Havana - Where History Abounds

Chapter 6 - Thursday, February 23, 2017

                                                                                        We were in for a busy day! 

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Bellies full with our breakfasts, we headed back to Old Havana area again where we explored a couple of public squares and where we learned more of the city’s history, including about buildings around the squares, churches, fountains and more.

Starting at Plaza de San Francisco de Asís, dating back to the 1500’s, this plaza is near the harbor and where a market once thrived in addition to the church built in 1608. The market was moved to Plaza Vieja (not far away) when the pious monks complained about the noise. Other notable buildings surround the square which also has the Fountain of Lions (Fuente de los Leones). At the opposite end of the plaza was a modern sculpture, La Conversación. 










Plaza de San Francisco de Asís

Nearby we were introduced to El Caballero de París, the sculpture/statue of a well-known street person who roamed Havana during the 1950s, engaging passersby with his philosophies on life, religion, politics and current events. Commonly held belief is that the old fella was a bit “touched”. It is rumored that if you now touch the old man (statue) it will bring you luck. By the looks of the worn spots on the old guy, he has been touched frequently. 

 

Evesdropping on "Le Conversación"

On the streets next to the plaza there were many, many old car taxis in use or waiting to be hired. They were colorful and distinctive, both the ones parked and those passing by on the street. It was fun to see them and try to identify all the various makes. 


Little yellow and green Coco Taxis were seen buzzing about also.


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Stunning Pontiac and Mercury at Revolution Square in Havana, Cuba

Along a side street from the plaza, we walked a short distance to the Plaza de Armas, just as a group of school children were leaving a museum. As their teachers guided them, they very orderly walked across to the park and sat together enjoying each other and their lunches. Animated and happy, the kids were having a wonderful time.

The Plaza de Armas is well known for its’ open air book market where almost every book written about the Cuban Revolution was for sale. 

Additionally there were many other collectible items offered as in any flea market, such as coins, broaches, posters, pins and the one thing that John wanted most - license plates. He collects them and he hit pay dirt with a good selection of Cuban plates which he bought.


 

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But, just across from this park, we saw an incredibly colorful display of vintage cars, all convertbiles. These too were for hire, but it appeared more people were interested in looking than getting rides. As is the case with most of these old cars, modifications have been made. Name plates on some may be incorrect, interiors not original, tape or CD players and some other “modern” touches installed. Most have been converted to diesel engines.


In contrast to the brightly painted cars were a row of horse drawn carriages also waiting for fares. There was a lot of activity all around, in the park and outside where we enjoyed inspecting the cars.

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Our visit to Cuba was not all about cars. This was primarily an educational, people to people trip. Matt had already shown us some of the outlying life near Matanzas, with traditional Cuban music and song, hospitality, food and sharing friendships. 


Matt had another special meeting arranged for us, but this time not out of the city. He had befriended a singing group that has developed quite a reputation in and outside of Cuba who were to perform a private concert for us. The performance was not to be in a concert hall or auditorium, rather it was in one of the member’s high rise apartments. 

Matt joins the women’s choir, Ensemble Vocal Luna, singing “Java Jive"

The group, Ensemble Vocal Luna, is an all women’s choral group of 14 singers with middle and upper levels of musical education. Their varied repertoire includes a wide variety of composers, styles, and genres of world and Cuban music. They have participated in several internation events and shared the stage with important Cuban and international choirs.

This was a real treat to be able to sit in the living room and listen to their music and stories (translated through Matt and Raul). All but one song were sung in Spanish. “Java Jive” they sang in English accompanied by Matt.What a great feeling to have been invited into this home and for them to share their talent with us. Wouldn’t it be nice if leaders in this world could get together like this and then try to find common ground on which to build peaceful relations?

Before leaving, we enjoyed the views that looked out toward the ocean and, after leaving, walked across the street for lunch at a small boutique restaurant, Noah’s Ark. 

Back across the street, two Chevy’s awaited to transport us to our next destination, the restoration shop  Nostalgicar.

 







There we met the owners Julio and his wife. We learned that Julio primarily restores 50’s Chevrolets in this shop, up to 1960. He had been invited to the US several years ago and met with several government officials who had heard of his work in Cuba. Initially he hated the work ethic in the US, where people worked so much they had little time to spare for family. However, after several visits and working with US companies like NAPA, he soon found himself in that same boat of work, work, work. He jokingly told us he is a capitalist in communist Cuba. His small staff work their magic on cars without the aid of more sophisicated equipment, much work done by hammering and forming a piece by hand. He believes in restoring to original specs, including keeping standard gasoline engines. If one sees a well restored Chevy in Cuba, it probably was done in Julio’s shop. 

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There is a website that tells more, but he did tell us how the name Nostalgicar came about. Apparently Susan Sarandon, actress, was riding in one of his restored Chevy’s and he asked her what came to her mind while enjoying the ride. She thought for a moment and replied “nostalgia”. And so Julio and his wife ran with that and created a memorable nameplate for their business - NOSTALGICAR.

Julio also informed us that the next afternoon, he had been invited to attend a car show and presentation at the radio/TV headquarters. He asked us to consider coming also, to which we were eager to agree. It was one more thing to work into the next day's plans, but Matt was confident that it could be done. With that, we continued on to our next stop, Revolution Square. 

Revolution Square, by its’ name should be apparent that this is a place commemorating the Cuban Revolution. Dominating the park is a tall structure, which unfortunately we did not go into. 

But outside it was bustling with visitors and what an assortment of old cars! Bright, vibrant colors that would make a peacock jealous. We did not spend a very long time there, but had a great time photographing the cars, some from the 20’s (and definitely not in BLACK).

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But, as much fun as it was to get up close and personal with many of these cars, we had more grave matters to pursue and rode on to our next stop, Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón, the Cristopher Columbus Cemetery. This was founded in 1876 in the Vedado neighbourhood of Havana, Cuba. It is noted for its many elaborately sculpted memorials, mausoleums, vaults, and chapels. It is generally recognized as the most historically and architecturally important cemetery in Latin America. Home to over a million interred bodies including politicians, musicians, writers, artists, military heroes, and religious figures from both Cuba and around the world.

Two monuments were of note, as told by our cemetery guide. One is the 75 foot tall monument to the firefighters who lost their lives in Havana’s May 17th, 1890 fire. It is huge with symbolism abounding in its’ entirety. In the second famous tomb rests Amelia Goire de la Hoz, or “La Milagrosa.” This woman was buried alongside her child in 1901, and Cuban women now come to her grave to pray for safe and healthy pregnancies, returning with gifts and donations when things go successfully. The popularity of this ritual makes her grave by far the most frequently-visited in the cemetery.

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We ended our visit to the cemetery at the Central Chapel located in the middle of this massive cemetery.


Our day still not complete, our last stop of the day was at the famous Hotel Nacional de Cuba. This historic luxury hotel is located on the Malecón in the middle of the Vedado district. It stands on Taganana Hill overlooking the sea, and offers a view of Havana Harbor, the seawall and the city. Inside was very busy and outdoors, on the well groomed grounds, patrons were enjoying the afternoon with cocktails and conversations. Inside we headed to the bar and had ourselves mojitos to drink as we looked around at pictures and posters depicting all of the famous celebrities that frequented its’ halls over many decades. Some of those characters were notable for their not so legal endeavors or of connections to questionable enterprises.

A walk outdoors on the grassy lawn, turned into a rout, as, just then, the heavens let loose with a downpour, everyone scurrying for cover. This then gave some of us the chance to browse the Cuban cigar shop inside where many customers were in pursuit of purchasing from several brands of the famous rolled tobacco.














As the rains had slackened and, in its stead, evening was falling upon us, Big Blue carried us back to Casa Blanca. There we had a little time to freshen up before heading out to dinner and a special treat thereafter.

El Cocinero restaurant held our dinner reservation on that Thursday evening. Located in a an old factory, which still retained its’ brick smoke stack, this place held some nice surprises. From the moment of our arrival, it was apparent that it was a very popular spot.  Climbing a narrow circular staircase to the second floor we dined indoors, where I enjoy a delicious filleted lobster tail (and maybe a Cuba Libre, or two). Outdoor dining on the second floor was another area, while atop the building was an open air bar that incorporated the interior of the smokestack as the bar. Spectacularly, inside the stack were tiny muticolored lights that ascended up, up, up inside. It appeared like sparkling little stars as they merged into the darkness within.

But the real surprise was that this was attached to an art gallery, performance space and very, very popular night club combined into one. Coming out of the restaurant, immediately next door a swarm of people, most young, were  queuing up in line, arriving by the dozens in taxis. Through Matt, he told us we would be going into the party also, but then led us down the street, past a long string of people, around the block, down another long line of people and stood in the long, long line, hoping to be admitted. 

After a long day, and not much of a night person with little appetite for “clubbing”, I would rather have just gone back to the house. However, having little time to bemoan my misery of possibly standing for hours in a never ending line, and certainly not being attired in hot spot “party” clothes, Matt came and hustled us OUT of the line, back around the corner right up to where the bouncers/guardians of the gate/tickets takers were standing. And just like that, we were all admitted to enter. (We think some $$ was exchanged to gain us an early entrance). 

Well, OK, that went rather well. Inside we were sold a modestly priced ticket, which allowed us to get drinks for free, until we left, whereupon we paid for our beverages from our punched card. That whole concept and process actually worked out very nicely.

Inside were several levels, nooks and crannies, conversation places, art, living art, music performances, dance floor. And extremely active. This was a huge space where we wandered around observing all sorts of curiousities, notable some of the human “living art” (no, no nudity), just bizarre and fascinating. Some were masses of people in some form of costumes moving as a unit, others were individuals encased in weird and crazy contraptions or outfits, and two who moved about the premises appearing to be some sort of elastic, stretchy kind of thing.                                                                                                                                                                    They contorted and convoluted up stairs and around the gallery like a sticky mess of taffy.











This beauty was a part of the “living” art, walking about in the gallery, seeming like one of the patrons, but she often stopped, posed for no one in particular and used this cubby hole to apply makeup. All part of the art exhibit, whether stationary or moving about.


Yea, kinda bizarre, and yet pretty darn artsy too. Though I can’t claim to understand the meanings behind some of the “art”, I did appreciate their efforts. 

Not everywhere in the huge spaces were hectic, there were quieter areas where people could take in some other modern art, but more tame in tastes. Young people enjoyed themselves on a dance floor, including the young man in our group Tom, who, during most of the trip look sullen and seldom smiled. On the dance floor, he must have found his niche for how relaxed (and happy) he appeared there. 

A little of this kind of night life went a long way, and after a few drinks and observing all the curiousness, we had had enough to end what had been a very busy and excellent day. 

Though I did not, at first, feel at ease with the night club scene, it too was worth the experience. 

What surprised me were all the young people who dressed up and were out enjoying night life in Havana. For all apparent appearances, this could be a scene from New York City, Los Angeles, London, Paris, Tokyo - any large city around the world. Night life, music, having a good time are not limited to capitalist countries.

In the future though, I think I had better get me some new duds for clubbing.



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Oldsmobile cruising along the Malecón

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They are not all pretty and shiny



kdonald940@cox.net © Donald E. Kline 2012