What does a holiday in Havana give you? The opportunity to take some great pics I would say. While that might not rock everyone’s vacation boat it was a change of gear for someone who shoots simchas and corporate events.
I also do personalised photo op tours in my London taxi, but for colour and transport, the blue skies and convertible cadillacs make Havana a dream destination for a photographer.
Everything deserves to be photographed – so that’s the friendly people, the vintage cars and the beautiful colonial buildings, many of which now lie in ruins behind their facades.
It’s simply fascinating: the rum, the music, the history, trying to understand the currencies (yes, there is more than one), the communism and the way of life.
The best time to visit Cuba is in the spring when it is still sunny, before the hurricane season begins in June, but we went in August, armed with sunscreen, mosquito repellent, umbrellas and fans for the humidity.
They say the food in Cuba is bland and repetitive so we went with few expectations, but wound up eating in some wonderful restaurants.
La Guarida is a paladar (privately-run restaurant) on the top floor of an otherwise derelict building, which counts Madonna and the Kardashians among its’ clientele. El Cocinero is in the residential area of Vedado, next to the arts centre, Fábrica del Arte Cubano.
It’s very popular so booking is essential, or you can just go for drink. Food and service at both ere excellent.
At the Palacio de la Artesanía in Habana Vieja, Gustavo initiated us in the art of smoking a Cuban cigar with rum and coffee – el maridaje or ritual. Unfortunately, Gustavo doesn’t speak English so you need a Spanish speaker to translate.
The first part of the ritual involves opening a new bottle of dark Havana Club rum and throwing the first part on the floor as ‘a gift to the Saints’.
While we smoked our Romeo & Juliet cigars Gustavo showed us the different way to hold them (the Fidel Castro, Winston Churchill or ladylike way), how to burn a ring at the beginning, deal with the ash (don’t flick it!) and when to put it out.
Or in our case, get it going.
We took two tours. On our first morning Willy was our guide on a walking tour of Old Havana.
He told us all about the history of the city and spent three hours showing us around.
It’s a great idea to do a walking tour on your first day in any city so you can decide what you would like to see more of.
There are a lot of museums in Havana, but we decided not to go to any of them.
Had we done it would have been to the rum and cigars museum, but opted instead to walk,chat to locals and take these photographs, but did take a tour in a masterfully restored vintage cadillac– great fun and a definite must-do.
Devising our own itinerary took us down El Malecón (the coast) to Fusterlandia, a neighbourhood of Havana which has been transformed into a work of art by local artist José Fuster.
On the way back we drove through the Havana Forest (Bosque de Havana) full of beautiful sweeping trees covered in green canopy plants and visited Hemingway’s haunts La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita, and the Raquel Hotel.
Mostly we explored Havana’s streets meeting locals who were happy to chat. We discovered that there is no poverty in Cuba, but people have very little.
Food is rationed (except for tourists) and everything belongs to the state.
With few shops and little to buy, Cuba is a refreshing contrast to our consumerism and an interesting lesson for our teenage kids.
- The Sollers travelled to Cuba with Virgin Atlantic and stayed in the Iberostar Parque Central from £164 per night
When Castro came to power in 1959, 90 percent of the 15,000 Jews in Cuba fled. Nowadays almost all the remaining 1,500 Jewbans (Jewish Cubans) live in Havana and are delighted to welcome visitors to their community.
Tours of Jewish interest are run by young Jewbans and visit the three synagogues. El Patronato (also known as Beth Shalom) is the largest, which also houses the community centre where the chagim are celebrated along with cheder classes and Israeli dancing.
The other shuls are the orthodox Adath Israel and the Sephardi Synagogue, which houses the Cuban Holocaust exhibition.
The Jewish Quarter is in the centre of the old city. Like much of Havana, it is run-down though Hotel Raquel is in a beautifully restored Art Nouveau building. With its mezuzah, Star of David, , L’Chaim bar and Garden of Eden restaurant, it is aimed at Jewish visitors and well worth a visit.