WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 20th -- After the usual buffet breakfast, we boarded the bus at 9:00 for our “Hemingway Day”…. We first went to Cathedral Square in Old Havana for a group photo – then headed to Ambos Mundos Hotel, where Hemingway was a “regular” in Room 511 when he first came to Cuba. We couldn’t see the room because it was under renovation, but enjoyed the scenic rooftop bar (click for view from the roof) where we were treated to a mohito – one of his favorite drinks – at 10:00 AM! Next we had free time to walk along the crowded pedestrian Calle Obispo, with lots of street and store renovations underway. Here shops sell sneakers for > $70 – but overall it was “underwhelming”…. We waited for our fellow travelers outside La Floridata – another of Hemingways many watering holes (but couldn’t go in – too early).
Next it was back on the bus and through a tunnel under the harbor (built in the Batista era) to have lunch at another lovely paladar – “Divino”. We were seated on the terrace with a relaxing garden view. This paladar has the space to raise its own fruits and vegetables and its co-owner is an Italian. As in all meals, we were first served a bowl of “salad” to share. There were three choices of appetizer and entrée. Paul had pumpkin soup and I chose crispy plantain rounds stuffed with tuna – both were delicious. One of our tablemates had the fried garbanzo beans with chorizo sausage – also a hit. For the main meal, Paul chose the classic Cuban stew, I had the tender slices of pork and a tablemate had the grilled seabass – all perfectly cooked. Dessert was pineapple or coconut ice cream – homemade and outstanding!
After lunch we drove to Hemingway’s home in Cuba – “Finca Vigia” -- that he shared with his fourth wife from ~ 1943 -1960. The tour was led by a docent, since this property is now a museum – but we were able to see the rooms only from open doors and windows due to thefts in the past. Our passionate guide told us countless facts about Hemingway and his life during our tour…. e.g. He didn’t become an alcoholic until later in his life – likely due to constant back pain after surviving a plane crash during his second African Safari… As a result, he had to type standing up when he did his writing 5 hours each morning – followed by “50 round laps” in the pool before lunch. He also suffered from depression and went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota for electroshock treatments. He left Cuba after the revolution and died in 1962 of a self-inflicted gunshot. While living at Finca Vigia he had ~ 50 cats and 6-8 dogs. His four favorite dogs are buried on the property by the pool. When Hemingway left Cuba, he gave his beloved 38-ft. boat “Pilar” to the local marina captain that was thought to be the inspiration for “The Old Man and the Sea”, which was written here. The captain eventually donated it to the museum and we had a chance to see it on the tour – complete with the “fighting chair” that Hemingway designed for fishing. Since the maximum speed on Pilar was 9 knots, it took over 8 hours to travel from Key West to Cuba.
Our final stop this afternoon was the small fishing town of Cojimar where Hemingway kept his boat. We stopped in the Terraza Bar -- his favorite in this town – where his regular corner table is roped off and honored to this day. They treated us to a bright blue “welcome drink” while we enjoyed the view and the local musicians. We then walked to the water to see the monument erected in Hemingway’s honor by the local fishermen for memorializing them in his book. Legend has it that they donated propellers and other boat parts to have the metal for its creation. Click here for more of Hemingway day.
After another long day, we arrived back at the hotel at 4:30 and had an optional “salsa lesson” at 4:45 by the pool . Only four of us showed up because everyone was exhausted! Thankfully, dinner at 7:00 was a lighter, simpler meal in the hotel’s La Scala restaurant – the salad, antipasti, and pizza was tasty and quick.
Tauck has a history (dating back to Arthur Tauck’s first tours) of providing travelers with special treats and surprises. Tonight our treat was a chance to see the 10:00 show at the Tropicana – a Havana tradition since 1939! The two-hour Las Vegas-style show was a spectacle of lights, music and dancing (click to see video), as well as some fantastic acrobatic and balance performances. We had wonderful seats on the first risers and were treated to champagne, snacks, and a bottle of rum for each 4 people! The show ended at midnight, when we returned to the bus – but apparently they have an “after-show” of taped music and dancing that continues into the wee hours! However, this weary group was ready for sleep!
THURSDAY, NOVEMBER 21st – Today was the “Day of the Arts”. Paul and I skipped the breakfast buffet today and just had juice and cereal (We’ve been eating TOO MUCH!). We left the hotel at 9:00 to visit Jose Fuster’s Community Project and Art Gallery. He is a local artist heavily influenced by Picasso and Gaudi, who has gained an international reputation as “The Cuban Picasso”. He has had expositions in France, Germany, Spain, New York and Napa Valley. In addition to his vibrant oils, he has spent decades creating a multitude of mosaic figures and decorations all over his house and gallery – and now the surrounding neighborhood. His son and 12 local “helpers” put his designs into colorful mosaics on the homes and entranceways. Prices for his originals range from $30 (for a hand-painted tile) to many thousands for his oils and paintings. The tile I purchased has an abstract alligator (representing the shape of Cuba) with a rooster on its back (representing “life”). The palm tree on its tail made it perfect for Florida. Mr. Fuster was very gracious and posed for photos at the end of our tour. Click here for a tour of his studio.
Our next stop was the National School of the Arts (for Instrumental Music). Here students from elementary and middle school programs come for intense training in addition to their regular high school subjects. To be accepted, they must excel in musical ability and they receive four years of study, with instruction from 8 AM to 6 PM (They do have recreation on Wednesdays). There are 480 students in the school and more than half live at the school, only seeing their families several times a year. The deputy director of the school gave us an overview (translated by Jorge), then five students performed for us (click here). Their talent on piano, guitar, violin, cello and flute & bagpipe was amazing! We learned that every student must be able to play the piano as well as their primary instrument(s), and every one that makes it to the fourth year graduates. They next apply to enter the “Superior Institute” to continue at the university level. (Last year 25 of the 50 openings were filled by students from this program.) Those who are not accepted are easily able to find jobs in local bands and orchestras. In spite of the bleak square gray block Russian-era buildings, the many students we saw were smiling and obviously passionate about their music. Here is a student practicing on the piano.
Jorge told us that all education is free in Cuba. School is compulsory through the eighth grade, and surprisingly many children do not choose to continue through high school and university. He feels that may be partially due to the fact that pay is unfairly low for professionals, but hopes to see that change sometime soon. Jorge studied for five years in Moscow (right before the Russians left Cuba) and has a degree in political science/international relations. He worked in management for the Cuba tour industry but realized that he could make much more money as a tour guide. His English is perfect and his wealth of knowledge and wonderful sense of humor made this tour extra-special.
Lunch today was at Casa Espanola Restaurant, specializing in Spanish Style meats and rice with flan for dessert. After lunch our first visit was at the “Nino y Nina” (Boys & Girls) community project where they provide special help to children in a very poor barrio. They are sponsored by UNICEF and the neighborhood schools recommend the children for the program. Children are come during and after school hours with a focus on tutoring, art, and creative play. There was a strong emphasis on “Children’s Rights” – to have free education, free health care, to live in a loving family, to have freedom from danger, etc. The children were adorable and performed some songs for us before answering questions, with Jorge translating. Click here for children singing.
Next we went to the Hamel area for a talk on the Santeria religion. This is an Afro-Cuban religious culture that was rather difficult to understand. Their deities share dates with Catholic saints, but the rites, traditions, and sacrifices stem from Africa. It is thought that 70% of Cubans practice some form of Santeria – even if they profess to be Catholic. The lecture was followed by a lively dance performance (click for performance)!
After a rest at the hotel, we were treated to our second Tauck surprise (or “Lagniappe”) when we arrived at La Casa de la Amistad. This beautiful mansion is connected to a love story involving Catalina Lasa and Juan Pedro Baro. She was a beautiful married lady of the Havanna high society and he was a widowed wealthy landowner. They escaped to Paris, got married according to French law, and finally were able to get the Pope to intervene and grant an annulment of her first marriage so they could return to Havanna. After a brief overview by Jorge, we enjoyed our surprise – a marvelous professional concert by a group of 6 amazing singers -- “Vocal Ele”! (Click to see their performance.) Then we were off to dinner at “La Fontana” restaurant. This was a gorgeous place where we had drinks in a lobby oasis of plants and fish ponds. Dinner was in a private room, and began with shared plates of salads and sausages – both tasty. Everyone was served the house specialty – seafood paella – unless they ordered chicken in advance. Unfortunately, it was NOT very appetizing due overcooked shrimp & crawfish and a soft fishy rice base (instead of the traditional paella with saffron rice with vegetables, fish, chicken and sausage in a light savory broth). Oddly, it was served with vegetable risotto, which was delicious. Those who ordered the chicken loved it, so we were a bit jealous. Once again, sleep came easily.