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From Camagüey we had to start heading back west towards Havana, and we chose as our halfway point the colonial town of Remedios, from which we figured we could visit both the coral islands off the north coast and the revolutionary city of Santa Clara to the south. It turned out to be a good plan, but for slightly different reasons that we'd first anticipated.
It happens at some point in almost every trip I make abroad, and this time it happened on the way to Remedios. I hung on as long as I could, but about two thirds of the way there I had to ask Peta to pull over, and I threw up copiously, noisily and with immense relief. That night I reacquainted myself with the deep green colour of stomach bile, and sank into a restless sleep with a slight temperature of 100.2°F.
This scuppered any plans we had for doing anything serious, so instead we opted for quiet evenings in Remedios and days spent lapping up the sea on the coral islands to the north. It turned out to be an excellent decision.
The Two Churches of Remedios
Remedios is lovely. It's not a world-class tourist attraction and it's not particularly big, but this is one of the reasons why it's so charming. The main square is a great place to walk at night because everyone is so pleasant; there's practically no hassle, everyone seems pleased to see you, and nobody tries to sell you bici-taxi tours of the city or evening meals in the restaurant of their choice. Hell, nobody even tries to sell you cigars...
If anywhere deserves the luck that befell the town in 1944, it's Remedios. The story goes that a Cuban millionaire called Eutimio Falla Bonet traced his family tree back to nearby Santa Clara, and found that one of his ancestors had been a founding member of the city. The founders of Santa Clara moved there from Remedios on , which meant that Bonet's ancestor must have come from Remedios, and indeed he found records in the church on the square that confirmed his ancestor had been born there. He was so taken with Remedios that he spent $1 million renovating the church containing the records, the Iglesia San Juan Bautista de Remedios, as well as the main square sitting below its tower. The results of the 1944-1953 renovation are still striking; the church is as good as new and the spacious park in the middle of the plaza is a delight, with a pretty cupola in the middle where children play, and there are plenty of cool, stone seats for the locals to sit on and natter.
Meanwhile, on the north side of the square sits the town's other church, the less fortunate Iglesia Buen Viaje. Remedios is the only town in Cuba with two churches on its main square, but the Iglesia Buen Viaje is mouldering, leaking and closed until repairs can be made. It makes Remedios a strange reminder of the fate of Cuba; on one side is a gleaming beacon of successful capitalism, while on the other is a faded and peeling reminder that life in Cuba isn't easy.
Another reminder of past glories was our wonderful casa particular, an 18th century colonial house where the shutters were three inches thick, the front room dominated by a beautiful spiral staircase, and the food presented with spectacular flair; I don't think I've ever seen so much carved fruit in my life. It was a delight.
The only fly in the ointment was the last night, when we ordered fish, a dish that the Cubans fail completely to understand. Given that it's a tropical island, it's a real surprise to find that Cubans don't eat fish; a government initiative to persuade people to eat this renewable and highly nutritious food source failed completely and Cubans simply don't eat things that come out of the sea. Instead they save things like lobster and prawns for tourists, who think they've landed in heaven when they can get a sumptuous plate of succulent lobster for under $5. Fish, however, is a complete disaster in Cuba; whenever we braved fish on the menu, it either came overcooked, smothered in garlic, mashed up into a paste like cat food, or an unhappy combination of all three. My advice is to stick to the shellfish; it doesn't matter how many crenellated guavas and perfectly round papaya balls appear alongside it, fish in Cuba is an unmitigated disaster, even in a place as welcoming as Remedios.