I’ll see you in Havana
Beyond the seaside malecón, vintage cars and time-tested buildings, on the same streets that fostered a revolution, where artists from around the world have found inspiration, Cuba’s capital is getting a new look.
Text: Diego Cobo | Photos: roberto candia
Cuba is changing. The first meeting between Barack Obama and Raúl Castro began to thaw diplomatic relations with the United States, and on the streets of Havana, the stars and stripes started to appear – as if by magic – on clothing, on hotel flagpoles and even on bicycle-taxis. It seems some Cubans never lost their fascination with U.S. pop culture, and many see view this historic encounter as a new economic opportunity.
Yes, Cuba is changing, but that doesn’t mean a focus on all things foreign. Eddy Fernández Monte’s face lights up when he talks about the culinary scene in Havana. Cuban cuisine is really taking flight, but the country’s culinary heritage has not been forgotten. A master chef dedicated to restoring pride in traditional Cuban fare, Fernández is the president of Cuba’s Federación de Asociaciones Culinarias, as well as the top chef at the restaurant Arte Chef.
Dozens of restaurants have opened in the neighborhood of Vedado and Miramar, where you’ll also find several theaters and art galleries. Today, the city boasts an interesting array of dining options, like the restaurant Starbien, and Río Mar, at the mouth of the Río Almendares.
And Havana’s new tourism industry is heading off the beaten path to forge new ones. The predictable cocktails at old standards like La Bodeguita del Medio are being balanced by modern spaces that fill a special niche. Places like El Cocinero (innovative options in an old oil factory) and Café Madrigal (craving tapas?) offer a refreshing taste of modernity. Havana is learning that tourism thrives with variety.
Paradise for Artists
Let’s start at the Plaza de Armas, the gateway to a literary world. Here, under the shade of the immense flamboyan trees, dozens of booksellers offer works of tremendous historic value, most of them volumes that examine the legendary revolution of 1959. Those were the days of berets, when Fidel Castro became the Prime Minister and began to shape the country’s future.
And this is also the land of Ernest Hemingway, who lived in Havana for more than 20 years, in the 1940s and 1950s. Here, the U.S. writer ate, drank, fished and penned works like A Moveable Feast and Islands in the Stream. It doesn’t take much more than a quick stroll around Cojimar – a small town on the outskirts of the capital – to realize that this placid fishing village inspired The Old Man and the Sea, the novel that set Hemingway on the path to the Nobel Prize in Literature. Hemingway’s home in Cuba, Finca Vigía, is perched on the hill of San Francisco de Paula. He purchased the house with the money he made selling rights to the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. Now a museum, Finca Vigía is an essential tourist destination that faithfully preserves the author’s spirit.
Indeed, the crocodile-shaped island has a powerful attraction that has lured writers from around the world. It was here that British author Graham Greene wrote Our Man in Havana. Spanish poet Rafael Alberti was entranced by his travels to the island where he gave conferences and recited his works, including the poem with the famous line: “Havana was already lost / Money was to blame.” And Spanish playwright and poet Federico García Lorca wrote his parents from Havana to say “This island is a paradise.”
Likewise, the classic Cuban singer-songwriters have been followed by new artists who fuse a variety of musical styles, a novelty for a country accustomed to the traditional sounds of son, trova and guaguancó. X (pronounced “Equis”) Alfonso is one of those experimental rockers who explores quintessential Cuban themes like nostalgia, loneliness and love, while symbolizing a Cuba that’s more contemporary than ever before.
As X describes in his lyrics: “There’s the hidden Havana you never see / filled with special people / humble by tradition / full of nostalgia and resignation / looking for doorways to answers.”
Havana’s powerful impulse to renew itself is strengthened by a sense of irony. And in this, trovador Ray Fernández is an expert, just like the acid-edged rappers Los Aldeanos. It’s a new vibe for a city that looks old on the outside but is growing at a furious pace deep inside. Cuba might seem like one big smile, but the most common expression seems to be “esto no es fácil” (it isn’t easy). And yet the people of Havana don’t let up. in
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