Standing on a freezing train platform waiting for a connection to the airport for my flight to Cuba there were the usual London commuters, and a handful of people shivering in light travel clothes. At the airport the man standing in line next to me had a bag of six fat novels, obviously planning to spend a lot of time on the beach.
Within eight hours we were flying over the Caribbean and looking down at water so clear I could see the sea bed with turquoise swirls and fringes of brilliant white sand. A few boats and cloud shadows were the only blemishes. Soon we would be in Cuba.
Almost the first thing I saw as I stepped out of the taxi on the edge of Havana Vieja was an incredible 1950s classic car. Unlike many I saw on Cuba’s roads this one had been restored to gleaming gorgeousness. And lined up next to it? A Soviet-times Lada taxi, a modern van and a cyclo. What an image of Cuban contrasts. The cyclotaxis are so old and battered it seems a miracle they still hang together; like the old cars they are a testament to dedicated maintenance work by Cubans.
The state of the architecture in the old city is no less varied. Around Plaza Vieja the buildings have mostly been restored. Standing in the gracious square there are just two buildings that are still ribboned with peeling paint and vines. A woman watched the scene below from a rickety balcony. But further away from the tourist area the buildings are half falling down.
The best way to eat out in Havana is at a paladar – a home-run restaurant – and we visited a few during our time there. At the first one our host Amarylis kept us entertained with impromptu dancing while we waited for the delicious pollo mulato with fried plantains.
Havana is full of unexpected islands of greenery: little plazas deeply shaded by Flame Trees and Morton Bay Figs. People sit down at lunch time over a guitar and a political debate.
I had to tick off a few Hemingway connections, in particular a visit to the Ambos Mundo hotel where he stayed regularly – glorious in rose pink with fountains in the lobby. We visited the rooftop bar on a number of occasions. Views over the red tiled roofs to the giant carbuncle of the cathedral.
As we lunch at the Taberna Muralla, sipping beer from the boutique brewery inside, strings of shiny-faced school children pass by, wearing scarves around their necks and bright attention on their faces. Their feet always ready to throw a quick salsa move as they pass the band entertaining diners.
In the Museum of the Revolution we see the shoes and hats and blood-stained uniforms of blood stained uniforms. Economic and political issues are complex but it is clear there is still a lot of respect for those times that is far more than pure nostalgia.
Afternoons are oppressively hot in Havana – time to laze around listening to a lazy trumpet playing in a nearby street and insistent drums further away.
When the heat has retreated a little it is time for a walk along the Malecon – Havana’s historic seawall that stretches in a long curve form the El Morro fortress. Boys and men with fishing rods sit patiently and Atlantic waves fly high as they crash against the weathered stone walls.
A few days away experiencing the beautiful former-colonial town of Trinidad and it was back to Havana for the final nights. Our mission? To find the best mojito in Havana on a Cuban bar crawl. Well, at least we had fun in the attempt.
By Natasha von Geldern