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.
Architecturally speaking, Havana is like a gracious old woman sitting by the sea, staring out through crinkled eyes at the deep blue waves of the Florida Straits. Look into her eyes and there's a youthful twinkle in there, almost an air of mischief, because behind the crumbling façade, Havana is sexy, hip and gorgeous. One day Havana will undoubtedly get a facelift and some of the magic will be gone; right now, though, Havana is a glorious synthesis of the very old and the very new, and it's thrilling.
Along the Malecón
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.
It's this fragility that gives each of the buildings its own, distinct character. You can see the different layers of colour used over the years as the salt air strips away the paint, leaving nothing more than a glimpse into the grandeur that was Havana in its pre-revolution decadence. Delicately carved balustrades peer out from behind patches of hastily applied concrete, giving the impression of a row of houses propped up by large, grey sticking plasters. Some buildings defy the laws of physics, leaning on their neighbours like old men after too many tots of rum, glancing with resignation at the holes of rubble further down the strip where less fortunate friends have finally collapsed.
But these buildings are a long way from being unloved, for even the most skeletal are home to families peeking out from behind row after row of colourful washing, fluttering in the sea breeze. As you stroll along the Malecón, squinting under a turquoise sky, it's possible to look right through most of the buildings to the streets behind, where streaks of yellow and blue turn out to be taxis and cars that themselves have managed to defy the corrosive effects of the last 60 years.
Havana is indeed like a step back in time, and it's a delight, though one wonders how long it can last. It's perfectly understandable that the people of Havana should want to modernise their city and rebuild for the future, and quite right too; I just hope they manage to modernise it in a way that retains its unique character. There's a big difference between youthful beauty and the fakery of plastic surgery, and it would be a shame to see Havana go from timeless classic to architectural botox when the money finally starts to pour in. Thankfully, that time appears to be some way off, and even more thankfully, the Cubans appear to adore the architecture they have. And who can blame them?
The Cigar Scam
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.
'Hello, where are you from?' is the normal introductory line, and instantly our eyebrows rose. It's the same in every culture where tourists are rich and it's more lucrative for young men to try to wangle a few dollars out of the unwary than to get a proper job. It's the same in the Gambia, Morocco, Mali, India... pretty much anywhere in the developing world, in fact, but the way the scams are played varies wildly. Happily, the jineteros of Cuba are cuddly teddy bears compared to the bloodsuckers of Morocco and Mali; they manage to combine the relaxed attitude of the Gambia's bumsters with the broad grins of India's scam merchants, perhaps because their basic needs – food, shelter and clothing – are provided for by the state. Scamming tourists is not a matter of life or death here, it's all about standard of living; our jinetero had smart jeans, a clean black T-shirt, wrap-around mirrored shades and excellent English. He deserved a fair hearing, so we let him prattle on.
'My name is Fernando,' said Fernando, shaking our hands with a grin. 'So, are you from London?'
We nodded, and he launched into his well-rehearsed story of how his brother lives in New Cross in London, and how he applied for a visa to go to England but was refused, and how wonderful London sounds, and so on and so forth. To give Fernando his dues, he came across as charming, witty and impossible to shake off, so we resigned ourselves to having a tour guide for our stroll along the Malecón.
'Today is carnival,' he said, stating the obvious. We'd been woken up by the sounds of bands loosening up in the morning sun, the booming of loudspeakers from garish floats, and the excited chatter of swirling groups of children dressed in ridiculously colourful costumes. 'It is the day for the children,' said Fernando, and as we headed further west along the seafront in the direction of Havana's iconic Hotel Nacional, the crowds filled out and the melee gradually morphed into a static line of dancers warming up on the tarmac. At the head stood a posse of bikers who turned out to be none other than the local police, and two minutes later they roared their engines, slammed on their horns and took off, closely followed by a couple of small floats sporting colourful characters from Cuba's past, and four horse-drawn carriages decked out with glittering decorations. And that's where the whole thing ground to a halt.
Out of politeness we waited for a good ten minutes while distorted salsa music pumped out of a shiny blue truck further back down the line and the crowd milled around expectantly, but with the combined effects of jet lag and a midday sun that was proving much hotter than we'd expected, we told Fernando we were going back to the hotel to get my hat and turned to say goodbye. As if; Fernando hadn't even managed to mention the true motivation behind his befriending us, and it would be rude not to give him at least a chance.
So, a little further back towards our hotel, we sighed a slightly unsurprised 'yes' to his suggestion that we pop into a bar on the Malecón to sample Cuba's most ubiquitous cocktail, the mojito. There's no way to fight the local tourist tout tax, especially if you don't yet know how the game is played, and how much can go wrong in a bar in the middle of a carnival? Precisely.
Mojitos are delicious, even at 11am on a Sunday with the tense muscles of jet lag creaking in your neck. Take a generous sprinkling of sugar and add the juice of half a lime and some scrunched up mint leaves, mix it up, pour on a stiff measure of light dry rum and add soda water and ice... and serve with a straw. 'The secret of a good mojito is to stir it well,' said Fernando, whirring his straw round his drink like a man possessed, and he was right. The combination of sugary lime and teeth-tingling rum is delightful, particularly when served with the most essential ingredient of all: the sun flickering off the deep, blue sea.
'This is my friend Julio,' said Fernando, turning towards a man on the next table who smiled at us and offered us a cigarette.
'No thanks, we don't smoke,' said Peta, sucking on her mojito.
'Ah, but you like cigars, no?' said Fernando. 'In Cuba we have the best cigars in the world.'
'Not really,' I lied, sensing that this was the hard sell. 'Actually, it's pretty hard to smoke a cigar in England now. You try lighting up a cigar in a restaurant in London, and they'll throw you out.'
This wasn't what Fernando wanted to hear, so he engaged the selective hearing so beloved of shifty salesmen and pressed on.
'I work in a cigar factory,' he said. 'Romeo y Julieta in Pinar del Río. I am the tour guide there. Perhaps you have heard of it?'
'My dad used to smoke Romeo y Julieta cigars,' said Peta.
'Ah, then you want to buy cigars for your father!' announced Julio, exhaling a cloud of blue cigarette smoke. 'But you don't want to buy cigars from a shop, shop is very expensive and no good.'
'Actually, I don't want to buy cigars from anywhere,' said Peta. 'He gave up.'
'Yes, but I can give you great deal, said Fernando. 'You pay fifty, eighty dollars for one cigar in shop, I can get you excellent deal. You come to my house.'
'But we don't want to buy any cigars, thanks,' I said. 'We don't smoke. No me gusta fumar.'
'I know,' he said, 'but I will just show you a box, and you can try a cigar and your wife can try a panatella. You can just try. I tell you they are good, better than in the shop.'
And with that Julio stood up and said, 'I go to get you a box,' and with a wink he shot across the bar and into an alleyway.
'Listen Fernando,' said Peta, touching his arm and looking him straight in the eye. 'I know this is how you make your money, and that is fine. But we are not going to buy any cigars, today or tomorrow, and it doesn't matter how good they are. We do not want any cigars, OK?'
Suddenly Fernando knew he'd lost the sale, and he stood up and called Julio back, his face a picture as his male bravado wrestled with his being firmly told by a woman that he wasn't going to get anywhere. 'OK,' he shrugged. 'You understand, this is how I make my money.'
'We know,' I said, 'and you have been very good company. We'll pay for your mojito and you can head off into the crowd to look for people who might want to buy your cigars. Without you we might never have tried a mojito, and they're delicious.'
And with that, we shook both their hands, smiled and left them to scout out for other potential jockey fodder. If only all the touts of the world were this pleasant, life would be a lot easier.
The Fag Lady
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.
It isn't just because of the atmospheric squares such as Plaza de Armas, Plaza San Francisco and La Plaza Vieja, where pretty cafés spill out onto cobbled stones beneath the colonial towers of Spanish-era cathedrals; it isn't just because the streets are lined with houses whose crumbling beauty is as stately as it is sad; and it isn't just because the smell of cigar smoke hangs in the air, masking the subtle odour of drains and the acrid fumes from the buses that roar around the towering dome of the Capitolio. Habana Vieja is a delight because at every turn you can look into the buildings and get a quick glimpse of what life is like in the capital of Cuba, and every building is different. One barred window hides an ornate staircase whose paintwork is a sedimentary history of the ironwork's colours over the years; in another a family sits around their living room, hiding from the midday sun and gently rocking the afternoon away; yet another is home to a man whose face is almost entirely made up of crinkles, and who appears to be living in a skip, surrounded by what looks like rubbish, but which to him is home. In cold countries, life is lived behind closed doors, because the temperature is too low to leave anything open; in Habana Vieja, the windows have no glass and the shutters are open all the way through to the shaded yards out the back. Washing flutters in a gentle breeze, dogs wander in and out of houses like trusted neighbours in times gone by, and music pours out of windows, doors and basements with the distinctive hip-swinging beat of música Cubana. It's a heady mix.
One of the most enduring images of Havana, though, is the proliferation of ancient cars, and there are few better places to see the 1950s Cadillacs and Fords of Cuba than outside the Capitolio. This building, constructed between 1929 and 1932 by the dictator Machado, is a pretty convincing copy of the Capitol in Washington DC, and it's an incongruous sight in a country whose relationship with the USA is far from comfortable. It was built in an attempt to suck up to the US at a time when American money was starting to drift towards Cuba; prohibition was kicking in back in the States, and the less salubrious elements of American society – the Mafia, in particular – were looking to make money elsewhere, and Cuba was a prime target. This emblem of Cuba's past is now home to the Cuban Academy of Sciences and the National Library of Science and Technology, and it's a focal point for the wonderful cars of Havana, which sit outside in photogenic poses that it's hard not to fall in love with.
But central Havana is much more than just cars and Capitolios, and taking a breather in Parque Central is a wonderful way to soak it all up. We took a seat on the southern side of the park – our bench only had two slats missing, which made it positively luxurious compared to its neighbours – and watched as buses zoomed past, looking like the bastard offspring of long-distance trucks and Portakabins. Old men wobbled past on bicycles with no brakes or gears, families wandered along the sidewalk, towing children in various states of tantrum, and the young women of Havana sauntered past in clothes designed with the sole purpose of celebrating the posterior.
Next to us on the bench sat an old lady holding a packet of cigarettes and a bag, and while Havana whirled around us, she sat as still as a statue, gazing into space. I didn't take a great deal of notice of her until a man came up to her and spoke some hurried Spanish, and she opened her bag, pulled out a loaf of white bread with the end nibbled off, fished around in her bag for a white plastic bag, untied the handles and pulled out an unopened packet of cigarettes. The man gave her some money, which she put into her bag, and ten seconds later the bread was back in the top and the old lady had gone back to being just another observer of the Capitolio's bustle.
Five minutes later another man came by, and this time the old lady pulled out the loaf of bread, untied the white plastic bag and fished around for a newspaper. He nodded and said a few words, and she pulled out four more copies of the same paper, checking the dates on the front. Again the man paid up, tipped his hat and left the old woman to reassemble her bag, all the time keeping a watchful eye on surroundings.
'Perhaps she's peddling decadent cigarettes and capitalist propaganda,' said Peta. 'Who would suspect a little old lady of that?'
And with that we left her and her black market shopping bag and wandered back to our hotel for a siesta.
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 is amazing, mainly because it's such a strange place. It's a shrine to Hemingway, with a life-sized bronze statue of the great man propping up the left-hand end of the bar, and with the cocktails retailing at $6 each – about twice the price of a normal Havana bar – and waiters wearing wide-lapelled red jackets and the kind of haughty expressions that mean you'd rather chew gravel than give them a tip, it's designed to be an exclusive joint. But sit there for more than a few minutes, and the cracks begin to show. First up, a lady pops out of a side door every five minutes, dressed in a white skirt and jacket, and she proceeds to pester each table in turn, holding up a selection of Ernest Hemingway T-shirts and saying, 'You want T-shirt, Hemingway T-shirt?'
As if this isn't enough, every few minutes the door opens and in troops a gaggle of tourists in inappropriate multi-pocketed shorts with a whole Christmas tree of camera lenses hanging round their necks, nervously glancing round for directions from their guides. 'Over here,' grin their hosts, pointing towards the statue, and suddenly the flashbulbs go off in a cacophony of red-eye prevention, following which the whole gang turns around and heads back out of the door. For the unfortunate souls who thought it might be fun to have a daiquirí at the same end of the bar as the Hemingway statue, it's a blinding experience; for the rest of the tourists in the bar – and you only get tourists here, plus a handful of local guides who know only too well how to wring the dollars from their charges – it's a strange experience, watching the tourists as they roll in and out like people on a Hemingway-themed amusement park ride. It's frankly bizarre, but then again, so is El Floridita.
Thankfully El Floridita is far from representative of Havana, even if its cocktails really are rather good. Trust Hemingway to get that part right...