.  Unfortunately the grand Hall of Mirrors, modeled after the Palace of Versailles, was closed for what we thought were renovations.  But it could be that they were getting ready for the Revolutionary Art exhibit that started the week after our visit, as part of the Havana Art Biennale.  We would have loved to see both the hall and the art exhibit which looks fabulous based on the images on the website.  We were able to peek over some barriers to catch a glimpse of the beautiful dome that tops the building, plated with colourful glazed ceramic tiles.

Although most of the museum is dedicated to the events leading up to, during and following the 1959 Cuban Revolution, there were a few references to the events and heroes of the War of Independence (1895-98) that liberated Cuba from Spain.  There were even more tributes to war heroes Jose Marti and General Maximo Gomez including several busts of Marti, a replica of his bullet bag, and Gomez’s binoculars.  On the previous day, we saw several full-sized sculptures of Marti throughout Old Havana and a major monument dedicated to Gomez.

For the part of the museum dedicated to the Cuban Revolution, the main focus was on the trio of Fidel Castro, Ernesto “Che” Guevera and Camilo Cienfuegos, who were immortalized in a bronze sculpture created by Oscar Ramirez Quintero in 2010.  Castro and Cienfuegos could each be easily identified by their trademark hats but for some reason, Che was not portrayed in his iconic beret.  A bronze replica of Castro’s patrol cap was created around the same time to mark the 50th anniversary of the Revolution.  A life-sized diorama depicts Guevera and Cienfuegos possibly in the Sierra Maestra Mountains preparing for guerilla warfare in what is described by the sculpture as the “National Liberation War”.  One of the most interesting displays show black and white photos of an unrecognizable Che Guevera, heavily disguised to sneak into Bolivia to participate in its revolution, where he was captured and executed by the CIA and the Bolivian government.

Interesting artifacts relating to the Cuban Revolution included a doll that was used to smuggle messages to Che and Camilo about where to retrieve cached weapons and an example of underskirts worn by women who used them to hide arms and munitions.  An advertisement (that looked like currency) with Castro’s face on it was used to promote his Agarian Reforms, which confiscated and broke up large land holdings and redistributed parcels of land to the peasants who worked on them.  As with any military museum, there were strong propaganda messages promoting the home country and disparaging its enemies.  In this case, the enemy was (and still is) the United States, who were called mercenaries and bandits who agitated and promoted unjust aggression against Cuba with defamation campaigns, burning sugar mills and arming exiled Batista supporters.  Several displays rejoiced and mocked the Americans over the defeat of the CIA-led Bay of Pigs invasion.

Large vehicles including tanks, boats and airplanes that played a part in various military actions in Cuba before, during and after the revolution were on display in an outdoor space in front of the museum.  The Fargo fast food delivery truck used in the failed March 1957 attack on the Presidential Palace was shown, riddled with bullet holes.  The plan was to assassinate President Batista and take over the national radio station to call for a general strike.  The 42 attackers reached the 3rd floor of the palace before they were stopped and bullet holes can still be seen in the walls and stairwells of the building.  Makeshift tanks to be used in the Cuban revolution were created by workers of sugar mills by adding armor to tractors.  The remains of a North American B-26 bomber plane that was shot down during the Bay of Pigs action in 1961 is on display.  The corpse of the pilot who flew this plane remained in Cuba for 19 years because the United States would not admit their part in this aggression and therefore never claimed the body until 1979.

The highlight of the museum was the Granma Yacht, a 60-foot diesel-powered pleasure boat that sailed from Mexico to Cuba in December 1956, in an attempt to restart the Liberation War and overthrow Batista.  Led by Fidel Castro, 82 men including his brother Raul, Che Guevera and Camilo Cienfuegos landed at Las Coloradas beach.  Unfortunately Batista anticipated the location of the landing and was waiting with his troops, who quickly defeated the attack.  Although there were many casualties, the survivors escaped to the Sierra Maestra mountains where they regrouped and started the ultimately successful guerilla war.  The yacht was named after the grandmother of the original owner, thus accounting for the strange name of a vessel used in a military coup attempt. Despite its failure, this significant mission is quite important in Cuban history and is represented in various art forms. We saw a mosaic representation of the yacht in Fusterlandia which we visited the previous day, and there was a graffiti-like version on display in the domed hall of the palace.

Following our visit to the Museum of the Revolution, we had plans to have dinner with our friends Peter and Suzie.  This was one of the dinners that we had planned prior to arriving in Havana.  It was at La Guarida, the famous family owned and run paladar that was the setting for the 1993 Cuban film Strawberry and Chocolate (Fresa y Chocolat), nominated for the Best Foreign Film Oscar.  Luckily this was one of the few restaurants that actually took online reservations and unlike the paladar Chef Ivan Justo where we went to the night before, this establishment actually acknowledged and confirmed the reservation.  To prepare for the occasion, the four of us watched the movie on DVD at home and took note of some of the architectural and decorative details of the building and interior, hoping to spot these features during our visit.  The restaurant, which opened in 1996, proudly displays photographs from the movie on its walls and makes reference to the film in its menu.  The only Cuban film to ever be nominated for an Oscar, Fresa y Chocolate deals with the illicit friendship between homosexual Diego and a young communist party member David, highlighting a call for tolerance and understanding.

In filming the movie Fresa y Chocolate, the beautiful 20th Century mansion was chosen as the location of Diego’s “hideaway” or guarida.  The movie was such a success that tourists started seeking out the building, which inspired its owners to open the restaurant that they situated on the same top two floors as Diego’s apartment.  Taking a line from the movie when Diego tells David “Welcome to the Guarida”, the restaurant got its name La Guarida.  Immediately after we entered the building, we recognized elements from the movie including the ornate metal railings of the winding marble staircase that brought you up multiple floors.  What seems to be a manifesto from Castro is etched onto the wall of the ground floor, with an opening line translating to  “That’s why you say Homeland or Death”.  Next to it is painted a mural of the Cuban flag with the image (based on the hat), of Camilo Cienfuegos on top of it.  Other familiar sights from the movie included the salon-styled hanging of eclectic artwork on the walls of the restaurant, and the blue fridge featured prominently in some of the scenes of the film.

Rich and I had agreed to meet our friends at the rooftop bar prior to dinner but unfortunately, we took too long resting and cooling off at our hotel after the visit to the Museum of the Revolution.  We made it to La Guardia just in time for our dinner reservations and missed the pre-meal cocktail.  We were also distracted on our walk to the restaurant because right there on the curb of one of the streets, we spotted a roasted pig’s head sitting in a pot and it fascinated us, so we had to inspect it for a while.  This was obviously a religious offering as part of a Santeria (Afro-Caribbean) ritual.  Finally reaching the restaurant, we climbed the 3-4 flights of stairs to reach the restaurant, and then one more flight to reach the bar at the top level.  Along the way, we were able to take note of the intermediate floors which seemed to be vacant but might have been used as residences for the owner’s family.  The roof top bar was light and airy with windows on all sides and a great view of the city, so it was too bad that we were too late to enjoy it.

Wandering around the level containing the restaurant itself, you got a feel for how large this mansion is, especially considering that there were at least three more floors of the same size below.  We walked down a long narrow hallway to get to the reception desk, and then quickly inspected the many different areas for dining including an outdoor terrace where you could view the night lights, and various rooms filled with art, including one room that contained a couple of religious sculptures similar to the ones shown in the movie.  It was difficult to choose where we might want to sit, although some options were not available since the tables had already been filled.

At first we were hoping to reserve one of the tables located in the small alcoves just beyond the windows of one of the rooms, but it turns out these tables only seated two.  We got the next best thing which was a table right by one of the open windows leading to an alcove, so we still had a view and a bit of a breeze.  It also happened to be the room with the blue refrigerator from the movie sitting in the corner.  For drinks, Rich started with a Cuba Libre (Havana rum, Cuban coke with cane sugar and lime juice) while Suzie and I opted for the delicious-looking red sangria with a large slice of pineapple that the woman in the alcove was drinking.  We also snacked on some fried plantains before ordering our meals.  For starters, Rich and I shared the fish tiradito, consisting of thinly sliced white fish ceviche coated with coconut milk and something called “tiger’s milk”, which was a mixture of lime juice, garlic, cilantro, chili peppers, red onion, clam juice and salt.  We also shared the papaya seafood lasagna accompanied with a splatter of tomato and citrus compote.  Peter’s appetizer was a tuna tartar with radish, cumin, garlic flakes and soy sauce while Suzie had the cheese ravioli with pesto sauce and pine nuts.

For our mains, both Peter and I ordered the Provencal rabbit with black olives and a caponata sauce, which is usually olive oil, eggplant, onion, garlic, tomato, Italian seasoning, red wine vinegar and capers.  Rich selected the shredded beef with a chickpea/hummus-like spread.  I can’t remember what Suzie ordered and since I didn’t take a photo of it, it didn’t “officially” happen :)  For the table, we shared an eggplant “caviar” with a tomato coulis, as well as some fried sweet potato and yuca and some steamed vegetables. Rich was the only one that tried a dessert and he selected the “coconut soup with caramelized French toast, butter and lemon ice cream” since it sounded intriguingly different.  For me, I would choose good old fashioned chocolate any time.  The restaurant washrooms featured multiple rolls of toilet paper hanging on the wall, which made me laugh since we had made such a big deal about walking around with toilet paper for fear of not finding any while in public toilets.  It wasn’t clear to me if this toilet paper display was art or for our use.  It was fun being in the restaurant that was the set for a movie which we had watched, and the food was tasty with distinct Cuban flavours and ingredients, but I preferred our first meal at Ivan Chef Justo better.

You would think that after such a long day, which began with an early morning car tour of West Havana, followed by the Museum of Revolution and then a nice leisurely meal at an iconic restaurant, that we would be done for the evening.  But we actually had one more stop to make.  While Rich and I chose to stay at the Iberostar Parque Central Hotel right in the heart of old Havana, Peter and Suzie found an AirBnB apartment further off in Central Havana.  The Havana Art Biennale was just starting the week we arrived and it turned out that there would be an opening night gala for the exhibition of a group of artists that would taking place on the rooftop terrace of their apartment building.  In fact the party would take place right outside their patio doors.  It would be a night of art viewing, schmoozing with artists, snacks and mojitos, music and dancing.  The contemporary art pieces were quite eclectic in nature and we would see the works of some of these same artists at other Biennale venues in the next few days.  We got the chance to speak to one of the artists to hear about his motivations for a piece that we liked, but his description lost something in the translation since he spoke no English.

To get to the Biennale show at Peter and Suzie’s rental apartment, the four of us crammed into a tiny “taxi” car and I could barely breathe as I was stuck in the middle in the back.  And not having properly negotiated the fare, what we thought would be a 15CUC ride became 20CUC once we arrived.  While it was easy to hail a taxi in the old town, it became a bit more dicey for Rich and I to get a ride back from this relatively remote area.  Although we had called for a taxi, we had to wait outside for a while before one arrived.  Imagine our surprise when a stretch party limo showed up, complete with strobe lights and music videos playing.  This time we wisely negotiated the fare and pre-paid before we got in.  So the two of us rode in this huge vehicle where we could stretch our legs straight out and still not reach the front seats.  The party was still raging when we left around 11pm and we found out the next day that it continued until well past 2am.