Travel News


Rum, rumba and revolution. What’s not to like about the hottest city in the Caribbean? Leo Schofield is seduced by the faded glamour and glory of Havana, a time-warped city with one foot in the past and a tentative toehold on the future.

If you're into linen sheets, a reliable electricity supply, global roaming on your mobile phone and haute cuisine, read no further. But if you have a soft spot for friendly people, for a city with a big heart, a unique history and a faded glamour where reminders of more prosperous times and an unusually colourful past are to hand on all sides, then Havana is for you.
Cuba's currency is high in certain quarters in Australia right now. This month we are about to see, for the first time, two of the country's flagship performing arts companies: the National Ballet of Cuba, in its acclaimed production of Don Quixote, and the Contemporary Dance Company. Both will be on stage at the Queensland Performing Arts Centre as part of the annual Brisbane Festival, and both are electrifying.
A little history helps in understanding Cuba's potent appeal. The country's fortunes, and with them Havana's, have seesawed for centuries. It's been invaded, colonised, invaded, freed. It's been fabulously rich and desperately poor. Like Sleeping Beauty, dozing with her courtiers among a mass of cobwebs, its fascination lies to some extent in the mere fact of its survival.
In the mid-19th century, one-third of the world's sugar came from Cuba. This single commodity was the cornerstone of the island's economy, and the resulting affluence propelled Havana onto the world stage. A further burst of wealth came in 1920 when the US prohibited the manufacture, sale and movement of alcohol. Frustrated flappers and their beaux headed for Havana, where the music was wild and the alcohol was cheap (inexpensive Mojitos are still a draw today). Hollywood became an eager propagandist for this early manifestation of "la vida loca", setting a slew of black-and-white movie musicals against a background of swaying palms and swinging soundtracks.
A vibrant nightlife blossomed in Havana and the good times lasted until the end of Prohibition in 1933. Enter the Mob, in the form of a crime syndicate headed by the formidable trio of Meyer Lansky, Santo Trafficante Junior and Lucky Luciano. Dispatched by US authorities to exile in his native Sicily, Luciano fetched up in Havana, where, aided and abetted by a corrupt Cuban government headed by Fulgencio Batista, he and other notorious crime figures established a series of luxurious hotels, all of which incorporated lucrative casinos, and the flow of tourists resumed.
Leading film stars of the era, including Ava Gardner, Marlene Dietrich, Lana Turner and, predictably, Frank Sinatra were among the Americans who flocked to Havana in droves to enjoy rum, rumba and louche living. Graham Greene and Ernest Hemingway were also notable visitors. Given the widening gap between the privileged and the poor, some kind of revolution was inevitable. Even Lansky saw it coming. He raked in millions until 1959, when he fled the country shortly before guerrilla forces led by Fidel Castro and Che Guevara assumed control of the capital and nationalised the casinos, smashing the roulette wheels and burning the blackjack tables.
The Castro government has been in power ever since, much to the chagrin of the US, which is responsible for an ongoing trade embargo, the most sustained in modern history, that has stalled the economic growth of the country and Havana in particular. Miami may be a mere 367km to the north, but there is still a ban on Americans, or any other visitors for that matter, flying directly to Cuba from the United States. Australia's own Susie Maroney swam from Cuba to the US in less time than it takes the majority of us to get there.
But it's worth the hassle. It has been observed that conservation's greatest friend is poverty: the fact that Havana remains with one foot in the 19th century and the other in the 21st has meant that any pre-1959 visitor, even a resurrected mobster, would still recognise the city. A bit shabbier, perhaps, but fascinating nonetheless.
Many of Havana's unique buildings are mouldering or in dire need of a good scrub and a lick of paint, but the people of the city remain upbeat, despite their obvious poverty and hardships. The mood in Havana is one of optimism, of extrovert bounce and energy. Maybe it's the sunshine, ever plentiful, or the benevolent climate. (Even in the steamy midsummer months, an evening breeze from the Caribbean blows across the harbour, bringing cool air and welcome relief.)
But most palpable is the confidence of Havana's inhabitants, their warmth and hospitality. Their mood is one of defiance rather than defeat. They've been up, they've been down, but they'll survive.
To get a sense of Havana's rich colonial past, the visitor should first head to La Habana Vieja, or Old Havana. It's the historic centre, a web of assorted narrow streets, squares and plazas, many ringed with old houses painted in gelato colours. Street life in this quarter is especially vibrant, and at night many of the spaces become temporary restaurants. Old Havana was once completely ringed by high, thick walls and heavily fortified to repel pirates in pursuit of Spanish ships laden with treasure from the New World, and other unwelcome visitors. But once the walls came down, the city spread outward along the waterfront and further west into what are now Central Havana, Vedado and Miramar.
Old Havana is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. The United Nations, Spain and other countries have contributed generously, at least in the years prior to the global financial crisis, to its rehabilitation, so that a good number of splendid buildings from the 17th and 18th centuries have been restored or are under repair.
Many of these houses, such as the 16th-century Plaza Vieja and the Plaza de San Francisco, built a century later, enclose public spaces, open plazas or gardens, of which the handsomest is the Plaza de Armas, the oldest square in Havana. Its gardens are arranged around a statue to Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the Cuban patriot who led the war against Spanish colonial rule and who is known as the Father of the Country. His memorial stands amid cool green clustered shrubbery shaded by huge pink, white and yellow tabebuias and vermilion poincianas, two of the most glorious flowering trees in the world. Under these, on carpets of fallen blossoms, booksellers do brisk business at week's end, some retailing from stands by the garden railings in the manner of Parisian bouquinistes along the Seine, others with larger displays under overscaled Piranesian stone arcades.
One side of this space is taken up by the Palacio del Segundo Cabo, another by the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales, the latter now the Museum of the City of Havana. Somewhat bleak and forbidding on the outside, its massive wooden doors open to reveal a palm-filled courtyard and garden dominated by a marble figure of Christopher Columbus. The surrounding rooms are filled with a fascinating collection of historic carriages, livery and furnishings.
Remains of the fortifications built by the Spanish conquerors abound, perhaps too solidly constructed to be easily demolished (in some places the walls are 6 metres thick), but the huge bronze cannonballs that were once fired from these ramparts have been recycled, stuck into the cobbled pavements to prevent traffic on pedestrianised streets. At the entrance to the harbour stands the famous 16th-century citadel known as El Morro, complete with a towering lighthouse, one of Havana's most famous landmarks.
In the middle of the 19th century, the walls that encircled Old Havana were removed and the city grew outwards. First came the creation of what is known as Central Havana, where the influence of Europe, in particular France, and America were strongest, reflected in a compendium of revisionist building styles. About this time, too, the upwardly mobile and nouveaux riches moved west, first to Vedado and later to the airy, leafy suburbs of Miramar and Siboney.
Some of the most notable architecture of the 20th century can be found at El Capitolio, which features a magnificent ensemble of neo-baroque and Belle Epoque buildings arranged around a park. For a tiny island nation that has long lived in the often menacing shadow of its big neighbour, it's ironic that El Capitolio so closely resembles the Capitol building in Washington DC.
For the design of the gardens surrounding this great government building, the Cubans turned to French landscape architect and designer Jean-Claude Nicolas Forestier. His concept was for a simple area of grass with paths defined by palms. Not any old palm, mind you, but the majestic variety known as the Cuban Royal. Tall, graceful and with a smooth silvery grey trunk, it can - and in this climate does - grow to a height of more than 30 metres. If Cuba has a signature tree, it's this beauty.
Facing the park are some of the city's grandest hotels, most notably the venerable Hotel Inglaterra, Havana's oldest. Beyond are the private palaces and, further still, the stately suburban villas that must have made fin de siècle Havana seem like a kind of Caribbean Paris.
International influences were very much in play in Havana in the early 20th century, and it was not unusual for Cuban architects and designers to collaborate with foreign talent, or for public buildings to echo European prototypes. The former Presidential Palace, now the Museum of the Revolution, is unabashedly Francophile, with a chamber inspired by the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles. Much of the interior decoration was entrusted to Tiffany & Co. and many of the exhibits, however relevant to the history of modern Cuba, look decidedly incongruous in such a sumptuous setting - Che Guevara's pipe, for instance, and the space suit worn by Arnaldo Tamayo-Méndez, the first Cuban astronaut and the first person of African and Hispanic descent to go into orbit.
But now, as it has always been, the hub of all the action is to be found along the Paseo del Prado, the first promenade built outside the old city walls and a favourite haunt of both locals and visitors. It's here that the bustling, noisy, palpitating heart of Havana moves to varied but always-throbbing music.
Ah, the music. The veterans of the Buena Vista Social Club who, with a little help from Ry Cooder and Wim Wenders, rocketed Afro-Cuban music into every nook and cranny of the electronic universe may have moved on, but music in myriad forms lives on, issuing forth from every doorway and open window in the city. Havana rocks. As night falls, squares morph into outdoor restaurants with a mandatory platform for musicians. The food may be dull - it almost invariably is - but the music is magic and the variety staggering.
You can take the lift to the 25th floor of the chic, retro-'50s Hotel Tryp Habana Libre, formerly the Habana Hilton, where Castro and his boys holed up after the takeover, and you'll find a faded nightclub called Caberet Turquino featuring an all-girl band or a pop-up concert. But there are lots of other stylish venues in town too, and if you want to go really retro, head to the Tropicana.
This outdoor nightclub, set among acres of mature trees and lush gardens in the Marianao neighbourhood, is the epitome of tropical glitz and glamour. Many famous Latin and African performers graced its stage in the past, but in this egalitarian era, there are no marquee names. The showgirls are essentially the show. Dozens of them, wearing a minimum number of strategically placed sequins and a maximum amount of plumage, strut and sway across aerial ramps, up and down steep staircases to an incessant Latin beat, strafed by coloured lights and lasers while the audience, composed largely of tour groups, watch in awe. Inaugurated in 1939, the Tropicana has survived war and revolution, and every night the show goes on with a complimentary bottle of Havana Club rum included in the entry price.
Ballet is another expression of the heart and soul of Cuba. The nation now produces some of the world's most exciting and daring dancers, including the internationally acclaimed Carlos Acosta. It's not surprising when you learn that the National Ballet School, the biggest in the world, receives more than 50,000 applications annually but accepts only 4000 pupils. The flagship company, the National Ballet of Cuba, has performed to acclaim in every major world capital, and hundreds of ballet teachers have beaten a path to Havana in an attempt to discover what it is that allows Cuban ballerinas to balance effortlessly en pointe for impossibly long periods, the male dancers to leap higher and more thrillingly than their colleagues in other companies.
But the simplest way to gain an insight into Havana's passions is to take a leisurely evening stroll along some or all of the 7km stretch of the Malecón. This broad parabola of an esplanade begins at the mouth of the harbour in Old Havana and snakes around the bay all the way to Vedado. By day, locals fish from the seawall, some even venturing in for a dip, but on Friday and Saturday evenings, it heaves with promenaders, canoodling, chilling, cruising. On one side, you'll find a huge slice of sea and on the other, by way of a backdrop, a cyclorama of heritage buildings, some spruced up, some beyond rescue, victims of neglect, salt air and the occasional hurricane.
Along its length are symbols of the past, marble memorials to Cuba's greatest statesmen, others to historical events. About halfway along, on a rocky bluff towering over the landscape, is the mighty Hotel Nacional de Cuba, an enduring monument to the Mob and the days when Havana was a veritable den of iniquity.
Today, Havana is more sedate; it lacks superficial glitz. Yet its vibrant and enduring culture and its music and dance remain irrestible.