Friday, 8 February 2013

Eating out in Havana

On the flight out to Cuba I had the good fortune to sit next to a London musician going out to join his Cuban wife and family. He obligingly filled the end pages of my Time Out  Guide with good advice as to where to go and what to do. Especially welcome were his suggestions for good places to eat. Thank you, Keith!
We arrived at our hotel in the early evening, somewhat bleary-eyed after an early start. Without his notes, which from then on became the mantra, "Keith says..." we may well have just settled down in the hotel. Instead we walked to the Capitalio and looked, as instructed, on the opposite side of the road for a queue. And there it was, a long queue; parents with sleeping children on their shoulders, family groups and young couples, all waiting for a seat at L'os Nardos restaurant. It didn't look promising, but we did eventually get in. "Where are you taking us?" asked The Young and Fit as we climbed a metal staircase, up and up, past cooling units and washing. I think that we ended up just under the roof. We were introduced to the delights of Cuban rice and beans and felt we had arrived!
We stayed at the Hotel Parque Central, ideally placed for walking out into la Habana Vieja. We were tourists in this crumbling, collapsing city, easily identified, as though there were a sign around our necks reading, 'cash cow'. Anyone and everyone seemed eager to take money from us, not the local peso currency but our much wanted tourist Cuban dollars that convert for the locals to twenty times the initial value. We were tapped on the shoulder, there was a tug at our sleeve. "Where you from?"  "I show you..." and the most common refrain of all, "Money for milk for my children." We were concerned, were these people really hungry?
The breakfasts at the hotel were excellent. We put a hard-boiled egg into our pockets ready to give to the first hungry person to approach us. We did not have to wait for long for people were waiting outside the entrance to the hotel. We offered an egg. "Hueva" we said, pleasantly. A wrinkled old lady looked at our offering with distain. She waved her hand dismissively and walked away. There was no more pestering.  We repeated our offer several times to other beggers, always with the same result. Our guilt and concern evaporated and we felt light-hearted. Cubans were not starving, they are supplied with meagre rations from the state; it was our money that they wanted.
Litter was strewn everywhere, facades of buildings hung in space, supported by rusting scaffolding festooned with climbing plants. Apartments were open to the sky, formerly magnificent buildings were a patina of chipped paint, broken masonry, serious neglect strung with rows of washing.
But the city was also a delight, with music everywhere, vibrant colours and vintage cars that brought a smile to our faces and exclamations of delight.
In England we had booked a meal at La Guarida, a famous paladar, one of a number of private houses offering the hope of better food than can be bought in the state-run restaurants. The taxi took us over pitted, rubble-strewn streets. The dark doorman, almost invisible in the dark night, asked, "Have you booked?" We were ushered into a magical space.
These old cuidadelas, built by the Spaniards, have seen better days, what were once single family residences are now multi-occupational, a maze of tenement living. The poor of London lived in a similar manner in years gone by, with so many people crammed into small places that the buildings earned the title of 'rookeries.'
The rookery of La Guarida had a dreamlike quality. It referenced many things: staircases rose and fell like Piranesi's prison etching, 'The Drawbridge.' A large, pillared space, like a deserted ballroom suggested a past that seemed to have stepped straight out of Alain Fournier's, 'Le Grand Meaulnes.'
A headless angel greeted us at the base of a curving staircase of chipped marble.

There was a Castro quote stenciled on the wall.
This paladar has a reputation that appeared to have given the staff quite an attitude. We waited in an anteroom.

The waitresses were unsmiling and barely attentive. The food was unremarkable, not worthy of its reputation. Don't ask me what I ate because I can't remember.
But the building, the building! The walls have a mottled patina of years. How is it that neglect can create such melancholy beauty?
If you wish to enter a dream you must visit La Guarida.
Every day we wandered the streets of the city. We went to the Plaza Vieja with its beautiful buildings in the process of being restored.
Keith had recommended the micro-brewery there as a good place to eat. We sat in the sunshine to eat our meal and listen to the resident band.
And it was so enjoyable that we took a tourist photo to remember it by!
Sometimes, by the afternoon, it was good to return to base and flop down at the hotel's rooftop restaurant for a light snack, a swim
and a bird's eye view of where we had been walking.

Our favourite eating place by far was the tiny paladar Dona Eutimia on Calle Concordia. Here the service could not have been more warm and friendly. The atmosphere was delightful, the food tasty and very reasonably priced.
You can see from the photos how happy we were at Dona Eutimia's!
At the end of each day we sat in the hotel lobby over coffee trying to stay awake.
(I won't talk about the meals that we ate  when we moved to Varadero, where the sparrows came for a wash and brush up in the 'hygenic' container of water for the ice-cream scoops!)
But the weather was good!

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