Wow, Havana Cuba – what to say about Havana? It’s an explosion of colour. An extraordinary mix of old colonial splendour and decrepit socialist utopia, mixed with a smattering of run-down English sea-side town bolted onto a stunning Old Town of plazas and cobbled streets straight out of southern Spain or Sicily. Add in more classic American cars than you can shake a stick at (plus a generous dose of Soviet-era Ladas). And set it all on a balmy tropical island, where the pace of life is the calmer side of relaxed. Oh, and did I mention the white sandy beach and clear Caribbean waters?
Havana is a lot more varied than we were expecting. You have your grand old houses where the pre-Castro rich lived in luxury, places that have gone to decay but still retain some of their original character.
There are the monstrous Communist era tower and government office blocks straight from the Joseph Stalin School of Art and Design, Moscow campus. The best example of this is Revolutionary Square, a bland 5 acres of tarmac rescued by a couple of enormous metal sculptures of Che Guevara and Uncle Fidel. (Despite being one of the last bastions of the old Communist world, there is a disappointing lack of cult-of-personality Billboards – Castro doesn’t stare down from every street corner…)
The back streets of Havana are straight out of a novel – dirty but colourful streets with the locals hanging out, talking and shouting across the streets to each other, while dogs languidly loll in the heat.
And people queue. A lot. They seem to mainly queue for buses and at banks or government kiosks. But they do so in good humour, with a system whereby once you have a place in the queue, you can leave and sit down, and return when your turn gets closer to the front. Not good if you join a queue at the back and find hundreds of people who aren’t in the queue are actually in the queue. But it seems to all happen in such a laid back, relaxed way.
The back streets of the Old Town are more Third World – dusty thoroughfares with fascinating facades that seem to be very dark and run down inside.
All this makes a stark contrast to the centre of the Old Town, where the government has clearly spent some money on cleaning up the place. The old squares and streets are wonderfully restored with numerous outdoor restaurants and bars. And from each place you will hear a Cuban 4-piece band belting out their Caribbean jazz and salsa and rumba. The singers are generally extraordinary – but boy, they do not like to let you leave without a tip for the band!