“If you walked into that water now,” a friend of mine said in Havana, “you’d come out dyed blue.”
The sea off the north-west coast of Cuba is a profound blue-black, an ultramarine strewn with silver sparkles. These are the deep waters of the Florida Straits, where centuries of pirates waited to pounce upon the treasure galleons lumbering home to Seville.
Havana was the rendezvous for all Spanish shipping making the perilous voyage across the Atlantic. Every year its warehouses filled with gold, silver emeralds, vividly coloured feathers, precious woods and cochineal from the Americas; and porcelain, silks and perfumes from the Philippines, carried in the Manila galleons for transshipment by mule train across the isthmus to Veracruz.
It is easy to imagine these vivid cargoes piled high on Havana’s wharves, for the city still sings with colour. At dawn it is Impressionist, at noon it is Fauve, after dark it is a Whistler nocturne. At first light in the Plaza de Armas, the gracious square at the heart of the old city, the ornate marble statuary and the trunks of the royal palms are cool blue. The outlines of the ancient fortresses are soft with mist.
With the dawn a crescendo of twittering swells from the trees around the square as sparrows dash among the branches: every now and then you catch sight of one struggling with a huge breakfast beakful of moth. The leaves turn from black to viridian to emerald. The stately buildings around the square are bathed in an apricot glow. Flea-bitten dogs make smiling overtures of friendship. Cockerels crow (for these days most Habaneros raise livestock on their balconies) and silver bicycles flash and tinkle across the cobbles.
Havana is the most beautiful city in the Caribbean, so redolent of its fascinating history that anyone with a grain of romance in their soul finds it irresistible. In 1982, the old city, La Habana Vieja, was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and restoration is proceeding apace.
The nerve centre of the project is the Palacio de los Capitanes Generales in the Plaza de Armas, also the Museum of the City of Havana; from here Eusebio Leal Spengler, the City Historian, charms, bullies, cajoles and inspires his project teams. A Renaissance Man with typically Cuban Baroque flourishes, Leal proclaims that in the face of all the difficulties that his country is currently facing “we need enthusiasm, enthusiasm and more enthusiasm, infinite faith and trust. Man is always capable of rising above all the frontiers of difficulties and problems, and of triumphing over them.”
Seeing and hearing Leal speak, one is reminded of nothing so much as a flame racing along a trail of gunpowder. When the powder kegs of his ideas explode, friends and colleagues run for cover in a habit born of long experience, emerging cautiously once the dust has settled to turn his ambitious theories into practice.
Backed into an economic corner by the American trade embargo and the cessation of Soviet aid, President Castro has been forced to open Cuba’s doors to investment, and foreign money is pouring into the Cuban tourist industry.
The Cubans are well aware of the potential dangers of this policy; although Cuba may be categorised as a Third World country, its inhabitants are smart, tough, clever, sensitive, sophisticated and well-educated. Their health system is excellent and people travel to the island from all over the world to obtain medical treatment not available in their own countries.
Cuba is leading the way in many areas of computer technology. Professional standards are so high that Cubans travelling abroad are often disappointed by what they encounter in places from which they hoped they could learn. They are also frequently dismayed by the quality of the information that they are sent from overseas.
However, lack of money means that resources are scarce; all donations must thus be fully used. This can have unlooked-for results, such as the explosion of Fauvist colour which occurred when a gift of paint was applied to extravagant 19th-century architecture in the capital. Raspberry ripple, blackcurrant sorbet, double chocolate, lemon, vanilla, pistachio — you can almost taste the colours of the buildings in the blaze of the morning sun.
And when stained-glass fanlights cast coloured lights onto marble floors, courtyards are filled with vivid flowers and the bay shimmers with the multicoloured reflections, it looks as though not only man but God has been splashing paint about with joyful abandon.
La Habana Vieja is very dimly lit at night, perfect for sixteenth-century fantasies, though not so wonderful for avoiding puddles, unlit bicycles, and the new phenomenon of bag-snatchers. Despite attempts at damage limitation, tourism is having its inevitable effect on the charming and courteous Cubans. A scattering of Michael Jackson lookalikes now cruise the streets and hassle visitors in a ludicrous brand of Cuban- American accented cool-dude English. Best to wash away the nasty taste of these conversations with a mojito at Hemingway’s favourite bar, La Bodeguita del Medio, before going out for an evening on the town.
In Havana you’re never far away from an opportunity to drink and dance all night. Alternative nightlife includes baseball games in the frenzied atmosphere of the Estadio Latinoamericano; watching the firing of the nine o’clock cannonade, heralded by a thrilling roll of drums (a tradition uninterrupted for centuries) from the Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña; or staring in disbelief at the double-jointed gyrations of the dancers’ besequinned buttocks at the Tropicana.
Havana is fast becoming a centre for the noisier forms of fun. Peace and quiet is best sought outside the capital. It is still easy to find on the sweeping beaches of the Varadero peninsula, where you can lounge on the softest sand imaginable and watch flocks of white egrets and pelicans gliding above water so clear that it looks like turquoise-tinted air with ghostly fish flying through it.
The Cubans themselves are as good-looking as their island; the effect of jade-green or pale grey eyes combined with mahogany skin is enough to stop you in your tracks twenty times a day. They move like dancers and duchesses and their faces are as mobile as mercury. But their greatest glory — velvety, black, soft, long and sweeping –are their extraordinary eyelashes. When a Cuban winks, you automatically listen for the rushing of the wind. If, as Chaos Theory has it, the beating of butterfly wings can cause hurricanes on the other side of the globe, the fluttering of Habaneras’ eyelashes must be wreaking havoc with the world’s weather.
The only real disappointment that I ever experience on the island is the food. One marvels at the ability of people who care so passionately about the sensuous side of life to reduce perfectly good ingredients to despair-inducing platefuls of dullness. For a vegetarian, meals can be particularly trying. Breakfasts in Havana hotels all too often centre upon what I secretly classify as Snake Pie and Toad Turnover: little pastries stuffed with hard lumps of mystery meat.
There are some excellent restaurants in town, however, and in the countryside real culinary treats appear: the roast suckling pig with white rice and black beans, fried plantains and local beer is beyond praise.
There’s nothing nouvelle about this cuisine, but hearty rural Cubans are very much less fastidious than their arty urban compañeros. The dichotomy is further expressed in the way the traditionally sophisticated game of roulette is turned in the countryside into ruleta criolla. Played in an atmosphere of general hilarity, the game involves putting an unsuspecting guinea pig into a little house mounted on a turntable surrounded by more little houses, each of them numbered. Participants buy a numbered slip of paper. The central hut is given a ferocious spin. As it slows, the bemused inhabitant staggers out and makes for the first refuge it sees. The winner is the holder of the number corresponding to the hut chosen by the giddy pig.
On the south coast of the island, half a day’s drive from Varadero, is the small town of Trinidad de Cuba. Declared a World Heritage Site in 1988, it is less grandiose than Havana but every bit as attractive. Two graceful iron greyhounds guard its main square and heaps of flowers spill over its walls. On summer afternoons thunderstorms brew in the hills behind the town. On my last visit the rain hurled down as though the Almighty had upset his paint water, so I repaired to a bar and drunkenly danced the afternoon away in the arms of an unshaven and toothless old charmer whose songs in a passionate baritone would melt the stoniest of hearts.
Afterwards I staggered up the high 18th-century tower of the Convento de San Francisco de Asis and lay in the wide curve of an oval window cut into the wall, looking out over the red tiled roofs of Trinidad and sniffing the scents of wood smoke and coffee.
Travelling through the island from Trinidad to the west you find indigo mountains, copper-red earth, chocolate rivers and acid-green malanga plants. Dragonflies whirr past like golden helicopters; woodpeckers, parrots and hummingbirds dash about in flashes of red, blue and green. Sun and thunderclouds, lightning and rainbows chase each other across the sky, white egrets and mariposa flowers shine through the scented gloom, bright red crabs scuttle across the roads. The undergrowth is tangled with flowers, the road steams and sizzles with cold, fat raindrops, and the palms toss their heads petulantly in the sudden, swirling winds.
Nature-watching in the western province of Pinar del Rio can be quite exhausting, but those passing through the town of Viñales can repair their flagging spirits with a glass of trapiche (literally: sugar mill). This delicious but searing concoction of pineapple juice, rum, honey, orange, ice and sticks of rum-soaked sugar cane is served at the Casa de Don Tomás. This restaurant is in the oldest building in the town, and there is nothing more soothing than sitting on a balcony drinking trapiche and listening to the tree frogs in the bamboo while the valley fills with long drifts of blue mist and huge stars twinkle blue, pink and green against the lavender remnants of the sunset.
As Cuba becomes increasingly accessible, more and more visitors are arriving to marvel at a country which combines all the beauties and fascinations of the Caribbean in a single island. Faced with such an embarras de richesses it is very hard to know where to start and what to see in the limiting span of a normal holiday.
But don’t let that discourage you. The time to go is now, while the island is still empty and relatively unspoiled, for it is hard to believe that the Great American Public will stand for being prevented by their government from visiting Cuba for very much longer.