Breakfast is amazing and curious. A collection of miss matching antique china and glass is laid out on the tables. I have a plate cup and saucer from early 20th C Europe. My fried egg is on a faded plate from England; honey and guava marmalade in etched wine glasses.
Nothing is really collectible, especially as demand for old china has disappeared. There’s lots of fresh fruit – missing from the Miami breakfasts – cornflakes, toast and butter and a thermos of strong coffee. There’s a plate of cheese and fruit jelly, all more than can be eaten.
Heading out to look for the centre of the city I have to watch my step as the pavements or what remains of them are hazardous, and there’s the dog shit. Water trucks are on the street delivering to houses and evidence of road and building works is everywhere, but not much sign of workmen. I guess it’s complicated. Ringing in my ears is the cry from people when you mention travelling to Cuba. ‘Yes I must go there before it gets ruined.’ They have a point, but being here in these once elegant streets it’s obvious that the infrastructure has already been ruined by US lead sanctions over thirty years.
It’s not that buildings are more important than people; the landscape supports and nurtures. I am astonished at the morale of these people in their semi ruined city. I make my way down Avenue D’Italia with a notion that this will take me to the centre. A man offers a city tour with his horse and trap – one hour for 30 cuc. I make a mental note for later.
I pass supermarkets and shopping centres, of sorts with not much in them. One stall is selling only joints for plastic piping though the window display suggests fabrics and haberdashery.
I turn left under the arch of what was once Chinatown.The Chinese have long gone – maybe to Singapore or Hong Kong. Suddenly I am in a huge square dominated by The Capitolio which is nearing the end of 16 years of restoration. It will be the seat of government again and apparently houses a gigantic statue of the Goddess Athena.
Adjacent is what turns out to be the newly restored Opera House, currently showing Carmen – the ballet. In the block behind there are the ruins of the Teatre Capitolio. I peek though a gap in the wall to see what once was the stage growing palm trees.
I see no sign of any tourist information centres but next to the Opera House at the Hotel Ingelsia I find a desk selling city maps. It’s retro time and in the absence of 4G and google maps, I’m in business, old-fashioned style. As a bonus, there’s a map of the whole country on the other side and after locating the tourism booking office inside the Hotel Ingelsias (Hotels always book excursions) I sit down and work out what options I have for one day tours. There are two and I go for Vignales tomorrow. I spend some time in the Parce Centrale looking at the workmen repairing/replacing the fountains and paving at a laborious pace.
One workman, restoring a bird bath takes a five minute rest between applying each trowel full of plaster. Giving him the benefit of the doubt I cite the heat in the middle of the day and the possibility that he needs the plaster to ‘go off’ before the next application. I wonder if the priorities are correct.
On the one hand, people living here need their dwellings restored, waterproofed (rain cascades off temporary tar paper roofing and is carried through plastic piping at cornice level to drop to the street in much the same way as mediaeval cathedrals) ahead of repairs to this square.
Clearly this slow process begins in the centre of the city for the tourists who bring their dollars to spend on the meticulously restored classic American cars. Chevrolet, Dodge, Fords and so on are all lined up in this square touting for tourists. As I sit in the square an old man speaks to me. He’s selling today’s Communist Newspaper (Granma), which of course is in Spanish.
We talk, sort of as I have only a few words of Spanish which includes ‘No Espanol’ He likewise has only a few words of English. He points to an article about Trump dumping the Paris Climate Change Agreement. I nod and offer ‘Trump bad?’ ‘Si’ he replies. ‘Obama OK?’ I ask. After a moment’s hesitation he nods. ‘Si.’ I buy his paper for 1CUC ($1).
I stumble upon the Museo de los Orishas and without a clue as to what this is, I buy a ticket following the example of a young woman who seems keen to see it. I find out that she is Spanish and working with a middle-eastern performance group in London. She’s able to explain that this is all about African rituals and gods.
There’s a black and White photographic exhibition of Brazilian Africans dressed in their white clothes doing a festival of the sea. The rest of the exhibition is the depiction of various African gods and deities from Nigeria, Kenya, Gambia and so forth. They travelled with the slaves and were of course forbidden by the Catholic Church but were eventually converted into Christian saints for convenience.
I’ve spotted Belle Arts on my newly acquired map and head towards it, refusing the pleas from the Car Men.
Outside the Belle Arts a chap is trying to drum up business for the Museum café. He ushers me upstairs and I vaguely wonder if there is free entry. I decide that a plate of ham, cheese and olives might make a light lunch with coffee. Afterwards I wander out to explore and find the main staircase blocked with scaffolding – more repair and restoration is taking place.
Spanish art is on this floor, so imagining that the rest of the museum is closed, I make the most of it. It’s astonishing what art treasures are to be found in out-of-the-way parts of the world. A whole room of Bastida (Valencia) is the first impression. There are several by Velasque, including bloody bull fights where the bulls are having the best of it. They are quite amusing as they are full of injured bull fighters and disemboweled horses either dead on dying with guts all over the place.
I descend to look at an exhibition of sculpture by a German called Tony Cragg. It’s good but one of the attendants has spotted that I’ve got my rucksack on my back. With limited means of communication, I explain how I got in for free without checking in my bag. She shows me to the lift and accompanies me to the 5th floor, having, I think, suggested that some tip is expected. I’m thinking about my declaration to support the Cuban people and perhaps this might be a good ruse.
Here on the 5th floor there are Germany and Holland – followers of Cranich are here along with a few real Rubens and van Dycks. There’s an Italian section and Great Britain with the prolific Reynolds (faded as he is wont to do) plus Gainbrough, Raeburn, Romney & etc. I also get an obscured view through scaffolding of the sensational stained glass ceiling above the stair- well. Down to the 4th floor there are collections from antiquity: Rome, Egypt and the Etruscans. I have no need to re-visit these and pass on to France, but there’s not much of importance here. I take the lift back to the German Sculpture room and tip the woman who showed me the 5th floor. She’s pleased, not expecting me to return; apparently government employees are very poorly paid. I head down towards the Museum of Revolution to check it out. There’s a modern pavilion in the leafy avenue with a collection of weaponry outside it and I stop to look.
Suddenly a man, neatly dressed in white with his wife and young family similarly attired, attracts my attention. He thinks I need directions, he doesn’t know where New Zealand is, but I try to make conversation, telling him what a lovely family he has. This immediately brings out the story of milk rationing and how difficult it is for the baby. Thinking back to my visa declaration – ‘supporting the Cuban people’ – I guess he’s after a hand out. If milk really is rationed he won’t be able to get any more with the 5 cuc I offer. He tries it on, asking for 3 more’ for the Mother’, but I’m firm and say no as I walk away. Before me is the Belle Artes of Cuba but there’s only thirty minutes until closing – it will keep for another day.
I make my way back to the corner of Ave. D’Italia, but the horse and cart rides around the city have gone, so it’s back to Parce Centrale, where I’d been offered a tour in a bright yellow Courvette – guaranteed original engine. That also is away, so I decide to go gay and take a pink Chevrolet. It’s 50 cuc for an hour but hey, I’m supporting the Cuban people here.
My driver literally trumpets his glee to all the other drivers by playing on his valve (as in trumpet) driven car horn. Off we go around the city – he’s pointing out all the hotels and buildings of Cuban Pride.
He has a special signature phrase on his horn when ever he passes an attractive woman. They’re use to this and studiously ignore him. ‘They’re not taking any notice of you,’ I tell him. He shrugs.
We stop at the big José Marti Memorial (there are several to him all around) and I take photographs of him and the cartoons of Ché and Fidel. We pass a huge cemetery and though the suburb of Vedado, where houses are modern and not crumbling, down to the beginning of Malecón which sweeps around the bay, past high rise housing back to the old city.
After a beer at Café Neruda on the Malecón, I try out Castas &Tal – recommended by Barbara at Cassa Densil and only a few blocks away. It’s very well presented and very reasonable. It’s got notices in trip adviser.