Havana is a city which is very much alive. Like the other cities that leave their mark on you forever – Paris, New York, London, Moscow, – it is a city of contrasts. Buildings of breathtaking architecture falling apart. People on the street, asking sincerely whether you like their city. Classic designs in brightest colors ever invented, gorgeous antiques in palace-like apartments where rooms are rented at 50 EUR per night. Family details, left for tourists to observe, share and make part of their own story. Pictures on the walls with the owner’s father energetically shaking hands with every political leader of the last century, from Fidel to Nixon. Smiling triumphantly, full of confidence and national pride. Tiny pizza stores, where you as a tourist you can still buy food in local currency (and at local prices), seller helping you out sort out CUCs and pesos. A very honest city. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was right when he said that Havana had been and remained one of the most beautiful cities of Earth.
You can love Havana or hate it, what you absolutely can’t do is stay indifferent to this city. I had heard many contrasting opinions before I went, from astonishing delight of people comparing it to Paris and Rome, to bitter analogy with St Petersburg of the 1990s, the early days of post-communism in Russia when classic architecture, food supply and confidence in tomorrow were all falling apart.
Communism is still strong in Havana but it doesn’t have this larger than life feeling it had in the Soviet Union I remember. As I wrote in 10 Facts About Cuba You Did Not Know, adherence to communism was more of a forced choice for Cubans and has never been absolute. Love for Cuba, on the other hand, was – and still remains the dominant feeling on the island, in Havana as well. Love for the country was the link between the Cubans and their leader and kept Fidel popular for 64 years (and still popular even after his death). His secret? Even though Castro controlled all of the important decisions in the country’s life, the revolutionary genius made Cubans part of them. For example, once a Mexican president was not sure whether to invite Fidel or not to the event with the other political leaders. In the telephone conversation, which Fidel had recorded and later played on the national television (I love the term, as if Cuba ever had any other television), he told the Cuban President to show up to the earlier part of the reception, quickly eat and then tactfully disappear before the American politicians arrive. Did Fidel do it? Absolutely not. And his country backed him up, every one of them. This national unity is still felt on the streets of Havana.
And at the same time, Havana was the last city that fell for Fidel and his movement of 26th of July. While Cuba was suffering under the endless Batista rule, its capital flourished. Those close to power could always enjoy the perks of the Olympus, and Havana was offering plenty at the time. Generous support of the U.S. to maintain the political power they could control together with more than generous cash flows from the Miami gangsters turning Cuba into the land where all illegal dreams come true, created a privileged class. A class enjoying the wonders of the imperial world, a class building new Havana and effectively shifting the city center towards Malecon with its pompous hotels and casinos. A class nourished by politics, vice and entertainment, dancing the nights away and living the life just 10 min car ride away from the Old City with its colonial good manners, Art Deco and antiques. Havana was a city of contrasts already then.
I let the pictures of Havana speak for this city, each capturing one of the million things that makes it city so magically special. Each telling a part of its story.
Sunset at El Morro. Havana, Cuba
So, what to do in this spirited city full of history and magic? My top list:
- Of course, exploring Havana Vieja
- Taking a classic car tour
- Walking down Prado
- Strolling through all the 8 km of Malecon Pier
- Being mesmerized by the sunset at El Morro Fortress
- Paying dues at the Christopher Columbus Cemetry (Cemetario de Colon)
- Getting to know the Cuban version of the history at the Museum of the Revolution
Why? Keep on reading.