I have always longed to get on a plane and command, ‘Take me to Cuba!’ Well, the other week I did just that. Sadly, it fell a little flat, the stewardess’s wintry smile telling me that she got a lot of that on the Gatwick-Havana flight. Still, it kept me chuckling for the next eight and a half hours between movies, meals and snoozes in Virgin Upper Class.
Havana was humid and sticky and it was as stifling inside my elderly rust-bucket of a taxi as it was outside.
‘Air-con on half?’ grinned the driver, winding down his window halfway, ‘or on full?’, winding it down as far as it would go. We agreed on full and set off, swerving between potholes, stray dogs and broken-down cars. I wouldn’t have worried quite so much about the stench of petrol if the driver hadn’t been smoking such an enormous cigar, the ash of which exploded in a shower of sparks each time we hit a bump.
At one point I thought we were coming under fire, but soon realised it was the ancient Meccano-set-on-wheels that pulled up beside us at the lights. It rattled like a Gatling gun, producing an alarming amount of black smoke. The passenger door was lashed to the car by rope and the windscreen was held in place by sticking-plaster. It stalled as the lights went green.
I just had time to check into the art-deco Hotel Saratoga, bang opposite the Capitolio Nacional, before dashing to the Gran Teatro to see the Ballet Nacional de Cuba. This, I’d been told, was an absolute must. The whole of Havana appeared to be there, with mums, dads, grand-parents and kids milling around, gossiping and waving to each other inside the decaying but spectacular 1,500-seat neo-baroque auditorium. I showed the usherette my ticket, but she had no better idea where my seat was than I had. Eventually with the help of a posse of public-spirited locals we found it, inhabited by a toothless old crone who beamed from ear to ear as I turfed her out. She and I repeated this good-humoured eviction after the interval.
The performance itself was stunning, a sort of pot-pourri of Cuban, Spanish and conventional ballet, each segment greeted by roaring, foot-stamping applause. The sheer force and athleticism of the dancers was breathtaking. Thirst-inducing too, and the minute the curtain fell I headed off in search of Havana’s fabled bars.
I was immediately accosted by a young couple. ‘Ingleesh? Hello Ingleesh!’ they shouted as they fell in step either side of me. They begged for money, giving me some tosh about needing milk for their baby. Their hands were everywhere as they hugged and kissed me and declared that I had a big heart. I flung them a few notes.
As I fled, the man shouted after me, ‘Meester, come home with us for smoke ceegar. Nice apartment. Pleeeze!’
I hurried across Parque Central to Floridita, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite watering-holes and the self-proclaimed ‘Cradle of the Daiquiri’. A bronze statue of the great man stood in mid-anecdote at one end of the bar and a sulky barman picking his teeth stood at the other. The place was empty save for a middle-aged English couple engrossed in his ’n’ hers guidebooks and a young American — oops, sorry, Canadian — engrossed in his big fat cigar and big fat girlfriend.
My daiquiri was a crushing disappointment, thin and insipid, tasting as if it had been made the previous week. Pricey too. Chastened, I returned to the hotel. I rinsed my mouth out with a far more toothsome mojito by the rooftop pool and watched as a dramatic electrical storm lit up the darkening sky.
I had been told that nobody came to Havana for the food and judging by my dinner of semi-cooked chicken, duck, lamb and beef kebabs ‘complete with three sauces for the dipping’ (luckily only two turned up), they were right. Still, the Chilean wine was fine, the staff enchanting and the bill tiny.
The following day I booked a guide. Osmin was a lovely guy with beautiful English and a passion for his home town. We started by driving down the Malecón, the road which sweeps alongside the sea. We passed the US Interests Section which famously beamed anti-Castro propaganda across an electronic screen, something which Castro hilariously obscured by erecting scores of flagpoles — the so-called Wall of Flags.
We made for the Necropolis Colón, a marble city-in-miniature which is the last resting place for some two million Habanos. The most famous tomb is that of Amelia Goyri de Hoz, known as La Milagrosa (The Miraculous One). Having died in childbirth in 1901, she was buried with her child at her feet and her grief-stricken husband visited the grave every day, knocking on the marble lid. When the tomb was opened a few years later during cleaning, the child was found to be in Amelia’s arms. ‘Today, women who want or who have just lost a baby make pilgrimages here,’ murmured Osmin.
At that moment a young woman came up, tapped at the tomb and threw herself on it, weeping. Meanwhile, another waited patiently in the shade of a nearby tree, clutching an enormous bunch of flowers.
Greatly moved, we drove on past Plaza de la Revolución, with its famous bronze silhouette of Che Guevara, past Havana University and thence to the Hotel Nacional for an exquisite mojito, drunk in wicker armchairs on the lawn overlooking the ocean.
Refreshed, we walked along the elegant, treelined Calle Prado past graceful balconied mansions in appalling states of repair, before ducking into Hotel Sevilla, where Graham Greene set Our Man in Havana and where Capone stayed. We had a quick beer — Bucanero Fuerte, very moreish — and then it was off to the darkly atmospheric Museo de la Revolución, complete with Granma, the 60-foot pleasure cruiser in which Castro and his 80-strong band of brothers arrived in 1956. So hot was it that I was soon gasping again and insisted on another beer in Hotel Ambos Mundos, home to Hemingway during much of the 1930s. He began For Whom the Bell Tolls in room 511, now a mini–museum.
Osmin and I parted in the Plaza de la Catedral and I spent the remaining day and a half happily on my own. I had some of the finest, gloopiest hot chocolate in the Museo del Chocolate; coughed my lungs up with my first ever cigar at the Real Fabrica de Tabacos Partagás, an astonishing 160-year-old time-warp of a tobacco factory; was propositioned on one street corner by a buxom wench who promised me ‘lotta fun foogy-foogy’ and on another by a wizened cigar-chomping old bag keen to tell my fortune: ‘Ingleesh, you lucky, lucky.’
I stepped over dead dogs; glimpsed chaotic, cramped flats behind shutters of once proud palaces; heard the strains of trumpet and sax behind peeling doors; dodged ancient Lincolns, Chryslers and Cadillacs that spluttered round the city; soaked up modern Cuban art in the cool and airy Centro de Arte Contemporáneo Wifredo Lam; listened to great jazz in La Zorra y El Cuervo; drank my fill of mojitos in La Bodeguita del Medio; and drank more in Havana Club’s wonderfully welcoming Museo del Ron; promenaded along the Malecón at dusk and had a surprisingly fine dinner in La Guarida, a paladar or family-owned dining room, bizarrely situated in the third-floor flat of a crumbling marble mansion.
By the end, Havana had me in her spell. She was like a brash and vulgar party girl whom everyone adores and you can’t think why. Ten minutes in her company, though, and you too are smitten. My three nights passed in a flash and I long to return to discover more about this edgy but thrilling city. Oh, and to find the rascal who lifted my wallet as I checked out.
Kirker Holidays offers tailor-made short breaks in Havana (and can get the necessary visa for you). See www.kirkerholidays.com or call 020 7593 1899 for details.