Old Havana day 2

Tuesday, 9 June 2015

The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes consists of two separate buildings several blocks apart. One contains Cuban art and the other houses everything else. We were interested in the Cuban collection, and it was definitely worth setting aside at least half a day to explore it. The museo is a lovely building and the collections are beautifully presented, although during our visit a large part of the colonial section had been closed off due to storm damage. This was not a big disappointment, however, because we were most interested in the C20th art, and this was particularly well-represented.

Since Cuba is no shopper’s paradise, we had decided early in our trip that the only thing we were tempted to take home was a roll of film posters. The museum shop had the best selection of reproductions that we had found, and they were cheaper than the tourist prices charged in La Plaza de Armas. We had only two days to use up the CUCs that remained in our kitty, so we spent up big. The staff behind the sales desk were very patient with our painstaking selection process. This would be a substantial addition to our luggage, but we were very happy with the 1960s design theme.

By the time we stepped out into the light rain, we had worked up an appetite. We settled at a small kerbside café where we chatted with the waiter until the heavens opened and we had to run for shelter in a nearby perfume shop. Susie bought a small bottle of a scent  which I picked out for her. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but she discovered when we got back home to Australia that the wax seal on the bottle was inadequate and the ceramic was porous, so the perfume (which was dissolved in alcohol) gradually evaporated. It served for a short while as an air-freshener in our bathroom.

La Perfumería

We returned to the casa for a brief siesta and emerged refreshed for our last major outing. We walked back across the old city to the port where there was a dilapidated ferry terminal. We were unsure how or who to pay for the passage, but an employee cheerfully took 20 pesos off us without offering any change. (The fare was actually a peso, but it’s hard to get upset about getting stung for the equivalent of one Australian dollar.)

When we alighted at the Casablanca landing on the far side of the harbour we discovered that we had stumbled across the Hershey train. We had at one stage planned to travel to Jibacoa on this relic of electrification, but the plan had been superseded by our holiday in Vedado. Susie was grateful to at least have a photo opportunity. It was one more treasure from that quirky time-warp called Havana.

We continued up the road to a giant white statue of Christ that looked down over the city from what he probably hoped was a safe distance. Susie quipped that he ought to have a huge cigar poised between his uplifted fingers. This was an apt take-down of an overbearing monument. From the foot of the statue there were spectacular views looking back across the harbour.

A short distance down the road we came across the Área Expositiva Crisis de Octubre. This is an open-air museum of military hardware associated with the Cuban missile crisis of October 1962, when Presidents Kennedy and Khrushchev had a standoff over medium-range nuclear missiles installed in the west of Cuba. Each display has a board mounted next to it bearing a short, factual explanation of what kind of payload the weapon was designed to deliver. The nerdy technicality of the information was hard to reconcile with the thought of a nuclear conflagration that would have snuffed out millions of lives and left most of the survivors to die a miserable death. There were also some propaganda posters with bellicose quotes from Fidel but we were too overwhelmed by the other thought to bother reading them. History would never have absolved him a second time had a nuclear exchange actually occurred.

Área Expositiva Crisis de Octubre

We pressed on past the missile graveyard hoping that sooner or later we would find an entrance to the famous Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña. At length we approached a large car park and an entrance gate where a historical re-enactment was beginning to take place: guards with muskets were gathering and reading official proclamations off a scroll. We were about to enter the mother of all tourist traps.

The fort remains open each evening for the cañonazo ceremony in which people dress up in C18th military uniforms, parade around and then fire a canon over the harbour at 9 p.m. sharp. The shot was originally fired to announce the closure of the city gates, and the ceremony has been revived at some stage as a tourist attraction. It is an interesting spectacle backlit by the lights of Havana, but the price of entry is steep and one has to negotiate a gauntlet of stalls selling cheesy souvenirs. For an extra CUC we were allowed to buy a drink and watch the ceremony from the roof of a row of buildings.

Cañonazo ceremony

We enjoyed the spectacle but passed over the restaurant there which looked rather like a dungeon. Instead we caught a cab back to the old city and had a meal in La Imprenta. This is an old printing works that has been converted into a state-run restaurant. The decor is spectacular; the food and service not quite so, but it certainly had a better ambience than the dungeon across the harbour. Half way into the meal we had to re-locate to a different table as a storm blew in through an open section of roof.

After a light meal we still had a little life left in us, so we went to the Café Paris for a cocktail and some wonderful live music. Susie decided that she would try a shot of añejo (aged rum) neat, like the locals drink it. After her first sip she commented “I can’t believe I have been mixing this stuff with cola!” We have drunk it neat ever since.

Cañonazo ceremony

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