On first impressions, Havana can seem like a confusing jigsaw puzzle but work out how to put the pieces together and a beautiful picture emerges.
No one could have invented Havana. It’s too audacious, too contradictory, and – despite 50 years of withering neglect – too damned beautiful. How it does it is anyone’s guess. Maybe it’s the swashbuckling history still almost perceptible in atmospheric colonial streets; the survivalist spirit of a populace scarred by two independence wars, a revolution and a US trade embargo; or the indefatigable salsa energy that ricochets off walls and emanates most emphatically from the people. Don’t come here with a long list of questions. Just arrive with an open mind and prepare for a long, slow seduction.
A Great Art City
It may not be like Paris’ or New York’s quite yet, but the art culture in Havana is currently one of the city’s biggest surprises. The creativity is nothing new. Cuban artists have been quietly challenging cultural elites ever since native-born José Nicolás de la Escalera started painting black slaves in the 18th century. Today the work of Escalera and others is splendidly displayed in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. Meanwhile, a newer, racier crew congregates for electrifying ‘happenings’ at the Fábrica de Arte Cubano, the vortex of Havana’s contemporary art scene.
Cool Cafes & Bohemian Bars
Havana is going through an interesting stage at present. Private enterprise is showing the first flowerings of a creative spring, while the big-name brands from that well-known ‘frenemy’ in the north have yet to gain a foothold. As a result, the city is rife with experimentation. Here a dandy cafe decked out like a bohemian artist’s lair, there a trancey lounge bar where earnest travellers sit around comparing Che Guevara T-shirts. Maybe it’s something they put in the mojitos, but the face of Cuban cafe culture has never looked so good.
500 Years of History
In Havana, the history is piled up like wrecked treasure on a palm-fringed beach. Except for these days, the colonial squares and buildings are looking noticeably less wrecked, thanks primarily to proactive City Historian Eusebio Leal Spengler, who has been piecing the place back together for over 30 years. Walk the streets of Habana Vieja and you’ll quickly feel a genuine connection with the past in the imposing coastal fortifications and intimate, traffic-free plazas. Equally engrossing are the more recent leftovers from Cuba’s marriages and divorces with both the USA and the USSR.