An atmosphere all of its own
Havana was founded in 1519 and is by far the largest city in the West Indies. Although crumbling in some areas, it still maintains much of its former splendour. The architecture is spectacular, its museums, theatres and colonial hotels incorporating a unique combination of European and South American influences-UNESCO has declared Old Havana as a world heritage site. Here there is a mixture of architectural styles from many different periods and cultures. It has an atmosphere all of its own; the streets are bustling with life, there are now street markets with people selling a variety of tourist goods. There is some street crime but it is safer than London.
the jewel in the Spanish crown
Cuba was often described as “the jewel in the Spanish crown” and Havana was frequently the target of attack for many of Spain’s rivals; many of the imposing fortresses originally built to defend the city still stand and are an impressive reminder of its early history. This century has seen independence from Spain followed by a heavy economic dependence on the USA. The country became a playground for visiting Americans, and the Vedado district is modelled on American cities. The preponderance of huge 1950’s American cars are a memento of these times, although they are to be seen less and less in their full glory due to the chronic shortage of spare parts and the huge increase in petrol prices in the last few years. More recently the country has seen one of the most important revolutions of the 20th Century, followed by a US blockade and the establishment of full-blooded socialism (albeit with the massive support of the USSR). Monuments in the Revolution Square are in the form of statues, a dedicated museum, anti-yanqul billboards and an enormous mural of Ché Guevara.
The streets are alive with the sound of music
The combination of all these elements makes Havana one of the most fascinating cities in the world. Cubans are famous for their music. Salsa, Son, the Bossa Nova and the Rumba all originated in Cuba and you will hear their rhythms played by local bands in many places. In fact you could say ‘The streets are alive with the sound of music’. As a result the nightlife is very vibrant and fun, particularly in Havana and Santiago de Cuba, although music and dance is spectacular and generally spontaneous wherever you go in Cuba. Every night in Havana one can find some of the world’s best Salsa bands playing live in various great nightclubs.
In 1996 the Cuban government allowed families to open private restaurant in their homes, called locally ‘Paladares’. There are now literally hundreds of these all over Havana. Like family tavernas in the Greek islands, these capture the real atmosphere and character of Cuba. The food ranges from simple Creole menus to cordon bleu French cooking. Most of them offer great live music and a warm friendly reception.