Tuesday 1 March
Rain soaked baggage drying out from our flight from the Isle of Man to Gatwick whilst we get train to see Flic. Not sure about Taxi from station though, it seemed to be overheating, steam coming from under the bonnet. Dinner at hotel back at Gatwick.
Wednesday 2 March
Check-in at Virgin Atlantic at Gatwick seamless although no conveyers working so we have to take luggage to trolleys. Internet at Gatwick absolutely attrocious, in two hours of trying I don’t manage to get on at all.
Plane is an hour late leaving and is very cold inside, so much so I have to resort to blanket and I manage a short sleep during which time I miss some verbals between two passengers about a reclined chair. The food is not as good as that on our Thomas Cook flight to Barbados in January although the food there might have been selected by P & O.
Surprisingly quick to get through immigration but we then get searched again, what for I don’t know but I am required to take off my belt for scanning, weird. Female staff are wearing uniforms c1970s, very short and tight fitting, also very weird.
Very long delay getting luggage and we are out over 80 mins after we land and I was one of the first to get all their bags, it just seemed as if one person was bringing two or three bags at a time ! Other seasoned travellers to Cuba commented that it has taken them over 90 minutes to collect luggage and there appear to be only 3 seats in the area.
It was interesting seeing other bags from another flight including a couple of motorcycle tyres and several big shopping bags cling filmed, trundle around the conveyor belt.
Our guide, Raul, is just outside along with possibly 200 other people waiting for arrivals. We are driven into Havana to our hotel (Iberostar Parque Central) in an open top old American Car which occasionally had engine / gear problems but we arrive in one piece.
Too late for dinner and a bit noisy outside, the patio door didn’t fit properly, but we sleep well in a reasonable bed in a plainly decorated room.
Thursday 3 March
Good breakfast and we are to meet our guide, Raul, at 10am.
He arrives 30 minutes late but he does apologise and we are off on our walking tour.
Past the impressive Bacardi building, with it’s wonderful restored facade, the famous Sloppy Joe’s and onto Obispo Street which passes as the main shopping street.
It is getting crowded and there are many groups being given the low down on the relevant parts of the old city.
We in turn are told so much by Raul that a lot of it has gone in one ear and out the other.
There are so many ancient buildings to view including a rebuilt, after fire damage 5 years ago, Johnson’s pharmacy – still used today but rebuilt in keeping with it’s original build.
We leave Obispo at a modern building totally out of character with the wonderful architecture of the adjoining buildings and near a cafe frequented by the late Ernest Hemingway and turn right towards some of the squares: one with port buildings and a former monestary.
Often we encounter junior school children in their PE lessons, having to perform these in full view of us tourists.
At one square, they are rebuilding a fountain but the square is renowned for it’s modern art and a wonderful smell of coffee being ground, a smell I haven’t encountered for many a year – since the 1970s in Watford. We have to have a coffee at Cafe el Escorial!
Lunch is after a visit inside the Cathedral of Havana and is outside on a balcony at La Moneda Cubana on Empedrado #152 – good food, good service for 40 CUC.
A Long slow walk back to the hotel for a snooze and a snack in the hotel’s café – all we really need tonight.
A good day viewing so many old buildings from both outside and, a few inside and I have a lot more photographs of interesting buildings and street scenes than are on this blog.
Some of the buildings are very New Orleans like but in other respects it is a bit like Marrakech.
Not as dirty or poor as I had thought it would have been although one block near the start of Obispo is certainly in need of attention.
Of course, Cuba is renowned for both it’s crumbling buildings, and infrastructure, wonderful period cars lovingly restored by individuals so the opportunity was taken to photograph as many cars and buildings as possible – sometimes both together.
Not sure where they get all the paint from to keep the cars in the condition they are now found in and it would be a pity if they disappeared in the future if conditions in Cuba change as a result of any American influence.
Friday 4 March
Again, Raul is 30 minutes late but this time it was because the taxi driver changed the time (although he was sitting outside waiting for some time before Raul arrived)!
Our taxi today is a Pink open top Cadillac, not as pristine as some of the other vintage cars on the road but certainly not the worst. Difficult to get into and out of the back seats and certainly no rear seatbelts.
We are told that the private cars are the ones looked after but the taxis are Government controlled and they are the ones that are not kept in pristine condition and we have to use the Government controlled ones.
We are driven through back streets to a cigar factory building right in the middle of other buildings which could be other factories, shops or houses.
No cameras or bags allowed inside although that does not stop an American from Seattle taking a discreet photo on his phone.
We are given a brief talk but with so much noise in the vicinity, it was difficult to hear what the guide said. (It did explain though why we saw tobacco leaves drying in a shed when we were in North Carolina last October.)
We are told that sales are steady even though there are of course the health scares associated with smoking.
Climb up the 50 or so stairs to watch the workers melding the leaves together, rolling them with the smooth one on the outside, pressing them for 30 minutes. They have to do a set number each day, they are given instructions at the beginning of the day as to how many and what style.
We have the chance to buy, but the shop is around the corner and absolutely packed so we decline, it would have taken probably 15 minutes to get served.
I am glad we have been but not sure we would go again.
Off on our drive through town to Revolution Square where all important events happen, including the forthcoming Rolling Stones Concert.
It is of course just a mass of concrete with a statue and star like monument at one side and Government buildings on most of the other sides.
Surprisingly very little traffic passes by but of course there are lots of coaches full of tourists.
A drive now through an area of houses that are generally better kept than some of the inner city ones.
Stop off at a river crossing where some locals with African heritage are holding a religious ceremony which includes an animal sacrifice – we didn’t stop to watch the whole ceremony .
The river stop is a popular place on the tourist trail so there are some photo opportunities of classic cars and then on past a few embassies to a supermarket which we stop at for water.
Like nothing I have seen before, row upon row of a typical supermarket aisle but with the same product down the whole length of the aisle. Can you imagine a whole aisle of one brand of mayonnaise for example or just one brand of shampoo? That’s Cuba.
Everybody’s bags are searched on the way out so shoplifting obviously a problem. Sadly, I didn’t take my phone or camera in.
Drive at speed – possible well in excess of the 80 kph limit back down 5th Avenue to the sea front and the area where people congregate of an evening to sit and watch the world go by – Malecon.
Some very scruffy houses passed but two new hotels are being built nearby, surely not enough for the influx of Americans, and will not be finished in time for the flights that start in a couple of month’s time.
Say goodbye to Raul and lunch in hotel café; very impressed with waitress who remembered our names and order!
Brief walk out and find a small picture as a souvenir in a small craft type market, it is very hot and we head back to hotel for a rest before our evening’s entertainment.
No chance of a sit by the pool, lots of Virgin Atlantic airline hostesses hogging seats!
Dinner in Beuna Vista Social Club although a bit fleeced on the taxi ride there although we would never have found it on our own and certainly wouldn’t have ventured to or from it so far away in the dark.
The club is up lots of stairs again and we eventually sit down at tables set very close to each other.
All nationalities and ages are there, we sit next to two young Columbians living in Toronto and two young Italians from Milan. Others are not so young including some from Germany and Argentina.
Food adequate, we both had sliced beef and what they called Caramel Flan ( Creme Caramel to us Brits ) for desert and 3 cocktails included in the price served by well endowed short skirted waitresses.
Entertainment was varied, lively and often performed by more mature singers, one as old as 83.
The two dancers were young and very flexible in their dance routines as they danced Salsa to many songs, all sung in Spanish of course.
Some audience participation managed to get me singing a very short piece of “Hey Jude” and “dancing” along with many others on stage for the finale.
A very lively night for 60 CUC each – a thoroughly recommended evening out with a Taxi back easily obtained at a much better fare.
A free day tomorrow!
Saturday 5 March
A day of rest and we wake up late and head to a well stocked breakfast room although in some instances the quality is not particularly brilliant. At least the chef will cook eggs to your liking to order.
Then a stroll down Obispo past some of the doorways converted into tourist shops and head for Plaza Vieja Square with it’s modern art display and where we people watch whilst waiting to be served coffee and cake at Cafe el Escorial with it’s lovely smell of coffee roasting.
Before we reach there, some pictures of locals and street scenes.
Some street entertainers around including a troupe on stilts are entertaining.
Queue up for about 15 minutes to buy some coffee beans but having them ground would have probably taken another 10 minutes as the machines are slow.
Still that wonderful smell of roasting coffee and what I have bought is still warm. The case is going to smell lovely by the time we get home.
Retrace footsteps of walking tour the other day to take some better photos and divert to the waterfront to see a Thomas Cook cruise ship in port, quite a small one and then a slow wander back down Ibispo to the hotel and a rest upstairs near the pool.
Dinner tonight upstairs in the pool area, with music provided to a private party nearby who didn’t seem to be too interested in it.
Waiter’s English has a smattering of cockney slang about it but food again not overly hot, adequate though.
Get speaking to a Virgin Atlantic crew member who is training colleagues. He has bought over with him some clothes for the person who runs the downstairs café, Betty, and by the sounds of it is a frequent visitor.
He and abut 9 other, younger, crew are on a few days stop over with the others somewhere else in the hotel.
He has noticed the changes that have occurred in Cuba over the years and said that McDonalds are looking at buying a farm in Cuba to raise cattle for their purposes.
Tomorrow we are off to Cienfuegos. (blog follows)