Back to 1953… The next day. After a 20-minute taxi ride from the airport, I settled down at the hotel. The room was not so bad – it is a spacious room on the 7th floor with vintage décor, new aluminum window frames and a stunning night view of the city and the dome of the Capitol. I turned on the TV, switched to the CNN, freshened up and I went to the rooftop restaurant in the hotel for a quick dinner (my first meal in Cuba!). Then, I got a call from the tour company about my city tour tomorrow morning; it was the same day the Obama announced the conversation with Cuba and the guide was excited about that. Looking forward to it.
The next day in the morning I was supposed to meet the tour guide at the Hotel Telegrafo – the building is right at the corner of the main street Paseo de Marti, I was there 10 minutes earlier, yet I didn’t see any big group standing outside the hotel. 10 minutes later, I was approached by a young lady who told me she was supposed to be my tour guide of the day! I didn’t expect it as a private tour, and we had a lot of interactions for the day.
Quickly we walked through the small Central Park on the opposite side of the hotel and entered the shopping walking the street of Cuba – the Bishop Street (Calle Obispo). The road connects to the Plaza de Armas, one of the four main plazas in the Havana old town, on the other end. It is the main tourist area where restaurants, cafés, and shops were lining up on both sides of the street. It was still early in the morning, but it gets a lot more crowded at night.
The mission for the morning is to visit the four plazas in the Old Havana, a Unesco World Heritage Site that contains the core of the original city. Havana is the largest city and major port of the country established by the Spanish in the 16th century. Apart from the heritage spots within the area, Havana is also filled with stories and antidotes about the legendary American novelist Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Havana for 20 years and completed his Nobel Prize-winning novel “The Old Man and the Sea”, and bars and restaurants where he had been to and loved.
“My mojito in La Bodeguita, my daiquiri in El Floridita.” – Ernest Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway was a frequent customer of both El Floridita and La Bodeguita, and El Floridita was the first place we saw entering the street. It is a historic fish restaurant and cocktail bar with eye-catching pink-painted walls and old-fashioned light sign at the front door. The restaurant is still in operation. Inside, there were lots of photos hanging at the back of the bar, and a life-sized bronze statue of Hemingway was on display. Walking along the Bishop Street, my new tour guide friend has shared stories of their daily lives, with no surprise, slightly different from what it seemed like as a tourist. J We walked passed the Johnson drug store, a pharmacy opened from the 18th century, while it’s still in operation today, it has become a tourist spot more than actually selling medication to the local community from the beautifully polished old porcelain apothecary jars.
1. Plaza de la Cathedral
The Plaza takes the name from the landmark – Havana Cathedral, or the “Catedral de San Cristóbal” in the center of the old town. It wasn’t a grand European cathedral, but it has the historical value of once being a Spanish settlement. The church was built in Baroque style, and the façade of the cathedral has a unique asymmetrical feature – the two bell towers are not in the same size. Apparently, the right tower is obviously bigger and taller than the left one. Another interesting thing in the square was a life-size brass statue leaning against one of the many pillars on the Palacio del Conde Lombillo on the right side of the square – it was Antonio Gades, a famous flamenco dancer from Spain! (>> His photo @ Back to 1953)
2. Plaza de Armas
The Plaza de Armas was at the riverfront, the end of Bishop where all the shops, hawkers and tourists were. It was early in the morning, and they are already set up for the day. It was an exciting market that I would be returning to by the end of the day. Besides, restaurants and cafés were on all sides of the square, and it has been a social hub in the city for more than five centuries. Outside the Palacio de Los Capitanes, a walkway was paved by wood instead of stone because it was once used for horses, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza is another landmark of the area. It is an eye-catching, star-shaped colonial fort built in the mid-16th century.
3. Plaza de San Francisco
To me, the Plaza de San Francisco looks more “modern” because the buildings around the square were carefully restored with one side opened to the riverfront, and so the sunlight came in the plaza and the shine on the well-paved cobbled stone floor. The Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis (and so that’s how the square was named) features a tower that offers breath-taking views of the city of Havana and the sea beyond.
Outside the cathedral stood an old man’s statue, and I was told the believers could shake his hand, and make a wish putting up the number of fingers that means the number of children you wish for, and you have his blessings. I saw everyone sticking up 5 or even ten fingers…. maybe just in case if they were under-promised.
Besides, there were some ladies dressed up in native costumes, playing some traditional instruments and handing out flowers. Beware not to take photos of them without asking as they might approach and ask you for money.
4. Plaza Vieja
“Vieja” in Spanish means “old”, but the plaza did not look old, better yet it was very much lively with Cuban Baroque and Art Nouveau architecture peculiarly next to each other, surrounding the area, with outdoor cafés and shops filling up the open space. In the old times the plaza was originally used for military exercises; today the Plaza is an open-air marketplace and an exercise yard for students from the nearby Angela Landa primary school!
After that, we were headed out to a local “Tripadvisor” recommended rooftop restaurant for lunch and the vintage car ride into the modern part of Havana – Read Back to 1953 – The Next Day Continues 🙂