Welcome to our travel blog. We are Tabitha and Nic. In 2011 we 'retired' in our early 40s and set off to travel the world. We spent our first year in South America and have been lucky enough to make two trips to Antarctica.

Our blog is a record of our travels, thoughts and experiences. It is not a guide book, but we do include some tips and information, so we hope that you may find it useful if you are planning to visit somewhere we have been. Or you may just find it interesting as a bit of armchair travel.

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Havana - cars, cigars, chocolates and crafts

For our remaining three days in Havana, we reverted to wandering the streets and sitting in cafes.  For us, the charm of Havana is not in the museums, but rather in walking along and seeing the crumbling but still beautiful buildings, the falling apart but fabulous cars and the times-gone-by but still trading counter shops.

Vintage they may be, but most at least are still vibrant in their way.

The evidence of a once very wealthy society is all around, and it is fascinating, sad and yet oddly reassuring to see how little those symbols of wealth have  been so little cared for over time.

I am very glad that they are now working to preserve the architecture that is here but the reality is, had the country continued to develop and build during these post revolution years, many of these lovely building would be long since gone.

Similarly had there not been restrictions on the import and sale of vehicles, Cuba would not have the many Cadillacs, Pontiacs and other vintage cars that we see today.  We were concerned that with restrictions being relaxed, these old cars would be sold to dealers from the States and Europe and replaced by the more efficient but soulless new cars.

Happily, we heard that the UNESCO status recognises that these cars are a part of Cuba's heritage now, and protects them as well as the buildings.

But even we couldn't resist one museum - the museum of chocolate!  Not that it is really a museum.  It is really a cafe and shop,  where you can watch them make the chocolates and see a few cabinets with old chocolate moulds and other paraphanalia.  But the chocolate was quite tasty, so we weren't complaining.

Then of course even as non smokers like us, you can't come to Cuba without visiting a cigar factory.  We had tried the one in Santa Clara, but that was no longer doing tours, so we figured we'd go to the one here.  Except that was closed too.

But at least here there was a lady sat at a workstation in the corner of the shop making the cigars for the benefit of we tourists.  So we did get to see the process and it didn't cost us anything.

We also made it to the Almacenes de San Jose craft market where we spent some hours looking around at the multitude of paintings of old cars.  These are of course slightly kitsch, but I do like them, and we spent some time considering them before finally deciding we don't currently have any walls, and by the time we do again, we will have far too many pictures and photos for this one to get put up.  So instead, I bought a colorful paper mâché boot and Nic bought a Che Guevara wallet, partly because he needed a wallet, and partly because he liked the irony of it.
Beyond that we spent some time in a few bars and restaurants, often with a few rum based drinks and some (usually welcome) musical entertainment. Three places that didn't have any live music, but which we rather liked were La Imprenta, Palador Doña Blanquita and El Chanchullero.

The first, La Imprenta, was a state run restaurant, which was something of a surprise as unlike most, it was really rather slick.  The food was great, they had some good wines, it was good value and the service was impeccable, but the more remarkable thing was the design.  It was an old print works building, and the decor was built around that.  The seats and tables were all carved wooden typeset letters, there were old bits of printing machinery, and many other interesting, slightly unusual, and yet still tasteful touches.  Something of a surprise really.

The second , Palador Doña Blanquita, was not state run, but rather a small restaurant on the second floor of an anonymous looking building.  The food was good, and there was a nice view across the Prado, but what amused us here was that this is so clearly  a place that someone has opened where they live.  We could tell this because at the room at the back we could clearly see the old mum asleep on the sofa.

And the last, El Chanchullero, was a lovely but tiny little bar on Plaza del Christo.  It made great cocktails and although we didn't eat here the food did look good.  But the interesting element for us was that it was very different to what we had come to expect in Cuba.  It had excellent quirky decoration, including a tiny shrine inside and was very simple and cosy.  It was the sort of place that would have gone into whatever city we were in.

Perhaps it seems wrong that some of the places that appeal to us are those that are less traditional.  We do like to go to the traditional places, but we quite like to see what is new about a place as well.

Sometimes as a tourist it can feel like all of the traditional things are a bit false - done for the tourist market rather than because it is what they would still choose to do.

They are still interesting and can tell you a lot about a place's past, but we like to mix in a bit of the more modern culture too, and perhaps get to learn a bit about where the country and it's people are going rather than just where they have already been.

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