Saturday, February 23, 2013

Cuba February 23 and 24 Miami to Habana

Saturday, February 23 

We went to Cuba with the University of Washington Botanic Gardens on a group led by garden director Dr. Sarah Reichard.  The trip was in association with the Cuba/US People to People Partnership of the Fund for Reconciliation and Development.   We were a group of fourteen very agreeable people from Washington State, Alaska, upstate New York and Philadelphia  


Cuban-Americans checking in huge poly-wrapped baggage at MIA
Cuban-Americans checking in huge poly-wrapped baggage at MIA
We flew to Miami Friday evening, March 22 and stayed at the very comfortable Sheraton Miami Airport Hotel, and a good thing, for we had to gather as a group at 4:30am to organize for our 45-minute flight to Cuba. Though flights to Cuba take off on a regular schedule, they are all “charter” flights, one of the many quirks brought about by the embargo. The most notable thing about our gathering and waiting around at the airport was seeing large amounts of luggage and boxes being poly wrapped for the baggage hold. A lot of things we take for granted just aren’t to be found in Cuba, so Cubans gets friends and relatives to purchase the needed items in the US, and bring them on one of the “charters.”
 
Welcome to Habana! the Jose Marti International Airport
Welcome to Habana! the Jose Marti International Airport
The arrival hall at the Havana airport was small, and after clearing customs, without
any problems, we were met by our guide, Yuli.  We had been envisioning a “Government Minder” on this trip, and though Yuli, like 80% of Cubans, is employed by the Cuban government, as time passed we thought she was fairly frank with us about life in Cuba.  
Our guide, Yuli
Our guide, Yuli
 Yuli is about 23, an English language graduate of the University of Habana who went on to do tour guide training.  In addition to diplomatic level English, she also spoke French, though not as well. Our group was into botany, and she was excellent translating the new scientific words she learned from our speakers.  She was so peasant and had a wide collection of smiles and laughs.





We are not "group-tour" travelers, but it sure was nice to have a competent guide, driver and bus so that we could just sit back enjoy the scenery.  Yuli and our driver Abel loaded us into a smallish Chinese-made bus and took us to our hotel.  Our eyes were agog with on the ride into Habana, seeing the vintage cars and  crumbling architecture!  


Joan, Margie, Julian, Ted, Dianne & Sarah enjoying a "welcome" mojito
Joan, Margie, Julian, Ted, Dianne & Sarah enjoying a "welcome" mojito.
 Palacio de San Felipe, right on the Plaza de San Francisco in the center of Habana Vieja, the old part of town.  In the open-air hotel courtyard we enjoyed a fabulous mojito as our "welcome drink," probably the best mojitos we had on the entire trip! 
 
La Imprenta restaurant with its attractive fern-filled courtyard
La Imprenta restaurant with its attractive fern-filled courtyard

It was early, so we dropped off our bags, and Yuli walked us around the corner to La Imprenta Restaurant, one of the best government-run restaurants where we had a delicious lunch.  In the restored 19th century printing house of La Habanera newspaper printing office, the restaurant has a sunken fern garden, exposed old wall paintings, an old printing press and the tables and chairs are letters of the alphabet and numbers. There are even current newspapers for guests to read.   Lunch included a delicious pumpkin soup, and guava sorbet for dessert, one of the nicer meals we had, and a great start to our visit to Cuba!
 

Pork with rice and green salad at La Imprenta in Habana Vieja
Pork with rice and green salad at La Imprenta in Habana Vieja
A side note about restaurants:  Cuba is now allowing some small private restaurants called paladars to open, usually just in a home, but like La Imprenta, most of the restaurants where we ate were government-run.  These restaurants are fine, and there are some nice features, such as mostly live music, but our servers, obviously government employees, simply asked us “pork, chicken, or fish?” Take it or leave it, nothing about the preparation, style or sides.   The food was bland with just a little variation between restaurants--sort of like going to the Pennsylvania State Store to buy wine.  Of course some of this has to do with the fact that we are a group; we saw menus with more interesting (and of course expensive items) offered to non-group guests.
Cerveza Cristal (light) and Bucanero Fuerte (dark) Cuban beer
Cerveza Cristal (light) and Bucanero Fuerte (dark) Cuban beer

At lunch, Dane quickly learned that in Cuba there are two styles of beer, light and dark., Cristal and Bucanero.  Now, dark beer in Cuba is be closer to light amber anywhere else, certainly not what most people think of as a dark beer.  In a blind tasting, most wouldn’t be able to tell much difference, though Dane said the “dark” was a little more malty, and the light had a nice crisp hops balance.  This information is just in case you are interested, which most aren’t, but you know Dane. 

 
Our lovely hotel was right on one of the three large open spaces in Habana Viejo, Plaza San Francisco, which is separated from the water of the Bay of Habana by some customs and docks administration buildings and at the southern end is the Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco (built 1608, rebuilt in baroque style in 1738).
Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco, Habana Viejo, Cuba
Iglesia y Monasterio de San Francisco
Interestingly for Joan, who grew up in Southern California, there was a statue of Father Junipero Serra out front.  Apparently he ministered in Cuba before he went to California to found the famous missions there. 



Street artists on stilts dancing and playing music for the visitors in Habana Vieja. Note the lady in the foreground selling small triangles of puff paste filled with guava jam.
Street artists on stilts dancing and playing music for the visitors in Habana Vieja. Note the lady in the foreground selling small triangles of puff paste filled with guava jam.
Yuli gave us a short walking tour of Habana Vieja around the streets near our hotel, which were bustling.  Artists of all sorts abound in Cuba.   It was fun seeing the street performers dancing on stilts. 
 
We saw vendors selling all sorts of street food from paper cones filled with peanuts to churros to fritters-small triangles of puff pastry filled with things like guava jam.  Later on we even tried the chicharrones or fried pork rinds.  Deliciouso!

Street food vendor in Habana Vieja
Street food vendor in Habana
 
 
 
 

A street artist sketches our travel companion Virginia
A street artist sketches our travel companion Virginia
There were also sketch artists who were willing and ready to do a fairly good likeness, Serious artists receive a very modest government salary to improve and practice their art and music, then get to keep a lot of the proceeds from sales.  It definitely sets the tone for a very interesting tourist economy.  
 
View from the rooftop bar of Ambos Mundos in Old Havana
View from the rooftop bar of Ambos Mundos in Old Havana
Toasting with mojoitos at Ambos Mundos rooftop bar
Toasting with mojoitos at Ambos Mundos rooftop bar
Of course after having tasted one mojito, we had to try more.  With our new friend Virginia from our group, and our Philadelphia friends Ted & Dianne  and Ted's sister and husband Nora and Bill from Plattsburgh, NY, we found our way back to Ambos Mundos which was one of Hemmingway's haunts while he was in Cuba.  (We learned that like "Washington Slept Here", "Hemmingway Drank Here" is a common publicity line in Cuba!  Well Ambos Mundos (Both Worlds) didn't disappoint!  They had a wonderful rooftop bar where we enjoyed some more Cuban libations and fabulous views over the rooftops of Old Havana. 
 
 
 
 
 
Fish entrée at San Felipe Restaurant
Fish entrée at San Felipe Restaurant


That evening we had a very nice dinner at our hotel's San Felipe Restaurant, with a delicious soup, attractively presented fish, and helado, (ice cream) for dessert.  Hotel San Filipe is one of the most upscale hotels in Habana Vieja we decided, and we were delighted to be able to stay there.   
 
Dancers at Opera de la Calle in El Cabildo, Havana, Cuba
Dancers at Opera de la Calle
Then we boarded our bus to visit a very interesting place:  Opera de la Calle, at El Cabildo, a restaurant and company formed in the spirit of the revolution by one of Cuba’s best known baritones, Ulises Aquino.  He cleaned up a vacant, trash strewn lot to build a restaurant and cabaret.  It was a big hit, but didn’t last a year.  The authorities interrupted a show, held a surprise inspection, and shut down the restaurant portion on a number of technicalities.  One of the charges was his “personal enrichment: he charges a $2 cover charge.  No hearings, no appeals, Aquino blames mid-level bureaucrats.  Raul Castro himself told Cubans in a recent speech that bureaucrats stand in the way of change, but Aquino pushed too many of the bureaucratic buttons and 130 jobs went poof.  Luckily for us, the cabaret survived, and we had quite an exciting show.
 
 

Sunday, February 24


Omelet with cheese and chorizo at Palacio de San Felipe
Omelet with cheese and chorizo at Palacio de San Felipe
Havana's Cathedral of the Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception
 
After a delicious and beautifully presented breakfast at Palacio de San Felipe including a fruit tart and an omelet with cheese and chorizo,  we had time for a quick stroll to the Plaza de la Catedral where we visited the Catedral de la Virgen Maria Maria de la Concepcion Inmaculada de La Habana (Cathedral of The Virgin Mary of the Immaculate Conception). An asymmetrical Baroque style confection, it has been described as "Music Set in Stone".  We were fortunate to be allowed inside just before Sunday Mass began so we could enjoy the beautiful interior as well.  
Beautiful carrots grown at the Organic Farm Vivero Alamar  near Havana
Beautiful carrots grown at the Organic Farm Vivero Alamar  near Havana
Rows of lettuces and mint at the organic farm
Rows of lettuces and mint at the organic farm
 
 
 
 
 
 We boarded our little bus and went to visit a cooperative organic farm, Organoponico Vivero Alamar, where one of the managers, Nancy Romero, showed us around. Cubans have developed organic farming to a high art, in part due to necessity – chemical fertilizers are hard to come by since the “Special Period” occasioned by the collapse of the USSR and the stopping of it’s financial support to Cuba.    We saw impressive use of worms. About 160 people work on this farm, and they seem to be doing very well, producing food which they sell to the neighborhood residents and mint which the sell to the restaurants in Habana. It was fun to hear the salsa music floating over the fields from the nearby housing on a Sunday afternoon-music was everywhere in Cuba we were to discover!



Kissing Swans Towel Art at Hotel San Felipe
Kissing Swans Towel Art at Hotel San Felipe
 
 
 
 
We returned to Habana Vieja and found that our beds had been beautifully made.  In Cuba they practice "towel sculpture".  
This time it was two beautiful swans, but we also were treated to hearts and elephants on other occasions. 
 
Cheese with guava  Sauce for dessert
Cheese with guava  Sauce for dessert
We had another delicious and music-filled lunch at El Meson de la Flota, just around the corner from our hotel in Vieja Habana.  Black bean soup, shrimp in a spicy sauce, and for dessert an interesting combination of a slice of white cheese with a pink guava sauce.  Bucanero beer made it all go down even better.  (Yes, it was weird, but sorta tasty.) 
 
 
After lunch we had a meeting with Dr. Carlos Alzugaray, a former Cuban diplomat,
Dr. Carlos  Alzugaray telling us about the "state of Cuba"
Dr. Carlos  Alzugaray telling us about the "state of Cuba" 
 
who gave us a very good talk on the state of the state, so to speak.  This was the day before Raul Castro was re-elected First Secretary of the Communist Party, but Dr. Alzugaray gave us his thoughts on Raul’s hinting he might not to serve another term and discussed possible successors – we wished we had heard him the next day, after the election, when he could have told us more about the succession possibilities.
After our talk with Dr. Alzugaray,  with the help of Steve, one of our intrepid fellow travelers, the gentlemen in the group found a great smoky little cigar shop tucked away in a courtyard. of the Hotel Conde de Villanueva. 
Stairs up to the Casa de Habano Cigar Shop at the Hotel Conde de Villanueva
Stairs up to the Casa de Habano Cigar Shop
 
Dane enjoying a Cuban cigar and beer
Dane enjoying a Cuban cigar and beer
David, Cynthia, Pam, Sarah, Steve (partial) and Dane in Plaza Vieja enjoying Cuban cigars and beer
David, Cynthia, Pam, Sarah, Steve (partial) and Dane in Plaza Vieja
Joan gracefully declined to go in, but it should be noted that women do smoke cigars in Cuba.


Nora enjoying a Cuban cigar
Nora enjoying a Cuban cigar
 Cuban cigars in hand, we went a wandering off to Plaza Vieja, where Dane had spied a brewpub (imagine that!?) Factoria de Cervesas y Maltas, where, out in the open, the powers that be allowed the boys to light up.  “We just wanted to see how cigars go with beer." The answer is that they go better with 15 year-old rum.  The beer however was fairly good, better than the bottled light and dark stuff.  As is usual, there was a small combo playing at the café.
 
 
A restored street in Old Havana
A restored street in Old Havana
We wandered through the streets back to the hotel.  Occasionally one would see a little fenced in area, with a view below the street into the old workings which made for a more interesting walk.  Apparently, someone has convinced the government into channeling a lot of the old town tourism revenues back into the district, so we say a lot of restoration going on (with much more needed). 


Faded grandeur of La Guardia Restaurant entrance in Havana, Cuba
Faded grandeur of La Guardia Restaurant entrance in Havana, Cuba
That evening we went to one of the most interesting restaurants we enjoyed on our visit to Cuba.  But first, a word about “faded grandeur”. We saw a lot of faded grandeur in New Orleans, where they have taken it to a new art form, sometimes actually restoring things to this state.  In Cuba, the economy is the primary artist of this movement.  We hope they don’t over-restore their grand buildings, for sometimes, as New Orleans has shown, it is nice to allow the signs of elegant wear to exist.  Preservationists of the Old West ghost towns will know exactly what we mean – you don’t always want to restore to bright spit ‘n polish.  Allow buildings to gracefully show their age.


So, back to our restaurant. Paladar La Guarida is one the top floor of three story building that from the street looks very down on its luck.  To get up to the restaurant, we climbed two flights of marble stairs through what could be called tidied-up ruins.  The stairs and common areas probably haven’t seen much love since Mr. Batista left town. On the first two floors are apartments which looked very basic and a ballroom.   The faded grandeur belies the fact that the residents of the apartments live in abject poverty. http://www.laguarida.com/en/ 

The restaurant itself is faded, but in a fabulous way. The food was excellent, as good as some of Philadelphia’s better restaurants.  We enjoyed an amuse bouche of a fried croquette of something delicious, followed by strawberry soup, seafood lasagna, rabbit, seafood curry, chocolate tart and rum.  The side dishes included "Moors and Christians" (rice and black beans) and fried sweet potatoes.  
Dane's delicious seafood lasagna at Paladar La Guarida
Dane's delicious seafood lasagna at Paladar La Guarida
 
Unlike many of the other government-run restaurants where we ate, including the hotels, this  was a paladar, meaning a private restaurant.  It started out small, but grew.  It has been allowed to become very successful, and was used in the shooting of the film Fresa y Chocolate (Strawberries and Chocolate--available on Netflix).  Perhaps this is what Raul Castro is trying to create with his move to allow small entrepreneurs.  In this case it has worked beautifully.  We are certainly glad we saw if before the stairs and common area is fixed up-we loved the "faded grandeur."






2 comments:

  1. This was wonderful--it made me feel like I was there all over again. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Us too, Virginia, as we're going through our pictures and notes and writing. It was such a pleasure to travel with you! Stay tuned as we get to the rest of the trip.

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