Day 10: Havana–City of Contrasts

Thur. 23rd August 2012

It was time to say goodbye to our new friends as the Exodus tour group was due to fly back to the UK this evening. However, before they did there was time to do some sightseeing in Havana and see some more of this fascinating city and more of the its contrasts . What a city this must have been in the ‘50s and ‘60s or in colonial times.

It was another excellent day but we were still left with a feeling that there was still more to see and do. I think that if it was us that was flying home today, I would be frustrated that there was still so much more to see and to understand about Cuba generally and Havana in particular. (If any of the Exodus group do read this, please add a comment to let me know if this is right or not – we are certainly looking forward to sharing some photos with you all).Panoramic view of Plaza de la Revolucion

There's no getting away from Che!First stop was the Plaza de la Revolucion, described in our guidebook as being like a giant car park – which I guess when it isn’t used by crowds lining up to listen to a 4hr speech from Fidel is probably its main use. The above panoramic photo doesn’t really do it justice – the government  building with the giant sculpture of Che on it is at the extreme right hand side of the panorama. There is also a (17m)  statue of another local hero, Jose Marti in front of the large tower (left side of the panorama).

After that it was back in the coach for a drive along the Malecon (the famous boulevard along the sea front – another place that we want to come back and see more of) before heading into Havana Vieja again. Freddy again played the role of the guide and told us more of the history of Havana and Cubans as he showed us around. He managed to conjure up a surprise around almost every corner.

Plaza Vieja is a good example and the centre of the reconstruction efforts. This is a stunning square with Renovation in Plaza Viejabuildings fully restored and facades as they were originally. We were shown some before and after photos and it is hard to imagine how anyone could have been living in what looked to be mere skeletons of buildings. Freddy explained that as part of the renovation project, some families needed to be resettled and were offered apartments in tower blocks. Initially, most families wanted to move out however, as the renovation proceeded and the people saw that not only were the new buildings so much better, but tourists (and hence their money) were also drawn in. Now more people want to stay – and so did we!

Other surprises included the train station (Estacion Central de Ferrocarril) which was a magnificent building – at least on the outside. Inside was a seething throng, most of whom seemed to be either queuing for tickets or sitting watching football on TV. There didn’t seem to be much train action happening (as we had been warned) and as for how you would go about finding out what time and what platform a train went from, well that seemed to be a bit of a mystery.

Overall, it was good to know that there was a renovation plan and we were left wanting to see more and in the case of the Daiquiris at the Floridita – allegedly Cuba’s best and Hemmingway’s favourite – to taste more.

1940s Buick, in immaculate conditionIt was then time to say goodbye to Freddy and the others – thank you so much for being such lovely people. We were dropped off close to our casa particular and it was time to pick up our backpacks and walk the few blocks to our B&B for the night. We were greeted by several flights of stairs and then more warmly by Isabel the landlady. Thank goodness for our Rosetta Stone lessons as she spoke no English.

Our casa, was right by Parque Central and its eponymous hotel – one of the grandest in Havana and a distinct contrast from our lodgings. It did however have WiFi internet access and so we were able to do a little bit of a catch up with new, email and our blog. Whilst we were grateful for the Internet access (at 8CUCs = £5 per hour), we wouldn’t have swapped. Our casa is simple but clean and comfortable and we are happy to use this as a base when we return to Havana in a week or so.Flamenco dancing at our restaurant

You can’t walk anywhere in Havana (or Cuba) without someone approaching you to suggest their taxi or restaurant and so that evening we succumbed to one that advertised Flamenco dancing that evening. It turned out that this was to modern rather than traditional music (if you can call Stairway to Heaven modern). It all made for a good first evening under our own steam.

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