A popular NADFAS Accredited Lecturer, professor Andrew Hopkins FSA is an internationally recognised authority on architecture and cities. He will be joining Aegean Odyssey later in 2017 on her ‘Christmas in Cuba & the Caribbean’ voyage. His richly illustrated presentations reveal the strategies used by great architects to create iconic and memorable buildings, while it is these architects’ urban planning that does so much to give individual cities their unique identities and fascinating histories. Having recently visited the vibrant city of Havana, we asked Andrew what he enjoyed most about the city and what he would recommend to those visiting with Voyages to Antiquity this winter.
Some people say the best way to instantly get to know Havana and its people is catch a bus. Almost always a very crowded bus. But each driver brings their own memory stick of music so as you rumble along from stop to stop the music is always different and the lady or gent beside you might decide to start tapping the hand rail in rhythm with the song. A ride costs somewhere between 5 and 10 cents in the new convertible pesos – that is around 100 to 200 of the old pesos that are mostly reserved for the locals. They won’t give them to you in change and you will be expected to stay “convertibile” unless you decide to go native.
Lunch or dinner or a taxi ride costs something like $25 – which is the average monthly wage for Cubans working in regular employment and not in the recently approved businesses mainly linked to tourism. So older Cubans feel poor yet this also means many of the younger ones work in tourism, earn enough and have stayed – rather than fleeing to richer pastures such as Florida.
On the other hand, things have changed recently and rapidly. A brand new 5 star hotel has just opened a stone’s throw from the Capitol – Havana’s most celebrated building and one that testifies to how the United States of America was such a strong beacon in this region a century ago. The Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinksi hotel represents the new Cuba with its luxury roof-top swimming pool, while in the streets below the buildings haven’t been cared for since they were built. Fortunately the Capitol is now being beautifully restored to its original splendour.
I personally think the best way for anyone to see the city when stepping ashore in Havana is to drive around for an hour or two in a vintage automobile. Warm weather, cover down, wide streets, small and tall buildings can all be seen from the comfort and style of a 50’s Chevrolet or Buick with your friends.
And at the end of the tour perhaps get your driver to stop downtown at La Torre Hotel where you can pop into a lift taking you immediately to the top and the classic bar with its unparalleled views over this sprawling city. Had the revolution not come in 1959 perhaps today Havana would have looked something like New York. Here the Negronis are highly recommended.
A perfect place for lunch – which might seem odd – is 5 Esquinas for the best pizza in Havana. Inside or out, you will be surprised by their quality and the charm of the remarkable ambiente. But never order fish in Havana as it is uniformly terrible. We don’t know why but it is so. This charming trattoria also has the huge advantage of being very close to the Museum of the Revolution a must see with its bullet holes in the staircase as you ascend. This unique museum tells us about how the world changed for Cuba in 1959, just as this country set in its time-warp is certainly the main impetus for visitors to come to Cuba today.
For those who love to move to the music, Havana’s main dance hall is now beautifully restored and open every day – right opposite the Capitol in the centre of town, while worth a visit.
Professor Andrew Hopkins will be joining Aegean Odyssey on her ‘Christmas in Cuba & the Caribbean’ voyage in December 2017.
Our full winter 2017/2018 programme can be viewed on our website.