Sunday, 12 November 2017

CIENFUEGOS

1st - 3rd Nov 2017
The famous revolutionary and philosopher José Martí
Cienfuegos is situated on the south coast 30 miles to the east of the infamous Bay of Pigs (the scene of another magnificent US/CIA military cock-up in 1961). It was a 6 hour bus journey, including a 40 minute pit-stop for lunch at a surprisingly good restaurant (plus musicians of course) along remarkably empty and decent roads after having to back track to southern Havana. 

The city was founded by a French emigré in 1819 and still maintains a slightly French ambience. It was the home town of that well known and revered 19th century revolutionary and philosopher José Martí whose statue of him flicking a 'V' sign at passing counter-revolutionaries, and with the mandatory pigeon sitting on his head, stands in the Parque José Martí in the town centre. Another world famous resident was the singer Benny Moré whose memorable song 'Cienfuegos' captured the hearts of all Cubans and is probably still sung in all the best bars, and baths.

Although surrounded by quite a lot of ugly industry, the town centre is pleasantly clean and prosperous looking. UNESCO funds? Left: The main Avenue 54. The Cubans seem to have been changing a lot of their old  charismatic street names (in good revolutionary style) and all Avenues (east - west) and Calles (north - south) in the grid layout are now just numbers.


The bus from Viñales was operated byTranstur, not Viazul this time, and was rather smarter and delivered us to the town centre just outside the best hotel, Hotel La Union. I think Transtur is a bit more up-market, if a little more expensive but no taxi drive needed from an outside depot.


Right: The bar and swimming pool in the Hotel La Union. No public WiFi here even though they promised it worked in the bar on the top 4th floor open air roof area (nada!), but it does some reasonable bar food. The only WiFi available to us tourists is in and around the Parque José Martí. I had to use a rather grotty park-side café to log-on, sporadically.









The mini Arc de Triomphe at the western end of Parque José Martí. It adds a bit of French flavour.
....and quite a smart colonnade on the north side.


Left: On the end of this is the Tomas Terry theatre. Don't they mean Terry Thomas? I've heard of him.


I went inside the theatre (right). Somewhat faded grandeur, but lots of famous singers and thespians have performed here, apparently, such as Enrico Caruso, Sarah Bernhardt and the legendary Alqimedes Pous. That's what the old posters on the walls said; but no mention of Terry Thomas. 'What a ghastly omission', as he would have said.








The place was, according to a notice, 'under renovation' and no performances were scheduled for the immediate future. There was a net suspended by string under the centre of the elaborately decorated ceiling (left). It was to catch bits of falling plasterwork and I suspect that any 'renovation' was just being done by Señor Gravity & Co. Reminds me of an old Irish country house; when you sat down for dinner in a large dining room chunks of plaster fell onto the table and into your soup, and nobody mentioned it. The butler just went round sweeping it up.








Right: An alternative form of public tour bus parked outside the theatre. Operated by Transtur, the bus company, I noted.













As in Viñales, horse-drawn carts and carriages are a common form of transport.












The horses were remarkably well behaved and trotted around town oblivious of other motorised traffic. When the driver got off they just stood patiently, I suppose sensibly, to avoid unnecessary effort. Can't imagine British horses doing that; they would be stampeding all over the place mowing down pedestrians with frantic drivers trying to catch them. 







Left: In the grotty café where I sometimes managed to connect to the internet was a nearby table occupied by this strange trio. Maybe they were waiting to perform at the Terry Thomas theatre.

Incidentally, for some reason, I have been carrying around an old newspaper which I was reading on the flight over. It has come in very useful. Most of the café/bar tables have been very wobbly and I use the folded newspaper to prop up a table leg to ensure some stability.  The British Press does serve a useful purpose after all.
I arrived in Cienfuegos with no particular Casa booked, but called in (courtesy of the Lonely Planet) at the house, Amistad, owned by a lady called Leanora. Unfortunately she was booked up but proved most interesting and helpful. She is a retired physics lecturer and spoke excellent English. We had a good chat in her rather opulent sitting room, after which she quickly found me alternative accommodation nearby owned by an old lady (78) called Esther.

Right: Esther in her sitting room. She was most hospitable, but rather blind and spoke no English, at all. When booking into a Casa the owner has to fill in a form with your passport details amongst other things and then submit this to the immigration authorities. Esther proudly used a large, treasured and somewhat opaque 19th century magnifying glass to do this. It took rather a long time.






Left: The restaurant Paladar Aché was recommended as a good place to eat. It is one of only two surviving 'private' restaurants in the town. It is a 30 min walk from the centre and did indeed have a pleasant ambience with a little beer garden and smart looking waiters.
The service was exemplary, but unfortunately the food was rather typical; varieties of chicken, pig, rice and beans, plus fish and prawns. I chose what sounded (from the smart menu) like a nice 'pork and onion sauce' offering. It came as two quite large but rather dry pork chops with a few rings of raw onion on the top plus a bowl of black rice. Not great...but a pleasant enough venue if nothing else. Maybe I should have tried the fish.
Secreted in the garden surrounding it were several gnomes (right). Surprised they haven't been nicked by now. I remember a phase in UK when 'liberating' gnomes from gardens was a common occurrence. I even remember someone who specialised in it. If you are reading this Antonio, there are rich pickings to be had at Av 38 between Calles 41 & 43, Cienfuegos.







The town in split into two parts., Running down the south eastern side is the peninsular of Punta Gorda. It was a pleasant two mile walk down the 'Malecón' seaside to the Punta itself. On the way I passed this rather impressive looking villa, so I walked in. It is the Club Cienfuegos El Marinero, an old and once prestigious yacht club (There were some fine and now defunct trophies on display) which was obviously very smart before La Revolutión, and still has some decent facilities. 



.......i.e.. a swimming pool (right) with large catamarans and yachts tied up at the jetty. It costs CUC 1 for entry and a further CUC 10 to use the swimming pool.  I think the restaurant has fallen into disrepair. I bought an ice-cream. It was not a good one.








On reaching the 'punta' itself at the south end there was quite a smart looking hotel with outside bar and bandstand which, of course, featured a small band playing jolly tunes. They managed to persuade this Australian chap (left)  to shake their maracas which he did, manfully. We went for a drink at the bar and he told me he is a keen 'Marlin hunter'. He and his mother were returning to Oz from an international Marlin fishing competition in Mexico. Big cash prizes to be won I was told, amongst much else about Marlin fishing. 




Right: Also down this end was an extraordinary building of 'Moorish' style architecture called the Palacio de Valle, built in 1917 by a wealthy Spaniard. It is now a restaurant. I didn't try it.











Left: Parked nearby was another example of one of the myriad old US cars. They are so common, but I still can't help taking photos of them. This one was beautifully battered and missing the odd window but apparently in working condition.












On walking back into town I passed this outdoor boxing school (right). There were about a dozen enthusiastic young lads, including some young children, being coached by a sturdy instructor who wielded a whip, but otherwise seemed very good natured. Cuba, as you may be aware, excels at boxing and several other what we consider 'minor' sports. They won a boxing gold medal at the Rio Olympics. Baseball is a major sport for them. I was told their football team is not that great, but would probably beat the English one (well, if Iceland can......!).




So that was two days in Cienfuegos. Not a bad place at all although rather lacking in good bars and restaurants for evening entertainment.

On next to the town of Trinidad, about 50 miles east.









Wednesday, 8 November 2017

ON WEST TO VIÑALES

30th Oct - 1st Nov 2017


Mural de la Prehistoria near Viñales
By Viazul bus to Viñales, 3½ hours west of Havana. It was a good road and smooth journey in a comfortable air-conditioned bus. My only gripe (I've got to have one!) was when it came to pre-booking the seat which, going to this popular location, is advisable. The Viazul bus ticket office/terminal is about 4 kms from the Old City, west of Vedado. I was told you need a printed copy of a ticket. It is possible to book a ticket on the internet but finding a printer to connect to is a non-starter. So, I took a (nice and shoddy) taxi to the terminal the day before (CUC 10), paid for the ticket (CUC 12), taxi back to Viejo (CUC 10) and then a taxi back to the terminal early the next morning (CUC 10). Therefore a CUC 12 ticket cost me, in effect, CUC 42! C'est la vie.

Viñales and surrounding area is lovely, and a refreshing change from manic and grimy Havana. It is situated in an area of Karst geological features (vertical limestone cliffs) which are riddled with caves. It is very similar to the Vang Vieng area in Laos. Indeed the village of Viñales reminded me very much of Vang Vieng, but it is cleaner and tidier and no river to do 'tubing' or packs of hard-drinking wild-eyed 'Gap Yar' students.




Right: The main street (the only large street) in the town/village. It is very 'touristy' but in a quiet and tasteful fashion. There are some excellent restaurants, some of which even had alternative menus to the chicken, pig, rice and beans variety,  and pleasant bars. I was staying in another 'Casa Particulare' of which there are hundreds. all over the town...I counted a whole line of 30 of them, pretty pastel coloured little houses, on the way to mine (Casa Benito). Benito himself, and wife Maria, were great fun and, as with all the others, very helpful.



Left: The main square. There is an open air 'Casa de Music' in the top right-hand corner which puts on amusing song and dance routines after 9.00pm. 











Right: An example of a typical Viñales Casa Particulare.


The mountainous area is noted for its tobacco plantations; the main tobacco growing area in Cuba manufacture, its caves (as per Vang Vieng again), hiking routes and 'horse riding' tours. They seemed desperately keen to get you onto a horse. I was desperately keen not to.






There were lots of horses and carts, ridden and driven by local 'guajiros' wearing chaps and large straw sombreros. Or even ox-carts (left).












Right: A local guajiro, or maybe a tourist for all I know; but tourists normally go around in convoys.



Left: Horses for hire.
L
........and a typical mode of transport. The single-seater sports version.











I was taken by a friend of Benito to a nearby tobacco 'finca'. At this time of year the tobacco fields are ploughed up and they are about to sow the seeds for the next crop. The cigar farmer, Eduardo (left), explained the manufacture process, which is quite complex. The leaves are harvested around March, I think, and then there are various stages of drying, being  hung up in sheds, fermenting and re-moisturising before being skilfully rolled. Then a further period of drying and treatment. From planting to smoking takes over a year.
Of course I was most disappointed not to witness the famed Cuban señoritas rolling the leaves on their moist thighs (got to keep your leaves moist when rolling you know)). However, Eduardo made a cigar for me from, seemingly, old and rather dry leaves to demonstrate and, after being told to dip the mouth end in honey,  I smoked it! I don't really lke cigars and have no idea whether if it would be considered a good one or not. The honey tasted quite nice. Very skilfully  rolled, shaped and cut anyway. I learnt that the leaves at the top of the plant, because they get the most sun, are the strongest in nicotine content and taste. Those leaves at the top are put into such brands as  Cohibas (the name comes from the pipes that the original Taíno inhabitants used to smoke tobacco), those in the middle into Monte Christo and those at the bottom, the lightest smoke, into Romeo y Julieta. Che Guevara liked to puff on a Monte Christo and Winston Churchill preferred Romeo y Julietas. He also told me (and I have to believe him) that the Cuban government takes 90% of his crop to be treated and rolled  near Havana where, according to him, they treat the cigars with some chemicals to increase their shelf life then brand and package them for sale. He is allowed to keep 10% to make his own cigars to sell locally. These have no added chemicals and cannot be branded. Of course I was persuaded to buy some, apparently, Cohibas and Monte Christo as (quite expensive) souvenirs. I have no idea if they are any good or not (possibly just the sweepings off the cutting room floor) but will find a suitable cigar aficionado to try them when I get home. Any volunteers?

A jolly bus trip on a tour of the area took me to this cliff face called the Mural de la Prehistoria, a 'tastefully' coloured painting 120 metres long featuring old prehistoric figures. It was completed in 1961 and took 18 people 4 years to do. I would have thought that Cuba could have more usefully employed 18 painters for 4 years. Reminds me of the time and effort I had to get a similar number of painters to do my sitting room in England.
I am proudly wearing my Hungerford Tennis Club shirt.












Left: One of the many caves with a pleasant bar at the entrance. I didn't have the time or inclination to do any 'caving'. Done it all before and once you have seen one cave system, you've seen the lot really.....depending on the light available.









Well, that's it from Viñales after only a couple of days here. A very pleasant stay and I thoroughly recommend the place. Onwards next, past the infamous Bay of Pigs, to Cienfuegos. Report to follow, internet allowing. 


Sunday, 5 November 2017

HAVANA FURTHER WANDER

29th - 30th Oct 2017


Plaza de la Catedral de San Cristóbal - Havana
As you can see from the photo above, some of the squares in the old town are in remarkably good condition and rather delightful. There is a big ongoing effort, notably by one chap called Eusebio Spengler, with the aid of UNESCO and foreign investors, to make headway in restoring more buildings. Havana, up to the 1950s, had become a rather decadent, corrupt and glitzy city thanks to wealthy Americans and was the stamping ground of American mobsters, notably the infamous Meyer Lansky and his cronys. Fidel Castro soon put a stop to all that jiggery-pokery following the revolution in 1959. The downside was that the city fell into disrepair.

So many of the main streets are lined with derelict ruins. This (left) is view up the Malecón, the seafront promenade along the north side of the centre. All the buildings in view in this poor photo are uninhabited wrecks. The Malecón is advertised as a charming and romantic 'promenade' (in the guide books), which, if the buildings were repaired, might warrant that description.






Right: Looking west down the Malecón. I walked it and if you looked out to sea it was a pleasant stroll. The sea conditions were calm but still large splooshes of waves came over the sea wall and, if you were not careful, you got drenched. Dread to think what it is like when the sea is rough. Advertised as a 'romantic' evening stroll for lovers, I imagine that their ardour would have been seriously dampened on many occasions.





Returning to the subject of 'Casa Particulares' accommodation; I have now stayed in three. The owners/hosts have all been so charming and helpful and give good advice if asked. They all, so far, seem to have a taste for antique furniture (similar to photo) and very proud of it. They are also very trusting. You are given keys to come and go as you please and they completely respect your privacy. Rooms are en-suite, always with aircon and/or fans, and very clean. The owner can also arrange (reliable) accommodation for your next destination. Very handy.


Every Casa and most 'facilities' have acquired this type of white painted metal furniture (right)...no other colour. Like the model T Ford advert; it comes in any colour provided it's black, or in this case white. It appears in all forms of chairs (especially rocking chairs) and  tables and graces all their outside areas, courtyards and patios. This pic is of the roof-top patio of one of my lodgings. Reminds me of the ubiquitous 'penguin' waste bins in Saigon. Some manufacturer has profitably cornered the market, probably with cast-offs from somewhere else.

I read about the railway system in Cuba (www.seat61.com. An excellent website). They have an extensive one but, apparently, it is totally unreliable, slow and uncomfortable. I am an enthusiastic rail traveller and examined the possibilities. There is one 'elite' train called, unoriginally, 'El Tren Francés ', an ancient decommissioned ex-French contraption, which travels the length of the country and is, I was told, comparatively 'comfortable' with seats, freezing aircon, foul toilets and a buffet service which sporadically provides coffee as long as you provide your own cup,  but it only goes every three days, maybe. I think it takes about 15 hours(ish) to get from Havana to Guantánamo or Santiago de Cuba in the east. I was tempted to try but resisted due to time constraints and didn't want to get stranded in some siding 800 miles from Havana. Maybe next time as a special adventure.

The large main railway station in Havana looked quite grand from the outside. The ticket hall (left) was cavernous but with few potential passengers. The timetables were scribbled in felt-tip on  paper stuck to the wall....with several amendments. I never saw any sign of an operational train and, to date, still haven't. 








The only sort of trains I saw, and there were several of them, were ancient rolling stock stuck on rails outside the station as decorative museum pieces. They all had placards telling you what they were but I won't bore you with those details.











Wandering on up towards the Parque de la Fraternidad (near the Capitolio) I happened upon this charming lady who would have liked to tell me my fortune. She had all the kit; tarot cards and a crystal ball in her bag. Unfortunately, my lack of Spanish and her lack of English would have made this, however accurate, a rather fruitless exercise. We had a nice little chat, although I don't think we understood much of what each other was saying. I think she enjoyed the company for 5 minutes, smiling benignly while puffing on her cigar. She was happy for me to take her photo, and I gave her a CUC for which she was most 'agradecido'.









More cars. I am beginning to take an interest in them. This pink job (right) was parked near the Parque Central and was one of many such vehicles for hire by tourists for a trip around the city. I think they are quite popular. CUC 25 for the privilege. I walked again.









Left: This other little pink one (pink seems a popular colour) was parked near the smart(ish) Hotel National in Vedado district. As I walked past it emitted loud snoring noises. I stopped to look inside. It then made other rather rude noises. I happened to look across the street where a group of guys were having a bit of a giggle. I presume they had some sort of remote speaker control. How drole.





Lots of schoolchildren were walking about. The common trouser/skirt uniform colour is, it seems, mustard. This is quite original as most other 3rd World (if that's what Cuba is) countries favour shades of blue. Just a point of interest. At least they looked quite smart which is more than can be said for most scruffy UK state students.








Left: This is the  junction with San Ignacio looking down Obispo Steet in Habana Viejo, the 'Oxford Street' of Old Havana. It ends up on the west side by the Parque Central and Hotel Inglaterra. Lots of shops, banks, dreaded ETECSA bureau and several bars and restaurants. On the downside I have yet to find a 'general store' or kind of mini-market selling a variety of goods. Just to buy some shower stuff I had to locate a shop which only sold soap and shampoo, nothing else, and you had to queue outside. 
On the plus side there is a refreshing, and total, lack of the dreaded MacDonalds and all the other pestilential US fast-food  and coffee joints. Well done Cuba!

Right: Plaza de San Francisco de Asis and its ex-monastery; another fine square in the Old Town.





Left: An impressive bronze of someone (forgotten who) near the monastery which attracts a lot of attention from passers-by who can't resist stroking his well worn and shiny beard. It's not Billy Connolly is it?















Right: More exotically dressed fortune tellers in Old Havana.













Left: The outside bar at the Hotel Nacional in Vedado (west) District. This is one of Havana's more prestigious hotels and attracts the cream of weathy tourists. Not a bad place but really nothing special. It does good gin and tonics etc. in a cosy inside bar, but no internet available for the passing tourist. Outside is the Cabaret Parisién, a cheaper version of the famous Club Tropicana, and stages song and dance shows. I might call in on the way back home. Also nearby is the Gato Tuerto (The One Eyed Cat) another restaurant/music club worth visiting, I am told. I may look in later.  


Right: Another little band playing at the outside bar at Hotel Nacionale. They are all very skilled and good to listen to....until they add lots of trumpets and saxophones, that is, when they become rather too noisy. 











Last place to note in this edition is the Club Habana located 10 miles west of the city in Flores. It was obviously a very prestigious yachting and sports club back in the 50s, and still maintains some of it's former glory. It has an impressive clubhouse (left), but many of the rooms inside are now empty, apart from a cosy bar and an 'executive' office. Outside there are 4 decent tennis courts, a good swimming pool, a café with gym attached, a restaurant and a beach area. It caters for the wealthier Cubans, ex-pats, diplomats etc., plus the occasional passing tourist. Membership is, I am informed, $1200 pa.

I had arranged to meet Betty and John (see previous blog) here for lunch. It costs CUC 15 entry for the day or, as I was persuaded to do, CUC 30 and you can use CUC 15 for drinks and food. I paid for their lunch, and it was probably worth it. Memories flooded back to Betty (she was 9 years old when last here) when she saw old photos of the place and people in the main Clubhouse and was gven a delightful run-down on the place by a most helpful manageress. Right: The swimming pool area.




Left: The beach at Club Habana. Not so many people were here today as it was Sunday and rather windy (look at the palm trees). On getting here (by cheap wreck of a taxi in my case) you pass through the district of Siboney, 5th Avenue, which has some magnificent old villas, now mainly Embassies. It was obviously a very posh outskirt of Havana.







Publishing this now as my WiFi card is about to run out. I am several legs behind my Tour de Cuba and hope to catch up in due course.