CUBA CRUISE 2019: Part 4 - More of Havana


Monday, January 7, 2019

As usual, for me, I was up very early and had a light breakfast on the deck outside Windows Cafe. There I sat looking out at the early morning, sun rising to the East. As Havana awoke so did harbor traffic became more alive

It was going to be a terrific day.















Prior to our trip we had made arrangements with a Cuban tour company, Havana Inside for private tours. We had met our guide Annalise the previous day and riden in a 1959 Ford Fairlane. This day we were scheduled to ride in a classic convertible. What would that be, an old DeSoto, a 50’s Buick, a 60’s Chevy…? Soon enough that question would be answered.

However, leaving the ship and going through the security checkpoint Penny, Stu and I ran into a bit of a debacle. Mark, on the other hand passed through without incident. Let me explain.

Visitors to Cuba are suggested to bring gifts for the Cuban people primarily because they lack or have difficulty acquiring many everyday items we take for granted. Toothpaste, tooth brushes (especially fun ones for children), pens, pencils, school supplies, guitar strings and other musical accessories, towels and sheets, feminine hygiene items, shampoo, mouthwash, kids toys, even t-shirts and jeans, all these “little” things are much appreciated by our Cuban neighbors. With all the graciousness and hospitality the Cubans extend, it is only fitting to return the kindness. All of us had packed several gifts that we intended to distribute to our guides, drivers or those who were helpful to us while in Cuba.

Back to the security check. There were many getting off the ship and going ashore, the security screening lines were long. I had my gifts in my day pack but was asked to remove the contents before sending through the scanning machine. The young woman who saw my package of items asked if they were gifts. “Yes”, I replied. "Sorry, I can’t allow that, you will need to take them back to the ship”. Whaaat? That caused a bit of confusion, but I was not alone in this development. Penny and Stu were also told to not bring the gifts onshore. Once we got our senses about us, Penny and Stu took theirs and my things back to the ship, before we could proceed. Mark, on the other hand, having gone through another checkpoint scanner, was cleared without incident. 

As we talked about it amongst ourselves afterwards, we believe we just had an employee who might have been disgruntled, or maybe jealous, and took some pleasure in us returning the gifts to the ship. Since gift giving of this sort is common, I’m sure that other tourists on the ship also were bringing things onshore. Hopefully our experience was just confined to the one person.

Once back on track, albeit with a little bit of ruffled feathers, we proceeded to meet with Annalise, our guide. There in the Plaza de San Franciso, she awaited us and thus began our second and last day touring Havana. As we proceeded down the narrow streets of Old Havana, Annalise was actively engaged in telling us more history and significance of some buildings. As we passed one building, doors open to the street, we saw and heard a little celebration occuring inside. Annalise informed us this was an elder day car center and that the residents were celebrating the 91 birthday of one of the lovely ladies. It was for us a delight to then participate and be a part of the momentous occasion. 

Whatever little annoyance we experienced at security was soon washed away after being a part of that birthday party.

Proceeding further into the old city, strolling down the narrow cobblestone streets, we approached an impressive old Cadillac convertible parked along the street, which is not out of the ordinary, after all it IS Cuba. But, when Annalise went up to the driver, it then became obvious that THIS was the convertible we were to be riding in this day. Our driver was Rainier and his magnificent car a 1955 Cadillac Eldorado. Losing no time, we hopped in, Penny and Stu up front while Annalise, Mark and I squeezed into the back seat. What a grand ride, and, this car still had it’s gasoline engine. Yep, this was gonna be a terrific day, ridin’ in style!


One of the must see places in Old Havana is the huge art market, where we had visited two years ago and bought artwork from local artists. This art market was to be our first stop. Unfortunately, every first Monday of each month, the market is closed. This was the first Monday of January. Well, OK, there were many other places we planned to see, so back on to the schedule.

Unbeknownst to us, there is a tunnel under the harbor channel that leads across to the opposite shore to the Morro Castle fortress and a colossal white marble statue of the Christ. We took that tunnel to the other shore to first visit the Cristo de la Habana statue.  This impressive statue was unveiled December 24, 1958 and on January 1, 1959 Fidel Castro entered Havana during the Cuban Revolution. With it's right hand raised and left hand closer to it’s chest, locals attest that the Christ is holding a cigar in one hand and a mojito in the other.

The statue, we were told, was commissioned by the wife of Fulgencio Batista, the Cuban dictator ousted by Castro. Apparently in an earlier overthrow attempt in the early 1950’s, Batista narrowly escaped that battle. To honor her husband’s escape, believing it devine intervention, the statue was thus conceived and sculpted.


Before departing to our next stop, the Morro Castle, we admired the variety of old cars that had brought other visitors to the statue. One thing that is very noticeable about the old cars in Cuba are their brilliant colors, which is so fitting in this tropical Caribbean environment. 


Morro Castle, having guarded the entrance to Havana harbor since the late 1500’s, is a sprawling building that has weathered storms, pirate raids and attacks by hostile foreign nations. Those days of old wooden sailing ships, have long passed into twilight apparitions, while original old cannons still project through the battlements that now, in silence, guard only against phantom ships that dare materialize and attempt to attack the fortress.

Crossing back to Havana, we drove through the city stopping at the Romeo & Juliet Cigar Company, a bright blue two story building wherein many customers, including Penny and Stu, were purchasing Cuban cigars. In addition to the cigars, there were shelves of various rums also for sale. Mark nor I bought neither.

The remainder of the morning Annalise had Rainier, our driver take us out to Revolution Square, where many government agencies are housed in the nearby buildings. Central to the square is the towering monument to the Revolution. But for the old car enthusiasts, this location was busy as a beehive with the old classics constantly coming and going. From a couple of early 30’s Ford Model A’s, a few 40’s to plenty of 50’s and 60’s Chevy’s, Dodges, Plymouths, Buicks, Cadillacs, Mercury’s, they all were there in full, colorful regalia. Newer foreign cars, most taxis, were also there, but the rainbow of old iron was definitely the focus of attention.

Cadillac passing thru-12-21-12






















The remainder of our morning consisted of driving through and by important places in Havana, including the University of Havana where we learned our guide Annalise received her medical degree. As a MD she was in General Practice but, having a son to support, found it difficult to make ends meet. That led her to change occupations, becoming a tour guide.

 

University of Havana main entrance

It was interesting to learn that from primary through university education, students wear differently colored uniforms which help identify grades or, in university the courses of study.

All along the drive Annalise informed us of a neighborhoods history, including the more affluent Vedado area. In early Cuban history the area was abundant with trees that were soon over cut. That led to a ruling that forbade more harvesting of the trees, thus “vedado” which translates to “forbidden” or "to preserve”. 

With the top down in the Eldorado, it was such a pleasant day to listen to our guide as she explained and informed us of the people and places in Havana. With unobstructed views, looking overhead, passing under the tree’s leafy canopy and up toward the blue sky, I felt very happy to be in Cuba to experience more about their culture.


As we made our way back toward Old Havana, we paid a brief visit to the famous Hotel Nationale with it’s beautiful gardens overlooking the Malecon and out to the sea. This hotel has abundant notoriety for the scores of famous (and infamous) people who stayed there over the years. Movie, stars, sheiks, presidents, mafia godfathers, gamblers and regular folks too, all have enjoyed time here. Also of note is that the hotel was attacked during a revolution in 1933, an incident that resulted in bullets being shot at the building; some of those wounds which are still visible to this day. 

Hotel Nationale gardens overlooking the ocean.


Along the Malecon, the scenic drive along Havana's oceanfront, are many old buildings that appear, outwardly, to be in various states of neglect. It was along the Malecon that we stopped for lunch at a restaurant that was our favorite during our visit in 2017 and one that we wanted Penny and Stu to experience also. Nazdarovie is a Russian restaurant with very good food and drinks, notably their Green Russians. Getting to the restaurant requires a climb up about 5 flights of stairs with several old Soviet political style posters posted on the stairwell wall which may help set the tone for entering into this Russian epicurean experience. Far from being harsh, strict or dictatorial (as I envision the old Soviet Union), the waiters and staff were genuinely amiable and gracious. Out on the balcony our table overlooked the Malecon and ocean, a red flag with the Soviet hammer and sickle ensignia flapped in the breeze. From this vantage point the views toward the newer Havana lie in one direction while opposite that is the view of the ancient Morro Castle fortress. Here one can see cruise ships as they either enter or depart the harbor, while looking down upon the street, it offers a unique perspective of the classic cars as they cruise along the byway.

We ordered beef stroganoff, Chicken Kiev and lamb ravioli for our meal, but of course, we started with the noted Green Russians all around. Alcohol and atmosphere soon had us all in very chipper dispositions. Nikolashka, our waiter was attentive and fun. We learned he was from Russia originally and who spoke English quite well. After our meal Nikolashka suggested a special drink to aid our digestion, whereupon he brought each of us a shot of vodka served on a saucer accompanied with a thin lime slice, a smidgen of sugar and a similar portion of ground coffee. We were instucted to take the thin slice of lime, dip one side in the sugar, the other side in the ground coffee, eat the thus coated lime followed by shooting the vodka chaser. Whether or not it aided in digestion, I cannot say. But it was FUN nevertheless. With Nikolashka’s kindness in mind, I felt he would be a perfect recipient of some of the gifts I had brought with me. Sizing him up, I figured he was about the same build as I, and so, presented him with a pair of blue jeans and a t-shirt. It was good to offer my gratitude for that which he presented to us.

Being a tad bit lightheaded, we gingerly maneuvered down the long stairway, and then were soon back in the Eldorado for a short ride back to the docks by 2 pm. 

After a bit of rest we were up on deck as the ship set sail at 4 pm. With fond farewell, we slowly sailed out into the ocean. The city, backdropped with heavy storm clouds and a setting sun, slowly diminished from view. In due time and dwindling light all sight of land had vanished. 

With the high seas before us, we sailed into the night. Ahead, Cuba beckoned us to discover more of it’s land and people.


Annalise-05-20-20




                            Annalise, our Havana Guide





Other views around Havana:


                    Looking down upon the Malecon from the balcony of Nazdarovie Russian Restaurant


                                      Is that Bette Davis?






Old bldg/porticos-05-48-54













Throughout Cuba are buildings like these, but take notice of the porticos. Those covered walkways served a purpose; to keep out of the hot tropical sun and to protect against the rain.


Shipboard photos:





















The Living Room, one of the lounge and bar areas on the Azamara Journey. We spent many afternoons there.

                                                                  The Library, a quiet place to get away.


                                                                     Sunset aboard the Azamara Journey


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