Romance is alive under the stars and cool breezes

Its 24th March 2001 and I am officially exhilarated, but also tired from the trip … I guess it
would have been easier in Hemingway’s days.

Havana. Even arriving there is romantic

Flying down over the Florida Keys … beautiful spots of green, sand and clear blue/green
water. Then we’re over Cuba… absolutely drop-dead gorgeous! The land is rich dark brown
topsoil. The coastline is dotted with small communities, not villages, not cities, not condos,
interspersed with miles and miles of pure white sand. This was Hemingway’s Cuba – at last,
scenes from Old Man and The Sea spring to mind.
At the airport, a Ukrainian Russian Tupolov and a local Cubana Ilyushin are parked – neither
of which I’d fly far without a parachute.
Driving into the city with our official tour guide, we see old buildings, all with a desperate
need for paint. But no trash. These poor people keep their streets clean!
We told our official tour guide that we wanted to see where people shop, I.e. the small and
large stores, but she insisted on pointing out dozens of statues of old, dead heroes like Che;
the University of Havana, which although big, still needs paint; the community park where
everyone goes to buy ice cream; then through the tree lined streets of Havana until we hit
the road along the Malecón, the sea wall holding back Havana Bay. The pedestrian traffic
was heavy in the city but dwindled to nothing along the sea wall, with a few young couples
hanging out, sitting along the wall. This is where the young people come of an evening to
socialise and chill. I can visualise the scene, the sun setting over the water, the music playing
and young women and guys getting to know one another.

Due to the sanctions going back to the 60’s there are lots of well-kept 1940/50’s American
cars, a few bikes and motor bikes, but lots of small Asian cars. The Chevy’s, Buick’s, Pontiacs
and the like set the scene incredibly similarly to Graham Greene’s ‘Our man In Havana,’ – all
I needed to complete the picture is to see Greene’s protagonist, going door-to-door selling
vacuum cleaners in a city where power cuts still persist … Havana is truly a time warp.
During our entire week there was only one old lady beggar hit on me in a street-side café –
immediately the waiters had her out of there. The tour guide said they would lose their jobs
if they allowed her to stay.

Everyone has a history and everyone is proud

Moral to this story: these people have pride, take care and share the little they have with
others who have less, practice hygiene and present a neat appearance. Even though they
have far less than I have, I was never once asked to buy something from them to solve their
problem. And the architecture in “Old Havana” is right out of the story books. Spanish
buildings with balconies, wide streets, cobble paved plaza’s, parks, and gardens. Apart from
the obviously more modern architectures, the older buildings, blackened by mildew, mold
and years of neglect need painting, but the streets are clean.
Arriving at our hotel, we check into our rooms, agree to meet for lunch in an hour or so. But
on inspection of the brown slow trickle that emanates from our bathroom taps, we decide
that we need to buy some bottled water from the nearest “Dollar Store” to at least clean
our teeth with. A small posse is deputised to find such an establishment and is charged with
the purchase of at least one large water bottle for each member of the team.

I go with two other guys and find a store where we buy water. I was expecting the local
grocery store to be one of those subsistence type ones, with only one item of each stocked
on display, but surprisingly, it had plenty of everything. I pick up a bottle of Havana rum for
We return to the hotel, distribute the water and plan to regroup for lunch. I’m first
downstairs and go to the bar and order a Cuba Libra at $6 – Jeez these guys charge like a
wounded buffalo!
I find the others waiting for me the Hotel Victoria restaurant. Our group is a total of 7
intrepid travellers, all seated at a table, with white tablecloth. It seems that the decision to
lunch here in the safety of the hotel has already been made – maybe they are afraid of
something ? But we do it anyway. Everybody except me ordered chicken. I decided that I
should stick with something that hadn’t walked to lunch so go for pasta, which in the event
turns out to be a wise choice. Of the 5 chickens, two weren’t dead yet, the remaining 3
obviously died of old age many years previously and were as tough as old leather. The group
of unlucky diners finished off the fries and we left the Victoria restaurant, vowing not to
return. Its early afternoon and we’re due to meet our guides for the balance of our stay.
The lack of a successful lunch reinforces my usual thinking about eating in a hotel in these
3rd world countries. Either small local restaurants or street food are my usual best bets,
where normally the food and prices are that much better, not to mention fresher.
We go back down to Old Havana – about a 10-minute drive from our hotel. Marisol, our
guide is flexible, but she’s obviously been brainwashed through the Communist Greeting
Training Programme… show them the charming old historic stuff we’re preserving for the
tourists. She did however keep the chatter going about how the average Cuban can’t afford
the good life due to the sanctions.

She is taking us to the see the things in the places like the nice boutique Havana Rum store.
As is typical of this and other tourist stores around the world always on every taxi drivers
and tour guide’s itineraries, it’s a rip-off. The same rum I bought at the local store for $7 is
$10 here, so I’m feeling good about my astute purchasing skills.
We decide to leave the van and Marisol, our tour guide, preferring to walk. She objects,
telling us that she will get into trouble for letting us wander on our own. So we agree to let
the van go and she can accompany us on foot in our explorations.
We pass by and look in a few art galleries, the odd local shop, enjoying just wandering along
the cobblestone streets, with their old balconied buildings of Old Havana. As a vintage car
fanatic, I’m fascinated by the old 1950’s American gas guzzling cars … we even saw a 1948
Buick Roadmaster, black just my Dad’s old one. In its day it would do 100mph – the first car
that I travelled at what seemed to a young kid to be the speed of sound. It’s like being an
extra in one of those old black and white movie sets.
We are all keen to visit one of the bars made famous by Hemingway and ask Marisol to take
us to there. The Bodeguita del Medio Bar is down a small side street near the Plaza de
Catedral. We are disappointed – the place is literally mobbed by tourists, not a chance of
every getting in. It was here that Hemingway made the mojito famous and thousands visit
every year just to remember and pay homage to him. We decide that this is not what we
signed up for, and carry on wandering …

Taking in the newly painted old buildings, we circle back to the Plaza de Catedral where
there are lots of cafes and bars. We find one that looks interesting, with a lot less tourists,
the strains of salsa music coming from deep inside. Drinks are $3 – a big difference to the
hotel’s $6 a throw ! A small group is playing salsa music, accompanied by a female singer.
We walk through the cafe to an open courtyard set with tables, chairs and umbrella. Lots of
stained glass and foliage, a parrot in a cage trying to sway to the rhythm. We grab a table,
the music’s good, the parrot a good floor show and the Mojito’s are great. The scene is
atmospheric, the low volume Spanish chatter from nearby tables, the olive-skinned Cuban
women looking exotic, the sunshine all add to the ambience. Hemingway institutionalised
the rite of drinking mojitos here where they taste so much better against the background
setting. I’m beginning to like Cuba !
We get hungry. Everybody’s got the chicken as memories. One of our group has a tourist
book and gives our guide, Marisol, the address to one of the top 10 family run paradillos
restaurants. These are families that have opened their homes to paying customers, usually
small with maybe only 4 – 10 seats, serving local, traditional food. We eventually find the
place, but seems it closed down over a year ago
So now we head out of the city to another paradillo that Marisol knows. They serve seafood,
a change from the usual and predictably boring Cuban classic of pork, beans and rice. We
pass another Spanish fort with cannons overlooking Havana Bay. There’s one at either end
of the 8-kilometre Malecón.
We are now driving through residential neighbourhoods. When the rich were rich, this is
where they lived. Big Spanish style villa’s, manicured lawns, not lots of activity (money is
tight) but the faded romance and excitement of a once grand and exotic lifestyle still lingers.
We reach the restaurant. The non-descript street is right on the ocean, with villas opposite.
We pull into a long treelined driveway… no sign of human habitation, the place looks
deserted. But we park in front of what I think of as a baronial house, once obviously
magnificent in its coastal beauty, but now the paint is faded; the tropical heat and humidity
have taken their toll with black mildew patches of damp everywhere. We walk up the stairs
on top of what I am sure once was, and maybe still is the owner’s house (all are “managers”
now … nobody owns anything anymore.

Big old dark wood Spanish tables, on a balcony overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. Quiet, not a
light, not a boat, not a soul in sight on the water, just the full moon, with a gentle sea-
scented breeze blowing off the water to take the edge off the constant humidity. It’s like
one of those old surreal black and white movies – Key Largo springs to mind, with Humphrey
Bogart, Edward. G. Robinson and Lauren Bacall… all we needed now was a tropical
hurricane to complete the movie’s re-run !
The only other guests are three guys also out on the balcony, in animated conversation,
drinking Cuban beer and eating dinner in the moonlight.
Marisol knows the guy running the place, who makes recommendations. With the chicken
memory still fresh, we go with his recommendations and order Mojitos all round. I get up to
look over the balcony and see a clean and painted swimming pool, but no water. There are a
few plastic tables and chairs spread out around the pool, with a poolside bar kiosk with a
guy tending it. There’s nobody there, but they’re ready, they’re waiting for the influx of
tourists that they are convinced will come ! Left and right are similar villas with pools, some
of which are gritty grey, others with green algae water. All hold promise, but the one we’re
at, the guy saw the opportunity and grabbed it. His wife is cooking, his daughter is waiting

table, and his boys are cleaning with one tending bar … build it and they will come – he’s got
a head start.
We order dinner – nobody misses the chicken. I have lobster and rice along with a couple
thousand more Mojitos.
As the evening wears on, with the booze the inhibitions lessen, and tongues loosen. Stories
and backgrounds come out. And with each one is set to a view of a scene of faded romantic
tropical splendour overlooking the Atlantic Ocean, the full moon, the ozone smell from the
sea and tropical humidity; all set to the crooning strains of Sinatra singing Fly Me to the

No lights, no boats, no noise. Just dinner of freshly caught fish, excited conversation,
plenty of Mojitos, under once-in-a-lifetime night sky. This is what I’d dreamed Havana would
be like – and surprisingly the reality is as good.
The bill comes. Seven people, a decent tip of $2 each will keep the family alive for another
year. We’re out of there for $130 … less than $20 a head for a meal with a real historic
atmosphere in a wonderfully unique setting. At home that would have cost me at least
$200, complete with noise, the obligatory TV blaring and my waitron telling me “to have a
nice day”.
When we finally made it back to the hotel, we bid one another “Good Night” and each
retired to our rooms. I am finally in Hemmingway’s Havana. As I surrendered myself into
the arms of Morpheus, I was reminded of one particular line in the movie, ‘Once Around’ …
one that I would like as my epitaph, “This is my adventure and nobody can take it away from

Tony Lewis, Malvern 2024

Related articles.

Oh to be a traveller…..

Looking back on my youth, it appears every day was sunny. Maybe that was

Overland from Turkey

Preparing for summer visitors Dear Jackie, hope you are happy and well, after working

This site uses cookies to offer you a
better browsing experience.