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Mark Moxon's Travel Writing

Cuba: Havana

People dressed up for carnival, Havana
The colours of Havana's children's carnival

There's a reason why life classes at art school don't involve young female models stripping off to reveal perfectly toned bodies and porcelain skin, and it's not just because art school students don't deserve that sort of luck; it's because the drooping body of your average pensioner is far more interesting than the image of youthful perfection that fills entire shelves of the modern newsagent. Perfect bodies are everywhere, but men's glossies have more to do with titillation than beauty, because beauty isn't just about appearance, it's also about character. That's one reason why Havana is such a beautiful city; it might be slowly crumbling into the sea, but that's one of the things that makes it so appealing.

Along the Malecón

The Malecón, Havana
The Malecón is a great place for a stroll

It's along the Malecón that Havana's architecture really shines. The Malecón is the coastal road that hugs the shoreline of northern Havana, and to say that it's an atmospheric place for a stroll is an understatement. While waves burst along the shore, sprinkling the unwary with the smell of brine and deep sea fishing, an intriguing array of buildings line the road like individual works of art. The majority of them appear to be losing their battle with the corrosive sea air, and this is what makes the Malecón so wonderful, because nature has taken these old buildings and stripped away all their pretensions, leaving the bones behind in an enticing state of disrepair.

The Malecón, Havana
Looking east along the Malecón towards Castillo de la Punta and Habana Vieja

The Cigar Scam

A crumbling building on the Malecón, Havana
The Malecón is lined with buildings that are gradually losing their long battle with the corrosive sea air

Every city has its scam, and Havana's is – not surprisingly – centred round cigars. Within an hour of leaving our hotel on our first morning in the Havana sunlight, we had our first run-in with Cuba's jineteros, so-called because like jockeys, they ride on tourists' backs.

The view west along the Malecón, Havana
The view west from Castillo de la Punta along the Malecón towards Vedado
Castillo de la Real Fuerza, Havana
Originally built in 1558 and rebuilt in 1582, the Castillo de la Real Fuerza is the oldest building in Cuba and the second oldest fort in the New World
Hotel Nacional, Havana
The iconic Hotel Nacional
The Capitolio, Havana
The Capitolio was built in the image of the Capitol in Washington DC
A street in Havana
As you walk the streets of Havana, buildings pop up in the distance; here you can see the Capitolio at the end of the road

The Fag Lady

The Capitolio, Havana
The Capitolio is an ironic building for Havana, given the current relationship between Cuba and the USA

The Malecón might be one of the most intriguing parts of Havana, but the most beautiful has to be Habana Vieja, or Old Havana. Habana Vieja takes up the eastern half of the city centre, sandwiched between Bahía de la Habana on the right and the delightfully dilapidated housing of Centro on the left. As the name suggests, Habana Vieja is where the really old buildings can be found; the whole area is crammed with old plazas and winding streets, and simply wandering around is a treat for the senses.

The Gran Teatro, Havana
The Gran Teatro is next to the Capitolio
A street in Havana
The mottled colours of Havana's streets

Tourist Tours

The view up into the dome of the Capitolio
Looking up into the dome of the Capitolio

Back at the hotel, we arranged to hire a car for ten days from the man at the Havanautos desk, and that night we treated ourselves to a very pleasant meal in an Italian restaurant just off the Plaza de Armas. As if to stock up on extravagant tourist attractions before hitting the trail, we decided to go home via El Floridita, the bar where Ernest Hemingway drank far too many cocktails in the years when he lived in Cuba. The bar is roundly lambasted by the guidebooks as a rip-off and a tourist trap, but there's a great deal of fun to be had in tourist traps like these, and we decided to brave it.

El Floridita, Havana
El Floridita is considerably more impressive on the inside