In with the new in Old Havana, Cuba

We visit Cuba to investigate the vibrant Old Havana before tourism takes over because of the renewal of American diplomatic ties.

The vintage cars and bold facades of Old Havana. Getty Images
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A wrinkled woman with a fat cigar in her mouth, flowers in her hair and donning a multicoloured dress is sitting next to a pram nestling a cat in a fluffy outfit. In a nearby street, a bevy of tourists are posing for pictures in a vintage car. This is Old ­Havana, or La Habana Vieja, and it's abuzz with tourists as the ­Cuban capital sheds its once isolated mantle and embraces some of the accoutrements of capitalism.

Close by in Plaza Vieja, the old plaza that used to be a car park before restoration, tourists quench their thirst next to a Paul & Shark, a Benetton and a spa shop. Faces of the now-­manicured facades look clean compared with pictures hung in the plaza that show what looks like a scene from a Second World War movie. Neglect left the plaza in shambles, but restoration has come a long way in Old Havana, where every corner is a work in progress. Plaza Vieja is dotted with establishments, such as a brewery and restaurants, that once housed rich Spaniards. Instead of going for an expensive beverage in the plaza, I buy a coconut ice cream. Ice cream is eaten with passion in Havana, and I become an aficionado of their ice-cream bocaditos (sandwiches).

My ice-cream reverie is punched by construction din, though, and the usual blaring of salsa from houses and troubadour players. These musicians are all over Old Havana, trying to eke pesos from tourists weary from the hassle of jineteros, hustlers who are trying to swindle them by selling fake cigars.

The air in Old Havana is choked with the exhaust smoke of the much-coveted old 1950s Chevys, Fiats and other cars that are remnants of what was the casino-rich playground of Americans before the 1953-1959 revolution of ­Fidel Castro and Ernesto “Che” Guevara.

The occasional smell of coffee wafts in the air, and the vestiges of American influence appear in the form of a semi-vanished wall advertisement for a cup of coffee for three American cents.

The smell and sound of vintage cars jar with the smooth rides of new vehicles in the narrow streets. The capital is more than a large depot of vintage cars, however. It’s catching up with the modern world – and modern selling ­tactics.

Hollers of “taxi, taxi” fill the air from sleepy drivers of vintage cars and rickshaw taxis that line up on the streets. In this city, you can even get uber-touristy, and ride a horse carriage along the nearby promenade.

The line between Cuba’s capitalist past and communist present isn’t so clear anymore. Old Havana is full of art galleries seeking to lure rich westerners to buy their wares. Elsewhere, in an artisan’s market, there are T-shirts with pictures of “Che”, the nickname given to him because of his Argentinian background, alongside statues of Cuban men and women smoking cigars, magnets and necklaces made of beads.

I take time to roam the market, including having my eyebrows shaved by a blade-totting ­Cuban, to the admiration of the female vendors surrounding him. I also get my hair braided.

In Plaza de Armas, I stroll through stands of old books predominantly about the revolution, and what’s supposed to be antiques – medals, old cameras and coins.

I wander into an alley full of street artists displaying their pieces, near the 18th-­century San Cristobal Cathedral that towers over its namesake square, with its baroque architecture. Pope Francis held a mass here in ­September. The latest addition to Old Havana is a mosque.

Old Havana’s building facades weave in and out different styles, sometimes combined in one edifice. Hotel Racquel, or Rachel, is one such example. Its baroque exterior hides an art-nouveau interior, full of stained glass. But the orange-and-blue stained-glass roof is the highlight of the hotel, which is run by the government – as are most hotels and restaurants here.

The building itself metamorphosed into a hotel after being a textile storage house, then an insurance company, and later a chamber of commerce, as my guide, Ernesto, enthusiastically explains.

For two hours, Ernesto sweeps me through the history of Old Havana, and he’s worth every last note of the 20 Cuban peso convertible (Dh73) that I pay to the government-run San ­Cristobal Agencia de Viajes. The agency’s tours can be booked from government-run hotels around Old Havana.

The place is full of charismatic hotels, such as Los Frailes, or the Friars hotel, where staff roam the building in brown monastic attire, and guests are greeted by monk statues in the lobby and outside the hotel.

But the most iconic hotel in Old Havana has to be ­Ambos ­Mundos. This is where the ­American novelist Ernest ­Hemingway spent seven years, and from where he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls. The hotel has paid homage to its most famous guest by preserving his room, and erecting a picture gallery in the lobby near a creaky lift. ­Monty Python's ­Michael Palin and a film crew also stayed in the hotel while shooting a documentary about the author.

One wall is covered with pictures of Hemingway – with Fidel Castro, with his wives and with a bunch of celebrities, including Spencer Tracy, the American actor who played lead role in the screen version of Hemingway's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Old Man and the Sea.

Hemingway’s spirit ­dominates another establishment: the ­Bodeguita del Medio, a bar-­restaurant where tourists sardine themselves to try the author’s favourite drink, as a band belts out salsa music. The salsa takes over a waiter, who offers his hands, and dances with me for a few minutes. But my stomach interferes, and I head upstairs to bury myself in a 12 CUC (Dh44) shredded beef stew, a traditional Cuban dish, with rice and fried plantains. The meal is bland, but the atmosphere is festive, and also touristy. A fitting suggestion of where Cuba is heading.

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