Trip to Cuba:

Our trip took place on the first to fourth weeks of January. Please note all pictures were taken with a lousy Samsung Galaxy S4 mini cell-phone camera in very humid and cloudy conditions, so I do apologize for the hazy quality of some of them. This is a typical Cuban sunset… The weather was a constantly changing mix of cold and tepidness and, while it remained cloudy most of the time, the sun still stung fiercely even on overcast days:

This was already in La Habana: the huge Capitol, where many different State institutions are located, which can be visited only via previous, written request (I wonder if this one was built before, or after the U.S. Capitol?):

Inevitably, the main figures of the 1959 Revolution were drawn, stamped, engraved, painted, or cast on just about every imaginable surface, from t-shirts to beach towels to baseball caps (I suppose El Che is rolling in his grave at his face being flogged at five bucks apiece on items mass-produced in China). Here he is, gracing the facade of one of the Ministries, while his comrade-in-arms Camilo Cienfuegos adorns the other (I forget which is the Foreign Office, and which is the Home Office.

Both of these face the huge monolith symbolizing the Revolution – they all looked grey, plain, and devoid of life, like the entirety of the Plaza de la Revolución; for a moment, I had a total déjà vu of similar monstrosities Ceaucescu had built smack in the centre of Bucarest). Even the hallowed building of the National Library, which bears the name of the celebrated poet, freedom fighter and thinker José Martí, is a monument to the dreariness of hive thinking that dominated the 1960s-1990s:

Sadly, the library itself and the two Minilove look-alikes cannot be visited, and our guide warned us that too much picture-taking was not encouraged, so we were actually relieved to move on to more cheerful sights, like this stately tree inside the new city, or the beautiful new Teatro Nacional, which bears the name of ballet legend Alicia Alonso (now in her nineties, and blind for the past several decades, but still very active)…

We went up to the Morro fortress, an impressive bulwark dominating the harbout, where every day at nine o’clock in the evening an historical re-enactment takes place, complete with soldiers dressed in period garb and the live firing of a cannon:

We had lunch on the hill of the Morro fortress, at a family-run outfit inside a modest but well-kept courtyard, called “El Cañonazo”. Here is a sample menu (foregoing my vegetarian habits, I chose the lamb with tomato sauce, a true delight, and washed it down with a can of sweet malt soda). My companions agreed their choice dish, lamb stewed in white whine, was excellent, too:

Meanwhile, we admired the splendid oldmobiles which have been rolling on in Cuba since the late 1950s (the motor may be “only” twenty years old, but the outer and inner fittings are original and absolutely beautiful, a delight for classic Buick, Chevie and Ford fans – nevermind the few ugly Soviet-era Ladas, Moskviches and Zhigulis peppering the roads here and there):

Near the “Malecón” there was a wide, recent trench, where archaeological diggings and modern pipe-laying are happening side by side, while a few derelict fishermen’s boats lying nearby frame them:

Walking inside La Habana’s old town, there are plenty of beautiful examples of typical old houses, and inside the courtyards there are both traditional and modern-style mosaics:

The fortress vis-à-vis the Fortaleza del Morro is situated by the harbour, near the Malecón, and though tourists cannot visit it inside unless they have a special authorization and an official guide (both of which take a long and complicated bureaucratic hoop-jumping process), the outside courtyard, feautirng ancient Spanish cannon (all of which bear their own name) is still worth a visit:

Here is another striking detail inside the old city: a mail-box, testimony to the artistry and aesthetic style favoured by the locals:

While the city of Cienfuegos was indeed “the cleanest city in Cuba”, neither La Habana nor Trinidad were free of garbage strewn everywhere, but at least the authorities are encouraging the citizens to do the proper thing. And here is also a sample of the intrincacy and loveliness of Cuban tile-making:

And a few nearby French statues; the one of the right is called “The Conversation”:

Here is one of La Habana’s most endearing (and real) characters: “El Caballero de París”, an extravagant émigré who arrived to La Habana in the 1910s, apparently lost his mind soon after, and lived in poverty on the streets of the city for decades thereafter, giving out poems and kind admonitions to his fellow Habanites, who fed him scraps and, after his death, commissioned a statue of him and set it upon one of his preferred haunts near the Old Harbour. There is also a fascinating book about him, “Yo soy el Caballero de París” (I´m reading it right now), with his particular case study, written by his psychiatrist. He seems to have been an unusually complex, eccentric, and whithal an endearing character, which the Habaneros remember with pride and fondness…

Myth has it that, if you clasp the left hand of the statue, your wishes will be granted:

A few more sights of the old town (notice the highly colourful inner courtyard and indoor walls – I found the same love for colour in Colonial houses both in Brazil and in Mexico):

The original, Colonial waterworks – still working partially! And a fantastic statue set in a square; your interpretation of it is as valid as any:

Patrician houses surrounding a square, recently restored and brought back to its old glory (nowadays they are hotels, administrative buildings, or pastry shops and bars):

Natural scent aficionado that I am, of course I dropped by La Habana’s only extant natural perfumery left, still inside the quaint, original building. There, under the guidance of the two knowledgeable chemists, we bought two vials made of all-natural fragrances concocted after a traditional recipe, one of them containing the essence of the national flower, called white garland lily or butterfly flower (“flor mariposa”, Hedychium coronarium), which blooms in June for one night only, spreading an intoxicating sweet-floral scent. During Colonial times, women adorned their hair with these flowers, using its intrincate petals to carry hidden messages safely to insurrectionist patriots against the Spaniards:

A few more details within the old city. Flamboyant, whimsical and (note that Cervantes’ statue features him with both hands, yet as an elderly man… someone forgot his heroic loss of limb during the famous Battle of Lepanto; or else they love him so much they will only portray him whole):

There was also a huge façade fresco of the city’s Colonial personalities: artists, wealthy merchants, soldiers, politicians… dozens of them. And yet, notice there is only one Black person among them, standing at one of the ends of the long painting:

A few details of the Colonial museum and the inside of the Cathedral:

A startingly life-like statue of famous flamenco dancer Antonio Gades was leaning upon a pillar on the Cathedral square, to the delight of visitors:

While dwelling in the Varadero peninsula, we visited the fascinating cave of San Ambrosio, about 10 minutes’  walk from the Delphinarium. If you are interested in pre-Columbian cave paintings and bats (there are seven different local species living inside this one!), then you shouldn’t miss the chance to visit them, even if you tend to suffer from claustrophobia (as one of my companions did), as the caves are big, but withal airy, spacious and filled with light. Our guide was Ronaldo Trujillo, a very knowledgeable, funny, and passionate anthropologist, who explained to us the meaning of the 2.500 year-old paintings, which depict scenes which range from the cultic to the cosmological:

As for the nearby beaches, they are unlike any I’d seen before even in other parts of the Caribbean, and worthy of the painter Sorolla; the sand is like pulverized pearls, the air like a blast of salt taffy, and the water a swirl of deepest turquoise and blinding white. Ideal for swimming, sailing, snorkelling or kajaking:

But, as we found out on the fourth day, sometimes the nor’erner brings in cold, windy waves, and  with them, these extremely dangerous beauties are washed ashore: Portuguese Men O’War (Physalia physalis), whose distinctive, blue-lilac, gas-filled bladder drifts visibly on the surface (hence their name) while their up to 30 meters long, venomous tentacles extend underwater stealthily, where you don’t notice them until they touch you. Their sting ranges from just severely painful to deadly, depending on your age and physical resilience.

For several days, the shore at Varadero and other highly-soucht beaches was littered with these beasts, scattered just a few feet apart from each other, while people just strolled around them, jumped over them and even poked them without the slightest clue how dangerous they are, even several days after dying, as their tentacles can sting you every bit as painfully. Incredibly, the beach was open to the public, even kids played around these animals, and no one ever warned us what they were. But as soon as I saw the first one, I knew to keep my eyes peeled for their telltale “sail” floating above water every time I went in for a dip. Luckily, my companions and I were spared, but on our last day a woman swimming several feet from my sister ran screaming in agony out of the water, the toxic tendrils stuck deep in her back, until the lifeguards doused her in vinegar and salt water to detach the creature off her skin, and then took her to a clinic.

Notice the thread-like, almost invisible tendrils (the toxic bit) fanning out of its core:

Fortunately, there were also many other, far more appealing wildlife specimens, like sponges, shells, pelicans and sandpipers:

We also spent some time visiting other beautiful, old cities, among them Trinidad and Cienfuegos (one of my favourites):

A few impressions of the exquisitely well-preserved city of Trinidad, a very important bulwark of Colonial riches: