Sea and The City: Le Malecon and El Morro

The city is still Havana, of course. My fascination with the Cuban capital continues far beyond my trip there end of last year. As I am going through the pictures I took at Le Malecon, the 8 km of tamed seaside, I see it again: spacious, wild and free. The sea plays such an important role in Havana’s history: the city owns its very existence to it. Grateful, Havana leans towards the sea. The real heart of the city – and it’s center – is here, with its night bars and breakfast cafĂ©s, Internet hot spots, parades and magnificent built at scale hotels, reviving the glorious images 30s when Havana was the mafia heaven.

Today Malecon is for everyone: Havana locals come here to sunbathe, swim, fish (birds do as well), play music and kiss on the parapet. Tourists flock for the stunning panoramas of the city (and for a morning run, a notion that remains foreign to most Cubans). I walked all the 8 km of Malecon and that made me feel part of this city, tune to its rhythm and want to stay more.

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Le Malecon pier in Havana, Cuba

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Weekly Photo Challenge: A Good Match

The theme of this week’s photo challenge is A Good Match. I was first thinking about all the combinations of things we get used to in our daily lives, like coffee and milk (even though I only have my coffee black), whisky and cigars (saw that in the movies), salt and pepper, and all other sugar and spice. Anchoring is strong in human mind, once the author of the photo challenge gives a food example, you can’t help but think along the same lines.

And then I thought, life has far more wisdom than we do – especially when it comes matching. Life creates couples.

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A romantic painting on the wall of La Boca neightbourhood of Buenos Aires, Argentina

I came across this wall painting in quite a dodgy area of Buenos Aires (one step away from colorful touristic Caminito, and La Boca feels borderline safe). One look at this, and all the imperfections of the neighborhood stopped to exist (along with safety considerations). I stood there for a moment, impressed by this human creation – and by life that had inspired it. Then I moved on, but my day was marked but something kind, beautiful, authentic and unique – by something magical.

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Havana: Winds of Communism and Love

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.

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Prepared to explore Havana, Cuba on my first morning there: thrilled, untanned, not sure what to expect

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.

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Colonia del Sacramento, Uruguay: Latam 2016 Last Stop and Highlights

Colonia del Sacramento in Uruguay was the last destination of our Latam 2016 trip. To be completely honest, we chose it for three reasons: 1) we were nearby, 50 km across the Narrow Sea; 2) we had never been to Uruguay (and did not exactly see ourselves coming back to Latin America just to visit it) and 3) visiting three countries on a new continent did sound exciting. Plus, Colonia del Sacramento is listed as UNESCO heritage, travelers’ photos were gorgeous, so it all got us fired up to go.

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Was it a good idea?..

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Buenos Aires, Last Chapter: La Recoleta

I left the last, my favorite, piece of Buenos Aires for last. The most attentive of you have noticed that missing from my sight’s list from the last post is La Recoleta, the famous cemetery of the Argentinian capital. I am not a big fan of cemeteries, to put it mildly. I was always accelerating to pass the one close to my house in St Petersburg, changed route to avoid the green spaces of Munich cemeteries and even in Paris, made it to the famous Père Lachaise only when my history-obsessed friend Ele came to visit (which was a great experience: our quest for the tomb is Sextoy was epic). I could never get how people find peace walking in the cemeteries, or jogging there, or doing yoga (seen in Munich), or walking their dogs. For me, so many things are wrong about it.

Yet there is something about La Recoleta that makes you feel very fine with the concept. It does not feel like a cemetery, in fact. Located in a middle of a well off Recoleta neighborhood, it looks more like an endless gallery of the most fine European art, exposed along symmetrically perfect alleys under the gorgeous blue summer sky. And given that most of the monuments and tomb construction materials were brought here from Paris and Milan in the 1880 -1930s, it is no wonder that the place is comforting: everything familiar is. But most of all, it really does not look like a cemetery. Well, not exactly, not how you would picture one.

See it for yourself.

 

So what’s the story of this place?

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Buenos Aires: Caminito

You would think that Buenos Aires would be somewhat similar to Rio, because both are big cities in Latin America (at least, I did). But shame on me and on my chronic lack of preparation for trips, there could not be two more different cities! So now when you know what Rio is like, you can easily make up what Buenos Aires is not: picturesque, spectacular and breath-taking. It certainly is not a love at first sight. However, once you get to know Buenos Aires, it results in some serious attachment. If Rio is an amazing place to visit, take pictures and tell you kids all about it, Buenos Aires is more a city to live in. 

Caminito is probably the most photographed area of Buenos Aires. A part of a poor La Boca neighbourhood, it is a splash of bright lively colors, in a stunning contrast to a gloomy (and a bit dodgy, really) surroundings. There are many stories about Caminito’s origin, and the one I like the most is about the Italians. Buenos Aires became a meaningful city in 1880s, when as many as 6 million foreign immigrants poured into it. Many were Italians, and many were from the port of Genoa. Italians like familiar things, so they stayed at the port of La Boca. To add some colors to the place, they used whatever they could get their hands on, namely shipwreck, container leftovers and some paint.

And they did add a lot of colors: look at Caminito now! Personally, I like that.

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Rio: Why Love It and How to Handle

The year I was turning 30 I had no regrets but one: not having some extra 2-3 years to live in Brazil. 20s are great for many things and freedom of flirting with cities, cultures and possibilities, is one of them. 30s, at least in my head, are more a time for responsible decisions: decisions that shape your future. I could, of course, live everywhere I wanted, but the costs now were too high: trading off post-MBA job options, throwing away some precious years of EU residence track (yet again). So I did not go live in Rio. We call is strategy. And, sometimes, discipline. The dreams though continue to live inside of us, showing us images, calling us to places. For me, Rio was such a dream. And if I could not live there, at the very least I could visit.

Rio was the main goal of our spontaneous trip to Latin America with Louveteau. It was everything I dreamt about and more. Rio is so many different things. It is very rough but very true. Very green and very psychotic in terms of the weather. It is the city of contrasts: posh houses of the last wave of economic success next to favelas, homes of no one, which officially do not even exist. One moment it is sunny, with music, laughter everywhere and life flowing to the beach, and then suddenly there is a thunderstorm, a pouring rain, and the city is completely deserted. People of Rio are like that, as well. Many don’t have much but offer a lot, and many take what (they think) is their by the law which precedes any civilized legal system.

I could write volumes on Rio, and yet it would not be enough to convey all of its faces, its moods and its magic. You should probably be born in Rio to breathe in unison with it. As its guest, you could only go as far as falling in love with it.

So, falling in love with Rio is not really an option. What about handling it?

Rio was a rare case, for me in the last years, of well researching a place before going there. I read tourist guides, forums, blogs. I asked around. In the end, I had a hand selection of things I wanted to do: those that were ranked top by millions of people I have never met and a few recommended by friends whose opinion I trusted. Here is what I picked from all this.

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