Havana's fortress, cigars and rumba
From anywhere on the Malecon you’ll be able to view the picturesque fortress of Morro Castle, perched on a promontory on the opposite side of the bay to Old Havana. It was built at the entrance to the harbour by the Spanish in the late 1500s, at the time the English pirate politician Sir Francis Drake was prowling the Caribbean and England was at war with Spain. Walking the Malecon during the day or night and looking out to the castle, you’ll be aware of the city’s strong maritime links and role in the last 500 years of world history, and depending on the Cubans you’ll no doubt speak with on the Malecon, you might also learn other curious historical titbits related to the castle: the original lavatories evacuate directly into the sea; it was where a revolutionary Che Guevara committed acts better befitting the Inquisition that belie his hero status; the castle still acts as the harbourmaster’s office; the grounds house a lighthouse museum; and, as you’ll no doubt already be aware, is a fine focus for an already stunning skyline.
‘Got tight last night and did knife tricks’ – Hemingway was fond of embellishing his machismo, but had no need to gild his prodigious drinking. A great writer but solid alcoholic, he quenched his thirst in bars all across Havana, many of which will now tell you where ‘papa’ sat and what he drank, and ask whether you would like one too. It’s hard to pinpoint his favourite drink, but most involved rum and lime juice. Enjoy Daiquiris and Mojitos in the Sirena bar of The National Hotel of Cuba and at the Mojito's claimed place of birth: La Bodeguita del Medio, or any number of bars throughout the city, and you’ll be up and dancing to salsa rhythms in no time.
Sir Winston Churchill chomping down on a cigar and defiantly doing his V-for-victory sign is a classic twentieth century image. Few photographs show Churchill without a cigar and the cigars were all Cuban – he acquired the taste while living and working in Havana at the turn of last century. At The ‘Churchill Bar’ in the National Hotel of Cuba, you too can light up a Romeo y Julieta in thick, squinty puffs, adopt a bulldog grimace, and swirl in the sweet smoke and fascinating history of Havana’s most famous hotel. Over the one and a half hours it will take to finish, you can wonder at the hotel’s grand colonnades and enchanted castle countenance, and imagine the golden era when the likes of Hemingway, Sinatra and Errol Flynn hung here, and how resident gangsters like Lucky Luciano honed their talents before being booted on to build Vegas. Or just snub that cigar out, chew and ruminate anyway, like Churchill often did, at one of Havana’s premier attractions and a curious cross point for twentieth century art and power.
A spicy sauce salsa might be, but the suggestive swivelling hips, up-ruffled skirts and sharp-swing heels of Cuban dance reveals a much more compelling definition. Overtly sexual salsa and rumba moves will get your heart rate up and feet flapping in any number of dance and music halls across Havana, and indeed almost anywhere else in Cuba, where dance taps into the lively pulse of the nation. Its thrilling exuberance belies the country’s restricted circumstance, and though dancing can be slow, maudlin and sensual, it soon becomes fast, frantic and flagrant as the night wears on. On entering dance halls, locals usually welcome newcomers with smiling ease and, as the world’s greatest dancers (don’t tell the Argentinians), they’re best placed to teach you all the right moves. Either take part or just watch - you’ll find dance in Cuba as captivating as it gets.
Stroll at sunset along El Malecon, the old sea wall avenue running the length of Havana’s waterfront, and you’ll soon be seduced by the city. The Malecon is one of the most famed attractions in Cuba, where locals and travellers alike go to engage and people watch, or even swim and fish for dinner. 1950s and 1960s American cars cruise the wide avenue beside the lively pedestrian promenade, where men in straw hats puff on cigars while looking out to sea - it’s hard not to be drawn in by the evocative atmosphere. Though popular during the day, you’ll most enjoy wandering the seven kilometre seaside stretch in the evening; the sea breeze and light over the water is the perfect backdrop for social gatherings and more formal festivities like Carnival in July or August, or the Havana Jazz Festival in February. You can always just sit on the wall and watch ships heading in and out of port too, or the passage of canoodling lovers, but the nature of the locals will soon mean you’ll be talking to someone, anywhere you prop along this stretch sometimes known as ‘the soul of Cuba.’