The dock in Havana is extremely convenient. We cleared Customs and simply walked across the street to San Francisco de Asis Square. The square is dominated by the 16th century Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis. Surprisingly, vendors were in short supply. Only one artist had set up a stand to sell his work while he continued to create lovely images. In contrast, there were a gazillion hawkers touting tours and antique car excursions! Cuba may be communist but capitalism happens!
We walked over to Plaza Vieja, constructed in 1559. The Plaza was always a residential area encircled by the homes of wealthy citizens. From their balconies, they could watch processions, fiestas, bullfights and even executions. Today, cafes line the square. Outdoor seating is plentiful and even comfortable when there’s a breeze. But when the wind does not blow, indoors is better with electric fans set up everywhere. There is no air-conditioning! We found the Café Escorial to be typical. Umbrella tables set up outside; the interior sparse with rustic tables, lots of electric fans and all windows open to catch a breeze.
As the time approached to meet our car & driver for the afternoon tour, we made our way to the Rum Museum. Everything in Cuba was nationalized after the Cuban Revolution in 1959 including the distilleries. The Arechabala Family, producers of Havana Club, left Cuba for Spain and the United States. They stopped producing rum. Bacardi, on the other hand, already had facilities in Puerto Rico and the United states. They left Cuba and continued their business. Today, they are headquartered in Hamilton, Bermuda. We continued to Restaurante Dos Hermanos for libations while we awaited Fabio, our driver from Havana Vintage Car Tours. The restaurant is rumored to be the oldest bar in Havana. They are located across the street from Sierra Maestra Terminal (with its graffiti of Che Guevara) and the Regla Ferry Boats.
Fabio arrived a little early and we boarded our 1955 Buick chariot for a tour of the city. The first stop was a government-mandated visit to a military museum. After the propaganda stop, it started to rain. The convertible top went up. We continued through Havana Centro and the Vedado District to the Malecon and on to the Hotel Nacional where we escaped the downpour. We enjoyed drinks on the covered hotel Terrace. When the rain finally stopped, we returned to the ship and concluded our Cuban adventure.
We didn’t get to see as much as we had hoped. The rain put a real damper on that! However, there’s no doubt that Cuba will remain a port-of-call for many cruise lines. We expect to return!
The first port-of-call on our cruise to Cuba was Key West. We docked at Mallory Square. Wall Street leads from the Square to Duval Street and along the way is the El Meson de Pepe Cuban Restaurant at the Cayo Hueso y Habana Historeum. Although founded in 1985, it exemplifies the historic connection between Key West and Cuba. Shipwrecks and their salvage created the first boom in Key West and attracted many settlers to the Island from Cuba. In the 1860s, the cigar industry with its many workers started a migration from Cuba to Key West. Soon, Key West became “Cigar City USA.” And remained so until a fire decimated the industry in 1886.
We walked over to the old Custom House where Seward Johnson’s sculpture “Unconditional Surrender” is displayed. I love Johnson’s work and, obviously, so do many others. Copies of this sculpture are installed all over the world! We first saw “Unconditional Surrender” in San Diego. It is also on display in New York. We were surprised to see it in Civitavecchia, Italy. But we considered it totally appropriate in Pearl Harbor, Honolulu. Other locations include Hamilton, New Jersey; Caen, France; Sarasota, Florida; Royal Oak, Michigan and Bastenaken, Belgium.
We continued along Duval Street to 428 Greene St. where Captain Tony’s Saloon is located. Here, many famous people such as Truman Capote, John F. Kennedy, and Harry Truman enjoyed a drink or two. Barstools are named for these famous patrons. There is even a life-sized statue of Ernest Hemingway. Jimmy Buffett got his start here and still comes by occasionally (but he will not perform here anymore; that is something he only does at his own Margaritaville Café around the corner!) This building has a long and interesting history. Constructed in 1852 as an ice house, it also doubled as the city morgue. In 1898, it was the telegraph station that reported to the world the sinking of the USS Maine. In 1912, it was a cigar factory. For the next 21 years it housed a couple of bars, a bordello, and a series of speakeasies. Then, in 1933, Josie Russell created Sloppy Joe’s Bar. It became a favorite hang-out of Ernest Hemingway. As a matter of fact, Hemingway suggested the name based on the original Sloppy Joe’s in Havana. When the landlord raised the rent, Russell and his customers picked up the entire bar and transported everything to Sloppy Joe’s current location at 201 Duval Street.
Before returning to the ship, we deemed it necessary to have a Margarita, on the rocks, at Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville Café. A stop at the gift shop followed.
Before boarding the Empress of the Seas for our adventure to Havana, we spent a couple of days in Tampa, Fl. Our goal was to visit the neighborhood of Ybor City. Founded in the 1880s by Vicente Martinez-Ybor, Ybor City is a unique example of successful immigrant assimilation.
Ybor, was a prominent cigar manufacturer in Cuba. He moved his factory from Cuba to Key West in 1869 during political turmoil in the then-Spanish colony. But soon, desiring to establish his own “company town” with room for growth and expansion, he bought 40 acres of land northeast of Tampa; built hundreds of small pre-fab houses (precursor to the Sears house kits?) to attract skilled Cuban cigar makers; and welcomed other cigar manufacturers, eventually making Tampa a major cigar manufacturing hub. The humid climate, nearby port and Henry Plant’s new railroad line contributed to the success of Ybor city.
Further contributing to its success were the European immigrants from Sicily, Germany, and Romania. The Chinese came, also! Together, they built a real town. The Germans were managers, bookkeepers, and supervisors. It was the German immigrants who not only designed and created the cigar labels but also built the factories to produce the wooden cigar boxes. The Italians came and started small businesses such as bakeries, cafes, restaurants, food stores and boarding houses. The Romanians and Chinese were adept at the service trade and retail sales.
The city peaked in 1929. And then the Depression came. It wasn’t until 50 years later that artists and entrepreneurs came back to Ybor City. Today tourism flourishes. Hotels, restaurants, and shopping are in abundance.
A point of interest is the Parque de Jose Marti. It is owned by the Cuban government and enjoys status similar to embassies and consulates!