The Bay of Poets

My apologies to all my Italian readers. My little side trip to Cuba and other adventures have, no doubt, broken the spell. So, pour yourself a glass of Chianti Classico and think Italian thoughts. When last we visited Italy, we had gotten our rental car, managed to drive through Florence without getting killed, visited Pisa where I manged to drive straight through the pedestrian piazza, failed to get back onto the Autostrade and instead found ourselves in Carraara, the marble capital of the world. Eventually we arrived at our actual destination, La Spezia, the gateway to Cinque Terre.

La Spezia is a city larger than Canton, OH and it is nestled inside a very beautiful bay on the Italian Riviera.The reason we stayed there is that it is not a tourist town primarily and because it gave us a place to keep the car while we explored Cinque Terre. We’ll get into that stuff later, but since I know there are numerous English majors and/or enthusiasts who sometimes look at this blog I thought I would share with you a story that I sure never heard as an English major at BGSU.

The bay of La Spezia is called the Bay of Poets because it was a popular getaway for the likes, of Dante and Petrarch, then later, Lord Byron, and not least, Percy Byshee Shelley.

 Picture from some travel site.

Not least, because for a time Shelley had a place just up the bay a little bit, in the town of Lerici. One day in 1856 Shelly sailed off with a couple other guys in his new sailboat to meet with a collaborator on one of his projects. On the way back a storm came up and  the boat was swamped and sank. Shelly, age 29, and his two shipmates all drowned.

A day or so later, Shelly’s body washed up on the beach near Viareggio. The sanitary custom of time required on-the-spot cremation.

Painting by Louis Edouard Fournier

So, a ceremony was hurriedly put together. In attendance were Byron, Edward Trelawney and Leigh Hunt, Shelly’s close friends. There are varying accounts of how this happened, but they all lead to the same outcome: Shelly’s heart did not burn. Trelawney fished it out with a stick, wrapped it in a silk handkerchief, and gave it to Shelly’s wife, Mary, the future author of Frankenstein. It is said she kept it in her desk drawer and, years later,  it was buried with the remains of their son.

Sorry to open with this grisly little tale, but it just goes to show that a tourist can happen by here 160 years later, look out over the bay and have no idea of the things that went on.

We arrived in La Spezia with only a general plan on visiting Cinque Terre. Turns out, this is a pretty big city so it took some driving around to get the lay of the land.

Some street scenes:

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Eventually we found the train station, but had much more difficulty finding a place to park. After driving up and down the hills we were able to locate a spot in front of a coffee house, so we stopped in and got our bearings using our phones. We had some time kill before our B&B would be expecting us, so we decided to walk down to the train station, just to plan for the next day.

To get to the train station you enter below and climb stairs to get the the actual entrance:

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A nice station

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Cinque Terre, interpreted literally, is the “Five Lands”, which they no doubt were when they were built hundreds of years ago. But now they are five villages, one more picturesque than the other. The train connects them all, but many people come here for the hiking. Cinque Terre is actually a national park. Hiking, however, was not on our agenda.

We had originally planned to stop in and buy a day pass for tomorrow. But, the guy at the window told us that the first village, Riomaggiore, was only ten minutes away and the train would be leaving soon. Well, why not? So, we jumped on the train and had a very pleasant afternoon there.

In the next post I’ll show you Riomaggiore, along with the other four villages, but instead we’ll keep it in La Spezia for now. By the time we returned our room was ready.

As it turned out, our room was located in a building that might have been a bank or an old hotel. Lots of marble inside. There were steel gates at the entrance. But we rang the bell and were soon greeted by a pleasant young lady, who helped us up the considerable stairs.

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All the climbing led us to a very nice room, one of about four or five on that floor. The lady of the house showed us around and gave us our set of keys. The only slight inconvenience was that our bathroom was down the hall and around the corner. It was not shared by the other guests, so that was good.

The first order of business in La Spezia was to find a laundromat. But, when we asked for a recommendation, our host said that her mother would do it. What? How much would she charge?. “She LOVES to do laundry.”, we were told. She will not charge. Well, we could hardly pass up that deal. So, later that night we treated her mama to a heaping pile of duds.

We then asked if she could recommend any nearby restaurants. She said, absolutely. There is a place called Trattoria Nuova Spezia about a fifteen minute walk away. She made reservations for us for 8:30 and gave us simple directions for finding the place.

Last order of  business, where to park the car. She told us that there is a city lot, about five blocks away. She said be sure to pay the meter and get a time-stamped ticket to put on the dash. Otherwise, we could look forward to paying a huge fine. So, soon I was out the door and retrieving the car from its temporary location. I had no problem finding the lot, but when I stuck some euros in the ticket machine, they came spilling right back out. After several attempts at this I started looking for another machine. I found one come distance away. Same problem. I started looking on the cars and many had tickets, but some did not. I pictured myself throwing myself on the mercy of the traffic court, telling them in English that I had really tried to buy a ticket, but their stupid machines didn’t work. I then pictured myself getting twenty years to life. I searched for yet another machine.

I finally found one, across the street from the parking lot. I prayerfully slammed in my euros for the maximum amount of time. It worked! Out came the ticket. I raced back across the street and carefully placed my ticket for maximum visibility. In the meantime, a lady behind me had observed my success and quickly slammed her euros into the same machine. Out they came. Clearly, the city had performed zero maintenance on these things for some long time. I doubted that they even bothered to check the tickets.

When I got back to our room I was about to raise that question with our hostess, but Dianne advised me she was gone for the day. And so began our first experience with what would be a recurring issue: the absentee host at our B&B’s. Apparently the custom now is, check ’em in and get the hell out. We had an emergency contact number. That was it.

It was now time for dinner, so we headed up the street. I had already gotten a preview of the neighborhood in my walk back from the parking lot. We headed down Via Amendola. It was clean, and there wee people around, but you see graffiti, even though it is everywhere in Europe, and you think gangs. If there are any, we didn’t see them, and we always felt safe.

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When we arrived at the front entrance we pulled on the door and it didn’t open. Another couple was standing nearby and one of them said, “It’s locked!”. Well, that seemed odd. “There are people in there, but they haven’t opened the doors yet,” they told us. So, glad to hear a little English we talked to them for a while. But, no luck on getting in. Finally I peered once more into the window on the door. A waiter happened to be walking by. I knocked. He looked at my haggard, starving face and opened the door right away. “Come in!” he said in English. As it turned out, the door opened to the inside, not outside, so it was open all this time. Once again. I can’t overstate the importance of making a good first impression. Apparently the fire codes in Italy are a little lax.

We told the people at the desk that we had reservations made by our hostess, who they indicated that they knew. We were promptly seated at a nice little table for two. In just a few minutes our waiter arrived. He welcomed us and asked where we were from. When we said America his eyes opened wide. “America!”, he said, “I LOVE America!” He went on to talk about all the things he loved about our country, but it seems he had never been there. From that point on, our names were “America”. He started us off with a small pitcher of house wine, which was excellent, then he came back to take our order. We picked a couple items  from the menu and then he said. “You don’t want that. You want THIS!” he pointed to several options. “THIS is excellent!” Well, his recommendations did sound good, so we went with the program.

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Our waiter, Luciano. That was not our meal. This is from the La Nuova Spezia Facebook page.

Well, in Italy you go through several courses and while, previously, we only picked a couple, here, we went full out. This is a small sampling:

Antipasta, with real anchovy.

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The creature on the left is a lobster.

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Fried seafood with more anchovies and a few tiny octopi in there as well. They were tasty, but, although I had the opportunity for more elsewhere in Italy, this was enough. Anchovies are more like smelt. Very yummy.

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Luciano took our picture before we exploded:

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Well, that was some dinner! While we were sampling away, a large family of about twelve occupied a big round table close by. They all knew the staff and were in an out of the kitchen. Dianne had a clear view into the kitchen, or as clear as you could get through clouds of steam. Carts, with four or five dishes each, were continuously streaming out. Empty carts were streaming in.

Since La Spezia is not principally  a tourist town, a restaurant like this is the real deal. Everybody knows everybody. The energy and noise level are high and the whole experience is an event. Luciano frequently returned and when he came to take our dessert order we said we were too stuffed. But, Luciano would have none of it. Just like the old Monty Python “One thin mint” routine, he offered us dessert on the house. OK. We shared a tiramisu:

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Fabulous! Then Luciano came back with a limoncello, the lemon flavored liqueur and an orange liqueur as well. “On the house!”, he said. We had originally planned to have dinner the next night in one of the five villages, but this place was so good and so fun and so reasonably priced, we made reservations for the next night. When we showed up, the hostess looked at the reservation book, turned it toward me, and asked, “Is this you?” Luciano had written “Captain America.”

The Women’s March on Washington

We knew this was going to be huge when our local paper reported on the morning of Inagural Day, that a woman in our area put out a notice on Facebook that she was looking for enough women to fill a bus to go to DC for the Women’s March on Washington. She received enough responses to fill TWO buses. This, from Donald Trump’s heartland!

The turnpike plaza where we stopped was packed full of women clearly headed to the march. Early estimates suggested there might be upwards of 200,000 demonstrators. Every indicator we saw suggested many more.

The speeches were supposed to begin at 10:00 so we left Emily’s house in Manassas before 7:00 to head for the Vienna/Fairfax Metro station. By the time we got there it was already very crowded. I had pre-ordered a Metro ticket long before the event, but it never arrived. I was afraid the lines to get passes would be around the block, but we were early enough and the Metro had people to help with the machines. There was no problem getting a ticket.

The Vienna station is the farthest out on this leg of the Metro system. Here is what the train was like, with many stops yet to come:

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Everywhere were the pink Pussy Hats, a recurring theme throughout the day. By the time the train arrived downtown, we were packed like sardines.

Because it was early, the barricades and food trucks were still being placed in position.

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The food trucks lined a side street, but were impossible to get to except for those on the fringe.

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Hundreds of porta-potties lined the streets and parks.

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The route they gave us took us down 7th St, right onto the National Mall and right again on 4th St. We could only get as close as the intersection of 4th and Independence, between the Air and Space Museum and National Museum of the American Indian.

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We were joined on this adventure by Jen’s friend Kim (on the left) who drove all the way here from Columbus.

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This is a family that took the picture above. In turn, we took a picture of them. They invited Emily to join them.

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Above is the end of the Air and Space Museum. This was as close as we could get. We arrived before 9:00 and by then Independence Avenue, where the stage was located, was packed. Here is the best aerial photo I could find showing our location:

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In the lower right corner you see a blue box (C-Span bus) and a white box (Holding a big TV screen) We were just off the picture to the right of the white box. That area on the lower right of the picture is 4th St. The long street to the left is Independence.

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Within the hour, our area became much more populated.

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Keep in mind, all the above was going on before the first speaker even started. Here are some of the sounds:

You will note that while this is a determined crowd, it is not an angry crowd. I certainly cannot comment on the behavior of the  hundreds of thousands of others scattered across the area, but where we were people were kind, respectful, helpful and supportive. Believe me, this day stood in sharp contrast to the demonstrations of the sixties and seventies. Maybe the most singular difference was in the attitude of the police and military who provided security. Far from combative, they joked with the crowd and were often helpful. There were no counter-demonstrations  in our area. As far as I know, there were not any. Even when we finally marched, we saw nothing even hostile. It is generally agreed that there were some 500,000 people participating in this march. The Washington DC police reported zero arrests. Better than Woodstock!

From time to time, first responders would have to work their way through the crowd. Everyone gave way.

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By now 4th street was packed all the way back to the National Gallery:

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The speakers started promptly at 10:00. If you have any interest in this event, you have probably already seen clips. Here was our view.

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Interspersed with all these people were a multitude of musical acts and speakers on every conceivable liberal agenda item.

There were problems with the sound system and some speakers could not be heard. Often the pictures of the crowd were pixelated. Those who arrived late, probably neither saw, nor heard any of the speakers, so, based on what we were hearing in the background, it seems they were amusing themselves with various chants, and who know what else.

The march was supposed to start at 1:00. At 2:30 they were still ranting away. After 5 and a half hours of this, while standing on hard pavement in the cold, misty air, and with no end in sight, we were starting to get edgy. And even those with the best of good will were sending echos of “MARCH! MARCH! MARCH!” cascading down 4th St. They fell on deaf ears. Some resorted to just sitting on the pavement if they could find room:

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Apparently (and somebody could have told us), because the crowds were so much larger than anticipated, the leadership first decided to cancel the march. Then, they changed the route from in front of the White House to down Pennsylvania Avenue to the Ellipse. Barricades had to be moved, and so on, and all of this took time.

When you are packed in that tight, you can’t just say, “Well, that was pleasant, but I think I’ll head home.” There is no escape in any direction except by way of endless “Scuse me”‘s. Finally we were given orders to march! But, the question was, which way? The person on stage pointed her finger into the camera and said, “March this way!” Apparently, she forgot that TV screens were facing in all four points of the compass. Eventually we figured it out. Up 4th Street we went.  Now, even more signs (if such a thing is possible), came out:

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Here are some of the sounds:

Mercifully, the route took us past a park:

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My favorite rebel:

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Then, off we went down Pennsylvania Avenue:

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We soon passed the Newseum, which, of course is dedicated to press freedom.

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Then, incredibly, it took us past the Trump hotel.

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Now people, I can guarantee that if this had been the sixties, there would not have been a window left un-smashed in this place. Today, people stopped for selfies. Then moved on.

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We continued on for several more blocks, but the end was still some distance away and it was after 5. Thinking of those long Metro lines to come, we abandoned ship and headed for the nearest station. Others had preceded us, and rather than try to squeeze their signs onto packed trains, they created their own little museum:

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The trains were indeed packed and it took us some time to get out of there, but the Metro workers are the unsung heroes of this event. They were terrific.

To experience a day such as this as a family is unforgettable. It was our moment for the ages.  Will it have any lasting effect? Who knows? That depends on you. The one lesson, though, regardless of your political leanings, that cannot be overlooked is this: The world is now being driven by social media. If you have any doubts, go back and take another look at these pictures.

 

 

 

 

 

Adios to the Land of the Palm Trees

I was down to my last few CUCs when Pedro dropped us off at the Arms Plaza. I used all but two of them to buy cigars for my friends back home. No problemo. I had enough USD’s to convert. I would simply head for the bank a couple blocks from our place and exchange them. Except, by the time I got to said bank, it was closed. Soon we were headed up Obrapia Street, where someone told us a bank would still be open. It was not.

The bank guard there told us there was a currency exchange a few blocks over. We went there. One look at the sad faces of those leaving told us something was not right. I approached the entrance window. The lady pointed to a large seated crowd of weary, forlorn tourists and said, “Dos horas”. Uh, two hours? No thanks.

Here is why I love TripAdvisor.  In their forums is all kinds of advice for sticky situations. In this case, the advice was to exchange currency at a hotel if all other options fail. We left this ship of the damned and soon found a very nice hotel and a clerk more than happy to see those USD’s. I ended up getting a better rate than at the bank.

So, now that I was solvent once again, it was time for some dinner.We headed back down Obrapia:

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We had passed a number of places with outside dining and finally found one that looked appealing. We thought we would celebrate our last night in Cuba with a nice $8 tenderloin. We were quickly advised they were out. John settled on a lesser cut. I decided to go for the pasta. It didn’t take long to realize we had picked the wrong place:

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That squiggly stuff on top is some kind of cheese. Sort of like Swiss. But not. John’s steak was not much better. How we missed Yelp!

In our younger days we might have taken advantage of our last night in Havana to party into the wee hours. But, considering that we would be leaving for the airport at 7:30 am and that our whirlwind three days had more than taken their toll, we decided instead to head for the Cathedral Plaza, light up a cigar and toast the city. It was a beautiful night.

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I will say this about traveling with John Starr: In addition to his sparkling sense of humor, this is a guy who appreciates adventure and who has the rare ability to stay cool when situations arise that others might find, shall we say, unnerving. And how fine it is to meet such an old friend later, not to talk about the good old days, but but about what just happened. It is something rare in my experience.

When you visit a country whose leaders have hated your own country’s everlovin’ guts for more than a half century, you want to make sure all “i”s are dotted and”t”s are crossed before you get there. But even more important than getting into such a country is getting out.  Once again, TripAdvisor’s forum offered considerable reassurance, as many described how easy the process was.

So, all paper’s complete and readily available, we were ready to go by 6:30am. Our hostess made it clear that her customary luxurious breakfast would not be available at that hour, but she did have coffee ready, which was the critical issue. We had just been seated when she came in to advise us that our taxi to take us to the airport was already here. I went down with my Anywhere Cuba itinerary in hand and pointed out 7:30 to the driver. No problemo! Take your time. Well, we didn’t need much. The owner and her daughter helped us with our bags and soon we were waving goodbye and heading east.

There were no stops this time. We made it to the airport before 10 for a 1 pm flight. We pulled our bags into the main entrance of Maximo Gomez airport and looked to the right. There, lined up in front of maybe 5 or 6 all-purpose computer screens was a crowd of bleary-eyed lost souls waiting to be checked in. The room was about the size of a basketball court. Once again, TripAdvisor came to rescue. Just before we left, there was a post regarding the airport at Varadero, which reported that for 30 CUC’s you could buy VIP status at the airport to get out of the long lines.

Sure enough, directly ahead was a kiosk. They were selling something else, I forget what, but I went to the lady in charge and just said “VIP?” She said, “Wait a minute.” and off she goes. Soon she returns with a very professional looking woman who is holding a sign that read “VIP”. She confirmed the price and asked if we were interested. We both quickly agreed. In a twinkling she was escorting us past the soulless eyes of the throng, directly to a clerk sitting behind a computer screen. This was the line we had to pass through.The people in the background were doing something else:

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The clerk studied my passport, then looked up at me. “Sir,” he said “I am afraid there’s going to be a problem.” My guts did a barrel roll. “Did you vote for Trump?” “No.” He started laughing. “OK, just checking. Ha Ha Ha” From that point on he cracked one joke after another, quite a hilarious guy. Not exactly the time or place for this particular routine, however.

We were offered free checked bags, but I kept mine. John checked his. The VIP lady showed up again and moved us to a special Passport Control window where we did not have to wait in line. She seemed to know everybody in the airport and whatever she asked for, she got. All to our benefit. Passport Control could not have been easier. They take your picture, you give them the second half of your visa, they scan your passport, stamp your visa, which they keep, they hand you back your passport and say, “Please come again soon!”

Security was just like TSA.

It only took maybe twenty minutes to go through all this, then the VIP lady comes again and escorts us to the VIP lounge. There, a very nice gentleman collected our thirty CUC’s and offered to make us a sandwich. He then pointed to the bar area and advised us that all drinks are free. They would make a Mojita for us, or whatever.  Plus they had all kinds of snacks. Since it was early in day, free orange juice and coffee were perfect and some sponge cakes held us over till he brought the sandwiches. Here is the lounge:

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The place was only about a third full when we got there, and as flights were called the crowd diminished further. Soon it was just John and me. They had CNN on in English, so we finally got some details about the election.

The manager came around and invited us to take the escalator up to the second floor, where they have a bunch of shops in case we didn’t get enough souvenirs. I spent a few of my last CUC’s on some things, and went back to the lounge.

It turned out that our plane arrived on time, but since the airport has only four gates, they had to wait for a gate to open before we could board. It took about a half hour. Once again, the plane was about two-thirds full, so John and I could move around to window seats. We said our goodbyes to Cuba

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In no time at all we were rolling into our gate in Miami. During the flight, US Customs came on the screen to advise us about the streamlined procedure for going through. Rather than fill out forms, all we had to do was scan our passports at one of a multitude of kiosks. When you do that all your flight info comes up, along with the form and some touch-screen check boxes.  Then it takes your picture and prints out a form to hand to the agent.

John passed right through customs. The guy stopped me and asked if I was bringing back anything. I said cigars. He asked how many. I told him. That was it. By then there were no restrictions on the number anyway, so I don’t even know why he asked. Probably just to pass the time.

Since we had already been screened in Cuba, TSA gave me a pre-check card to carry with me. I didn’t even have to take off my shoes. That was it. We were back in the good ol’ US of A!!!

Well, people, there have been a few changes since that plane touched down on the terra firma. My original objective was to see Havana in the time of the Castros. Turns out we cut it pretty close.  Now, with Fidel about to head up the smokestack, and lots of armed people around,  personally I would hold off on visits for a while.

Cuba, in the time of the Castros held few real surprises. Wealth is not flaunted, but there is wealth among those with the guns. Mostly, there is poverty and this is in places of relative prosperity. It takes no imagination to envision life in the small villages across this huge island. One thing that was not a surprise, because it is legendary, is the vitality and good nature of the Cubans themselves. This is a warm and welcoming country that deserves much better than it got.

Once the way forward is clearer, it will be an island well worth visiting. When the time comes, I cannot recommend highly enough the services of Anywhere Cuba. You will know what you are paying for and the people you hire will deliver. And, if trouble arises, they’ve got your back. For Cuba, my hope is for better days ahead.

https://www.anywhere.com/cuba

For those who follow this blog, if you are wondering what the hell ever happened to the tales of Italy, we are headed back there next. I got a little distracted this fall.

Hemingway in Cuba

Ernest Hemingway and his wife Mary left their home in Cuba in July of 1960 as he battled both illness and deep depression. They settled into their property in Ketchum, Idaho, near Sun Valley, where Ernest began treatment for his ills. But, the depression worsened and in July of 1961 he, like his father before him, killed himself.

Following Hemingway’s death, his wife Mary contacted the Cuban government regarding their home and was informed that the government had taken possession, as they had already done with billions of dollars of US assets. She was able to negotiate a return to pick up a few paintings, books and Hemingway’s manuscripts. Everything else was left behind.

The Hemingway property, like many other properties in Cuba suffered from years of neglect. But in 2007 they turned it into a museum and have kept it up ever since. This was the last tour of our trip.

Our guide, Pedro again, has had first hand knowledge of property rights in Cuba. As he tells the story, he once had a beautiful home by the sea. But, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, which came in 1962, the government trumped up fear that Cuba itself would be invaded again. To provide security, the military took possession of homes strategically located, and his was one of them, he said, even then everybody knew there would not be an invasion. Somebody in the military wanted his home and they took it.

Now, we would have loved to hear more and to explore the feelings of the people regarding their government. But, this is the kind of conversation we were specifically advised to avoid. So, I said, tell us about Hemingway!

It was Martha Gellhorn, Hemingway’s third wife, who first found the property and persuaded him to rent it so she wouldn’t have to stay cooped up in the Havana hotel where he was writing For Whom the Bell Tolls. He finished most of that book in his new home and used part of the proceeds from the royalties to buy it. He named the home Finca Vigia, or “Lookout Farm” It is located in the little village of San Francisco de Paula, about 15 miles east of Havana.

When you first arrive there, you find an admission gate and then a short drive takes you to the tourist center, with two souvenir shops and a small bar.

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This gentleman is crushing sugar cane for their rum drinks, which I found necessary to sample.

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Then they have a nice shaded area to enjoy said rum drink, in which, believe me, they do not hold back on the rum.

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From here we began the walking tour. The first buildings are these, which, at one time, were guest quarters for the less valued visitors. They are now offices for the property managers.

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Past this, is Finca Vigia. Pedro agreed to pose for a photo op:

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Visitors are not allowed to enter Hemingway’s home, but so much is visible from the outside, this is not really a problem except on a rainy day.

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The main entrance:

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The living room. For the day, this was a very open floor plan with lots of opportunities for breezes to move through the place.

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This is the patio to the left of the entrance.

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When you round the side of the house, there is a walkway that takes you to the pool.

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Between the pool, and what used to be a tennis court are the graves of Hemingway’s favorite dogs.

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Now, I have to tell you, people, I have been a Hemingway fan since my college days and, also being somewhat of a seafarer, I have long been fascinated by his adventures on his boat, the Pilar. I had once read an article that described this beautiful boat as rotting at its moorings due to neglect and so, had assumed it had long ago gone the way of hundreds of thousands of wooden boats and simply wasted away. Imagine my surprise, when I look up and there, where the tennis court had been, was the Pilar, meticulously restored to its former glory!

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As you can see, it still has Papa’s fishing chair and everything just as it was.

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Imagine Hemingway sitting right there, hauling in a big one!

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She was equipped with downriggers on the side. This is what she looked like under power.

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EH6956P Ernest Hemingway aboard the Pilar. Photographer unknown in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Boston.

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After returning from the pool area, more of the house was open. This is the same living room from the opposite end. You will note a large collection of bottles of booze next to the chair. Hemingway was an alcoholic’s alcoholic, rarely drawing a sober breath, even while working.

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A study…

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This was the Hemingway’s main bedroom, not nearly as grand as in his home in Key West.

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Barely visible in the background is Hemingway’s typewriter. Having survived two plane crashes, shrapnel from the war, and numerous other serious injuries over his life, he found it difficult to remain seated for any length of time. Often he would write standing up. In this home he would not only finish For Whom the Bell Tolls, but also The Old Man and the Sea.Hemingway typed with just his index fingers.

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His office

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Shooting supplies on the desk.

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This was a storage room off the kitchen.

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Apparently, notebooks were in short supply. He recorded his daily weight on the wall.

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An original Picasso hangs near the study

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This is the guest room for those with more favored status:

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The dining area:

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Martha and Ernest formally purchased the property in 1940. In 1945 they divorced. Ernest kept the place and Mary, his fourth and final wife eventually moved in after divorcing her husband back in the States.

In time, she hit upon the idea that Ernest needed a separate work room with a view of Havana. He must have agreed in principle since she could hardly keep it a secret. However, he rarely used it, instead turning it over to their large family of cats.

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Today, if you choose to climb it, his office has been restored.

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And, the view of Havana is spectacular!

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There is also a lady up there who will take your picture. A small tip is appreciated. In the doorway is the loser of the Hemingway look-alike contest, prepared to write his memoirs.

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Typically, most tours would have ended here. But, Pedro had a special surprise in store!  A trip to Cojimar.

In Hemingway’s day, Cojimar was a small fishing village, about a 15 minute drive from Finca Vigia. In fiction, it is the village in The Old Man and the Sea where Santiago lives. In real life, it is where the Pilar was moored. At the heart of Cojimar is, as you might imagine, is a bar called La Terazza de Cohimar, Hemingway’s favorite when he was in town.

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To walk into La Terazza is to walk into the ’50’s. It is spotlessly clean with wood paneling and gorgeous views out all the windows.

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A lot of Hemingway-related art is displayed including this picture of the Pilar moored next to the Cojimar Tower.

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Here is the tower as it is today. Built in 1646, it was designed to keep invaders from going up the Almendares River into Havana.

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Here are some other Hemingway pictures on display.

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At one point, Hemingway sponsored a fishing tournament. Fidel won the tournament, although our guide maintained that Hemingway actually caught the fish and gave it to Fidel to claim the prize. i find no other record supporting that view.

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I later found a picture of Fidel and Che Guevarra fishing in the tournament. A little different look from the typical revolutionary pose. .

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This is the view outside of La Terazza, where boats would have been moored.

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Near the Tower is a statue of Hemingway, so Pedro took us down there. This young man started working John for a few pesos shortly after we got out of the car.

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Cohimar is in a beautiful setting, but is in no better state of repair than any other part of Havana. There are winners. There are losers. The story of Cuba in a nutshell.

Art in Habana

The fort called Morrow Castle, at the entrance of Havana harbor was mostly for show. The real fort, that actually defended the harbor, is right behind it and is called Castillo de San Carlos de la Cabaña.

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It was built because the Spanish, after they had plundered gold from much of South and Central America, brought it here to redistribute among their ships for the long haul back to Spain. As you might imagine, pirates of the Caribbean, not including Johnny Depp, took a keen interest in these proceedings and were happy to come into the harbor, guns ablazin’, to steal that gold. The Spanish, not amused, built the Castillo, which is huge and which once had hundreds of cannons bristling out of it. The pirates decided to take their trade elsewhere.

Over time, with the threat of piracy gone, the fort became a garrison for Spanish soldiers. One of the routines of the day of the was to signal the opening and closing of the gate into Havana, which, at that time was a walled city. They would fire it once at 4:30 am to signal the opening, and once at night to signal the closing. Over time, they developed a ritual for to process, which takes about a half hour. Today, the ritual is enacted daily at 9:00pm and generally draws a large crowd. This was to be our second tour and we were to meet Pedro at 7:45.

Unfortunately, we had trouble with an order for dinner at the Plaza Cathedral. I ended up wolfing down the dinner and actually jogging, not running, across the plaza and down the street to meet Pedro. John followed close behind. Pedro assured us we would still make it in time, but since I had four locks to deal with and also because it was now dark, I decided I would leave the camera in the room. I was sure somebody would have posted it on You-Tube. Sure enough, here it is. It runs about 5 minutes and may not be of interest, but it was a cool ceremony and when they finally fire the cannon, you can hear the shot echo back from the city.

Pedro is about our age and in roughly the same condition. Whenever we would ask a question he would stop to answer it. Considering there was a deadline to meet, we learned to save the questions till after the event. To his credit, he paid a couple extra pesos so we could go up to the top tier for a better view. This was much better than trying to watch through the large crowd.

We were transported to the event by taxi. The driver waited for us. He told us where to meet him, which was near a small food vendor. Pedro ordered dinner for himself and his driver. John and I picked up the tab, which they really appreciated. We got off to a good start with Pedro, which was good because we would see him again tomorrow.

We did not get back till after 10 and we both agreed we had had enough. That night was the best sleep I had in Cuba.

Our next tour was not to start till 9:30 am, so that gave us some time to freshen up and to get some breakfast. Here is the breakfast served at the Casa Venezia:We were each given this fruit plate, which included a couple items I did not recognize. Guava was apparently one of them. It was all yummy.

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Then, an omelet. The juice was a smoothie of some kind. All delicious!

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Our next tour was to be our choice from among a variety of museums. When we met our guide, Eduardo, however, he strongly recommended the art museum. It would have been our choice anyhow. Here is Eduardo with John:

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Our first impression was, they have sent a boy to do a man’s job. Not so. First, he had exceptional command of English, which he learned, he told us, because his sister could speak English and whenever she would gossip with her friends, they would use English as their secret language. He learned it to eavesdrop. Then, we learned he is a PhD candidate in cinematography with extensive training in the arts. And then we learned that this was his first tour, so to make it the best possible experience for us, he had come to the museum the day before to take extensive notes on the works we would be seeing. We were sold!

Well, the Museum of Belle Arts is located in central Havana, a long hike from our home. Many of the streets are brick and the sidewalks are narrow:

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Considering the vehicle traffic, the three-wheeled bicycles which make little noise, and other traffic a person could easily get whacked if they stray to far from the sidewalk.

Eduardo took us through several neighborhoods and along the way we passed La Floridita, one of Hemmingway’s famous watering holes.

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Clearly, we were in a much more upscale neighborhood, and yet you had only to look past La Florida to see the problem that plagues virtually all of Havana, a rapidly accelerating urban decay.

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Still, where capital was available, it could be beautiful again!

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At last, we were at the National Museum of Belle Arts.

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I brought my camera and asked Eduardo if it was OK to take pictures. “Sure, no problem” So, here is how the place is laid out:

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It covers three very large floors and begins chronologically with works beginning in the colonial period and ending post-revolution. The tour lasted over three hours and we could have stayed longer.

When the Spanish arrived in 1492, the first order of business was to enslave the native population, which wasn’t all that numerous to begin with. In a few short years, however, the natives were gone, having been wiped out by diseases against which they had no defense, coupled with the kind treatment they received at the hands of the conquistadors.

With no slaves around, the Spanish did what everybody did back in those days. They went to Africa and got more. Over time, it became apparent to the colonists that some of their slaves had special talents, including the graphic arts. Arrangements were made to import paints and canvasses and soon some of the slaves were given enough training to paint their masters. The one thing no one could teach them, however, was how to paint hands, which is a special skill. For this reason, most of the slave paintings are from the chest up. Naturally, not one slave was ever given credit for their work, so this is what you get:

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Apparently, all the slave painters had the same last name, “Anonimo”. What are the odds?

The next evolution of art centered on realism and the painting of landscapes.

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Here is a painting depicting the Had Dance, in which young men, wishing to dance with a certain lady would throw their hats near her. If she picked it up, it was game on!

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But it did not take long before those boundaries were pushed out.

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Then came the introduction of symbolism and figures from Cuban mythology. (Who knew there even was a Cuban mythology?)

In this painting by Jose Mena, called “The White Flower” you see the young lady at the crossroads between the ways of evil on the right and righteousness on the left.

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In the painting of the couple below, they are together, but each wants more. Good luck!

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It was at this point that approximately 15,000 guards, in unison, shouted “NO PHOTO!” From then on, it was cat and mouse, but the mouse lost repeatedly as guards seemed to come out of the very woodwork. Fortunately, the best paintings can be found on line.

For example, before Picaso became Picaso, here is an example of one of his early portraits:

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Well, before Wilfredo Lam became Wilfredo Lam, here is an example of his early portraits.

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Here is Lam’s later work, called “A Seated Woman”

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Each of the markings is a symbol. Call Eduardo. He’ll gladly tell you what they are.

One of the more interesting painters exhibited at the museum is Carlos Enriquez Gomez. His most famous painting is on display, “The Rape of the Mulattos”

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Actually, it is more of a kidnapping and is sometimes translated that way. The colors, the ghost-like images, the  power of the figures, this is a painting you remember long after you are heading home. It is based on the “Rape of the Sabine Women” painted by several Italian artists, which we’ll take a look at when this blog finally switches back to Italy.

Eduardo saved the best for last, though. The painting, “La Gitana Tropical” (The Tropical Gypsy), by Victor Manuel Garcia. She is the Cuban “Mona Lisa”.

 

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Cruisin’ Habana

Following the revolution, Cubans were banned from buying foreign cars, especially US cars. Over 150,000 US cars remain, frozen in time. Now, many are used as taxi’s.

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For our tour, we were treated to a ride in a 1950 Chevy convertible. It showed its age, but was still a very fine ride:

The nice thing about our tour guide was that he was willing to let any clown sit behind the wheel!

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Now, I’m going to show you lots of pictures from this tour, but they don’t compare to the actual experience. Wanna come along? Here we go! (video)

Perhaps you noticed how, after you leave the immediate area of the Capitolio, things take a sudden and dramatic downhill turn. It’s not that public projects aren’t happening. It is that the need is so overwhelming it seems impossible to keep up.

The first part of our tour took us around the harbor area. This stature of Jesus, made of Carrara marble, is said to be the largest in the hemisphere, bigger than the more famous one in Rio. dscf5948

In the days before the revolution, Fulgencio Batista made a personal fortune through his association with organized crime. Casinos, prostitution and drugs brought him millions. His most famous partners in crime were Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano. Meyer had been kicked out of the US and deported to Sicily, but found it difficult to manage US operations from there, so he secretly re-located to Cuba. There he found a warm welcome from Batista and soon casinos were springing up all over the place. It was from this home that Lansky and the other bosses from the US would routinely meet to divide up their cash.

It is said that when Batista was finally driven out of Cuba and into exile first, in the Dominican Republic and later, Portugal. he had over $300 million USD’s at his disposal plus much more stashed here and there.

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Cubans, particularly our guides, all mark time from the revolution. While there are reminders everywhere, they now seem to be fading. Most often you will see a likeness of Che Guevara, almost never will you see a likeness of Fidel. Or, at least we didn’t.

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Our first stop was in the heart of Havana at the Plaza of the Revolution. Some familiar sights can be found there:

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And, if you are looking for a taxi, well here you go!

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This is the National Theater of Cuba, absolutely gorgeous. Obama spoke here during his visit.

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Below is a statue of Jose Marti, best remembered here as the leader of revolt against Spanish rule, which did not end until the turn of the twentieth century with the Spanish-American War. Marti was killed in battle in 1895. For Americans who have heard of him, though, he is remembered, not as a revolutionary, but as a poet. He spent a considerable amount of time in the US and became ill. He went to a small town in the Catskills to recover. While there he wrote a book of poems called “Singular Verses”. Some of the lines in this book were made famous by Pete Seeger in the song “Guantanamera”. Here are some of the other lines, his hope for his homeland:

I cultivate a white rose
In July as in January
For the sincere friend
Who gives me his hand frankly
And for the cruel person
who tears out the heart with which I live,
I cultivate neither nettles nor thorns:
I cultivate a white rose.

Sadly, even for such a remarkable man, you find idiot tourists wanting to share the spotlight.

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Part of the plaza is a park:

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The Capitolio is undergoing renovation. Once the seat of government before the revolution, it now houses the Cuban Academy of Sciences.

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Next, Havana’s Chinatown. Chinese immigrants came here in the 19th century seeking prosperity. They did not find it. Over time, however, substantial inter-marriage occurred so that now it is uncommon to fine a person purely Chinese.

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This is the entrance to the University of Havana. Quiet now, in the days before the revolution this became the center of protests against Batista. He closed the university in 1956, rounded up student leaders and had them publicly executed. The university remained closed until the revolution.

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Following the revolution Che Guevara, among other duties, served as Minister of Industries. One of the government buildings displays his likeness.

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Across from the government buildings is an obelisk in memory of Jose Marti.

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Not far from this area we came upon these walls.

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Inside them you will find the graves of over two million people, one of the largest cemeteries in the world. It even has streets and blocks. At one time, the remains of Christopher Columbus were buried here.

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Next we stopped at a beautiful park, called Isla Josephina. The Almonderes River flows through it.

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A very pastoral setting, great place for a picnic.

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Except, there is trash everywhere

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Beautiful forests.

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But, somebody needs to clean this place up. And, keep it clean. What a shame.

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Next stop, John Lennon Park. After the revolution, the music of the Beatles, and many others, was banned for promoting drugs and an objectionable lifestyle. Later, though, no doubt under some pressure, they realized that the Beatles were preaching peace and love. To atone for their mistake, they created John Lennon park.

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Unfortunately, after this statue was put in place, people kept stealing his glasses. For a couple years they were replaced, but finally the park managers just gave up. Our guide told us this story and then said that a little old lady, who was standing nearby, had taken it upon herself to make sure John always had glasses. I asked him to ask her in Spanish if she would be willing to sit with us while the guide took our picture. Apparently, few, if any, had ever asked her. She was reluctant at first, but then sat down with us. While we were sitting there, she gave me a big kiss on the cheek. The guide missed that shot, however. John Starr gave her a tip as well. We made her day, and she made ours!

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Here is a view of the Havana skyline. No skyscrapers, that’s for sure.

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In the Old Town we found this mural, featuring prominent Cubans throughout history.

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The figures, though, were made of acrylic and sand.

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At one end of the Arms Square is the building from which the Spanish used to govern the country. Apparently, one of the countesses who moved in, took exception the clip-clop of horses and rumbling of heavy carts on the stone pavement outside her window.

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So, in true countess fashion, she had the stone paving replaced with wood to make things quieter, a tradition which continues to this day.

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This building houses, among many other things, a currency exchange. Notice anything unusual?

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Each floor is built a different height, apparently a trade-mark of the designer.

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And, we encountered the statues in the square. One is a statue, the other is an actor.

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Near the Plaza Viejo we encountered this hotel, now completely gutted. Renovation is underway at a cost, no doubt in the millions. Good luck!

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At last, it was time to say farewell to our first guide, Luis. What a great introduction to Havana this was! In a few hours, our next tour would begin. In the meantime, a little dinner on the Plaza Cathedral was just the thing!

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Around the ‘Hood

Havana is a city of 2.1 million people. The Old Town begins at the city’s harbor and appears to end roughly at the Capitol Building.

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The red X marks the location of Casa Venezia, our Casa Particular. We didn’t realize it at the time but Oficios street, where we were,  is a primary connecting street for all of the Old Town.

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Since we had some time before the first tour, we decided to get lunch and check out the area. Right around the corner, toward the docks, we had passed a nice looking restaurant. Soon we were settled in. It didn’t take long for the music to start.

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At almost every restaurant we visited, live music was part of the experience. And, these people were excellent musicians. For a few pesos, well worth it. The food was also quite good and very reasonably priced. About 8 USD’s will get an excellent meal in Cuba.

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The lobster is not from Maine. Still tasty but a little, shall we say, firm.

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After lunch we checked out the neighborhood. We soon found that three large plazas were within easy walking distance. The first was the Cathedral Square:

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Nice place! However, as we approached the square I saw, hovering near the entrance, several ladies all dressed up in their dance hall finery. The oldest trick in the tourist book. John was a little behind me when I blew past those women. Then I knew that, just like a calf in a buffalo herd, the wolves had gotten him. Sure enough:

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To his credit, he was able to talk them down from their original exorbitant asking price to just a few CUC’s. It was hard bargaining. All in all, a small price to pay for the Cuban Tourist Education Program.

Later in our travels we encountered one of several tour groups. None were American. Many were Canadian. Judging from the flight board at the airport, about a third of all air traffic was from Canada, about a third from Europe. The rest were Middle East and Africa and one American. Us. It appears there are strong ties between Canada and Cuba. You would think they would be investing, but I imagine the commies have some kind of issue. Who knows?

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We then went up one of the streets leading to the Capitol building. These were busy, lively places to go.

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Then to the Plaza Vieja.

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This is a plaza surrounded by nice shops and some homes. Since Cubans can now own property, if they can’t afford to pay for the entire cost they are able to set up businesses, like this upstairs cafe’.

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Also, along the way, we passed multitudes of street vendors, all declaring their friendship with us:

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After the Spanish were driven off the island, there turned out to be an excess of cannons. At first, nobody could figure out what to do with them. Then somebody had the bright idea of using them to close off streets to traffic. Worked like a charm! But, when it’s time for street repair, they have to come up:

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Not often you see a bunch of cannons laying around. And these are real, too!

At the Plaza Veija there is a famous work of art called “The Power of Women Over Men” There is, of course, the fork. The rest is self-explanatory:

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By the time we had taken in all these sights, we had wandered somewhat far from our home. We had to be back there by 2:00 for our first tour. Since it was now quite a hike, we decided to hire a tri-cycle with a very cozy seat. Off we went. When we pulled up to our place the guide was already waiting. The driver charged us 40 CUC’s, which was an outrage. Here is a classic blunder: Always set the price BEFORE you go. We had to cough it up. To our credit, this was the only time we got snookered down there, although many tried. So, it was a better track record than usual.