La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) is best explored on foot, so we are hiring bikes and heading to the other side of the city, out along the Malecon though central Havana returning via Revolution Plaza. Our guide speaks a little English and oozes with enthusiasm. Keeping an eye on the traffic and watching out for stray dogs we set off.
Havana is flat making riding around relatively easy. Four hours will allow enough time to chart an interesting course stopping at museums and squares whilst zig zagging through a city past spectacular facades exploring street art, Cathedrals and boulevards. Some streets are relatively smooth whilst others are not, to say the least.
It’s 10am which, given my late lunch appointment, is a perfect time to start. However this was also an excellent way to shed 10kgs in the 32C degree heat. In hindsight an earlier start may have been better although my appetite and thirst were certainly primed and ready afterwards.
The Capitolio Nacional or El Capitolio,
It sits adjacent to the recently renovated Gran Teatro de La Habana. Both buildings are stunning and are helping to bring back life to the Havana of old. In less than five minutes we arrive at the Museo de la Revolution. Ensuring bikes are tied and locked we head in to meet Fidel and Che Guevara.
Set in the former Presidential Palace it’s a fairly small place where history jumps off the walls and stories of betrayal, assassination and revolution unfold as you wander the halls. A huge Cuban flag billows in the breeze hanging over the courtyard. Allowing half an hour to take it all in is ample time unless a guide is available, with exhibits explained in Spanish and sometimes English. Unfortunately there is no guide available today. However it will be well worth a return visit. It’s relatively easy now to secure the services of an English speaking guide who will include the museum as part of a walking tour of the old town. I know friends who have been a couple of times with different guides and the stories whilst sticking to a narrative can vary with fascinating local insight.
We cut through streets passing blue umbrellas set up around tables and chairs adjacent to a church where three streets converge. We’ll return for lunch another day. Heading north along Paseo de Marti we hit the Malecon and take a left heading along the oceanfront. We stop to look back on the view of the old fort protecting Havana harbour. During the day fishermen are scattered along the ocean walls casting their lines and trying their luck. At night the Malecon transforms into a hive of activity. The perfect place to take in the sunset and people watch with a cold Cerveza in hand.
Central Havana is filled with wonderful neighbourhoods. Glorious mansions in varying states of repair grace city blocks and it’s easy to imagine how Havana was once the Caribbean host to movie stars and glitterati. Some of the city’s best restaurants are here. It may be off the beaten track for the day trippers being dumped onto the city by cruise liners thousands at a time and I’m thinking that may be a good thing. For many of the more well known restaurants you need to book before you arrive now although you may grab a lunch spot at short notice. Given the Americans change their minds with each Presidential upheaval or whim, American based cruises which started to pop by under the Obama era concessions, are to stop delivering cashed up sightseers. Well that was this week anyway… Europeans and the rest of the world have been visiting for years and will continue to do so.
Art galleries are littered throughout the city, holes in the walls where local artists display their talent with pride. While stock standard oils of old cars and ladies with cigars are abundant, taking the time to duck into doorways can be rewarded with displays of exquisite photographs, sculptures and paintings. As always there’s a story to tell.
Churches seem to pop up everywhere. In back alleys, on boulevards and next to green parks. Away from Havana Cathedral (La Catedral de la Virgen María de la Concepción Inmaculada de La Habana) which is a must visit especially to climb the bell towers, small places of worship are littered throughout neighbourhoods and house stunning artefacts and glistening stained glass windows. We have to push our guide to stop so we can venture inside some of the quainter ones.
Round the corner and we’re rolling into a soccer (football) match on the street. The ball stops at my front wheel and for a moment everyone’s still. I manage to kick it back. There are six of us and six of them. It’s time for a break. We form a team and take on the local kids. It’s easy to tell who is on which side. We tower over them! A couple of goals each and were dripping in sweat. There’s a fruit market on the footpath offer refreshing orange drink at around CUC1 (USD1) for 2 huge bottles. Time to stop and refresh. The drinks are on us. We stumble across an area where every building seems to be covered in art and cafes spill out onto the streets. This was scripted by our guide however it’s one of the joys of exploring Havana. There are surprises around every corner.
We weave in and out of streets running parallel to Avenida 23 heading in the direction of Plaza de la Revolución. Havanas beautiful buildings are in a state of decay and whilst some are privileged to be under renovation and restoration others provide canvas for street art, adding colour and character. Heading onto Avenida Paseo towering 109 metres in the centre of the plaza the memorial to Jose Marti greets us. Pieced together by huge slabs of Cuban grey marble standing tall as a monument to one of Cuba’s heroes and in defiance to those who resisted Cuban independence. Che Guevara looks on from the facade of the Ministry of Interior.
Skirting Arroyo Street we head down towards the water’s edge encircling La Coubre Train Station to visit Almacenes San Jose Artisan’s Market along Avenue del Puerto. Here every conceivable souvenir can be purchased. Although as we navigate the city we have more fun negotiating with vendors set up in doorways and on staircases along the city’s streets. It’s a precept stop for those with little time. However we have the time so we linger here for a moment before moving on.
This has been the perfect way to explore another side of the city. Next time I’ll hire the bike and trust myself to be the guide.
www.rentbikehavana.com CUC15 for 24 hours hire/guided tour CUC25 per person