Tuesday 30 June 2015

Cuba: Vinales: The tobacco harvest

There is something profoundly reassuring about harvest time.  I think it's about the satisfaction of a basic human need - food, and knowing there will be enough of it through winter: a need that's hardwired in the brain even in our global supermarket era.  

The key crop in Vinales is tobacco, a cash crop for the farmers rather than one for food. Still, it was a pleasure to watch the slow, rhythmic harvesting of the leaves.  Against the stunning backdrop of the limestone mogotes, on the rich ochre plain the scene was imbued with an epic quality, like watching a film in widescreen.  My romantic reaction is hard to reconcile with the devastating effects to health of smoking itself, I know.

Tobacco is planted in November and harvested in March.  The leaves are picked by hand: wonderful to watch but hard on the back for the picker!

Vinales is all about traditional agriculture.  Oxen plough the fields and pull carts.  Horses are everywhere too: horsepower is literal not a unit of measure.  This stepping back in time is what makes Vinales so appealing.  Everything seems simpler and slower, and sometimes we yearn to slow down in a world that seems so fast.

I assumed the lack of mechanisation was due to poverty and low availability of machinery in Cuba. There may be some truth in that, but it seems also that traditional methods produce the best leaves and the best tobacco.  I imagine, for example, that the leaves, handled by human hands, do not get damaged and bruised.

The leaves are dried on racks in the fields before being loaded onto ox carts and taken into the tobacco sheds.  These simple buildings, made from natural materials, are dotted all over the landscape.  They squat on the red earth like tribal huts.

During our short stay, there was always a wind in Vinales, at times it was strong even in the hot sun (beware getting burnt!)  It blows softly through the ventilated sheds, its power diffused by the palm leaves on the roofs and the wooden slatted sides so that the leaves dry gently in the shady interior.

The farmers were very happy to let us look inside the sheds.  They smelt of warm green grass; earthy and wholesome, in fact.  The arrangement of the tobacco leaves on the racks is neat and skilful.  Even as the farmer is picking, you can see he is bundling them together in a very specific way (see first photograph).  It is, I'm sure, a technique passed down from one generation to the next.    

Friday 26 June 2015

Cuba: Vinales: breathtaking rural landscape

At sunrise in Vinales the 'mogotes', - the limestone hills that rise out of the plain -, glow with the promise of the new day.  It's a dramatic moment, a dawn of time moment that makes you feel humble and privileged.  There is nothing for it but to watch as the curtain of night draws back to reveal this landscape that has remained largely unchanged for centuries.  Long before you can see anything hundreds of cockerels announce the day.  As soon as it's light enough, flocks of white egrets fly back from their roosts to stalk the ochre fields.

This would be a wonderful place to come and paint, write poetry, ride horses, finish a half written book ... Walk in the cool of the morning, write in the heat of the day, eat organic chicken and fruit for supper at night - the cockerels are not kept for their singing!                

Long before visitors like me have tumbled out of bed with their romantic notions, the local farmers have started work.  This chap was ploughing with his oxen right outside our room before dawn. On the morning we captured the beginning of sunrise (pictured below), we watched farmers arrive in the fields to start work, usually with their oxen, while it was still dark.  Some had torches and Andrew gave them rechargeable batteries.  Probably they had been feeding livestock and doing other chores even before this.  Andrew asked one of them: he had started work at 4am.    

The appeal of Vinales is its incredible landscape and its traditional methods of agriculture. Tobacco is the main crop and it has been grown and harvested the same way for several centuries, principally using the labour and sweat of draught animals and man.  Historically, that man was a slave.  The dichotomy between camera wielding tourist and farmer working with oxen is stark, but the combination of tourism and traditional agriculture seems to work.  Unesco describes Vinales as:
 'a "living landscape" with a high degree of authenticity ..... It has been able to preserve its specific character, while adapting to modern conditions and receiving flows of visitors'.  
That is how it felt to me, and I hope that's how it remains.  We felt very welcome here and the abundance of cheerful, hospitable Casas offering bed and breakfast suggested that visitors bring very welcome trade.  At the same time the landscape and the agriculture felt timeless.

Reassuringly so for this country girl.                

More Vinales next time ...

See also:

Tuesday 23 June 2015

Cuba: The road to Vinales and all the fun of the fair

We drove to Vinales with Frank Sinatra and Adele.  Our taxi driver was partial to both at full volume. He was also partial to swerving to the side of the motorway, screeching to an abrupt halt and declaring that he needed a comfort stop because Vinales was such a long way from Havana. This, part of his campaign to increase the fare we had agreed at the start of the journey, was wearing but some of the alternative modes of transport on the motorway that day made me grateful even for this harum scarum ride.  I was more grateful still when we arrived in Vinales and he accepted his fare and a small tip with good grace.  
Vinales is a small town in the province of Pinar del Rio, about a 2 1/2 to 3 hour journey by motorway from Havana.  It sits at the western end of the island of Cuba in the Cordillera de Guaniguanico mountain range.  The Vinales valley is a Unesco World Heritage Site because of its traditional agriculture and typical landscape which is called 'karst' and looks like this.
By now I had fallen in love with Havana, chaos and all, but still I was looking forward to a quiet, rural retreat for a few days.  I am, unashamedly, a country girl at heart.  Fresh air, lush vegetation and surely there'd be peace and quiet ...
You've guessed it!  We stepped out of the taxi into mayhem, a fair in full swing and at full volume. They don't bother with decibel meters in Cuba!  The noise was alarming!  I confess my heart sank for a few minutes. But I am learning to try to embrace what I find not rue what is lacking (this, I think, is the real nub of 'authentic' travelling).  So we took a look around.
Our jaws dropped as we watched the dragon ride.  A tight grip was the key safety measure.
Everyone was enjoying themselves.  Children were screaming for joy or terror on the rides. Men were buying beer furtively from the blue wagons.
Families had driven in from the surrounding countryside in goat carts to join in.

Taking your little brothers to the fair in a goat cart.  The red can is Cuban cola called TuKola.

We left the excitement behind, made our way past brightly coloured houses all advertising rooms for tourists and found ours on the edge of town, next to tobacco fields of deep ochre where oxen laboured in the fields.  A cool breeze rustled the palm roofs of the tobacco houses and Cuban 'cowboys' galloped across the plains fields.

Would Vinales prove to be everything we'd hoped?  Things were looking much more promising.

To be continued ...

Friday 19 June 2015

Cuba: Habana Bus Tour: Las mejores vistas

The Havana tourist bus from the roof top bar of the Hotel Inglaterra 
If you are a traveller, intent on an 'authentic' travel experience, you might be rolling your eyes at this bright red, open-topped bus that screams 'tourist' around every corner it travels.  I understand your reluctance.  This bus is full of foreign travellers just like me!  There will not be a Cuban in sight, except for the driver and conductor, of course.

But it delivers on its promise. You get some of the best views around the city from the top deck.  I would recommend it, especially early on in your stay.  It helped us orientate ourselves.  

It's good value as a means of getting around the city.  5 CUC buys you an all day ticket. You can hop on and off as much as like.  Treat it like a taxi to get you to key places of interest or travel the whole route: the choice is yours.  They give you a ticket as you get off the bus, proof that you've paid when you hop back on later.
Plaza de la Revolucion with the Jose Marti Memorial
There are two routes.  The one we took was from Parque Central, past the Revolucion Museum, along the glorious Malecon, into the Vedado and past the Cementerio Christobal Colon, around the Plaza de la Revolucion and on to the Miramar.  It stops at many of the key hotels like the Havana Libre. The whole circuit, if you ride it without interruption, takes around two hours. The other route takes you to Playa del Este.  I didn't go and I'm still dreaming of that beach!

Cimenterio Christobal Colon
There are a few things to point out about the bus.  It is a tour in the broadest sense, ie. you ride around a circuit which includes key sights and there are bus stops to allow you to get on and off as you please.  The bus does not wait for you, it carries on along its route.  You don't have a tour guide explaining everything or a recorded commentary. Places are announced as you approach them but up on the top deck you don't hear much.

Now for the health and safety announcements.
A fellow traveller assists with the safety drill!
This one speaks for itself.  As you drive along, there are some very low overhead wires.  My advice is to stay firmly in your seat while the bus is moving.  That way, you keep your head!  Along the verdant streets of the Vedado, there are also overhanging trees and you will need to duck regularly!
And here our model, your very own wind swept hopeful traveller, is demonstrating all of the safety equipment you require on top of an open topped bus in blazing hot sunshine: hat, sunglasses, a bottle of water and sun cream.  

 Hold on to your hat!

Tuesday 16 June 2015

Cuba: Cementerio de Cristobal Colon, Havana

The Cementerio de Cristobal Colon in Havana is considered to be one of the great historical cemeteries of the world.  It is known in English as the Colon Cemetery which makes it sound even more of a curiosity than it is.  The 'Colon' in question is actually Columbus, as in Christopher Columbus.

Cemeteries tell so much about life.  No matter where I go, I find myself wandering amongst the memorials imagining these lives once lived.  I suppose it's a rather chastening experience - the reminder that all life is transitory so why worry about trivia - but it's also intriguing.  Each life is a story to be told, a tiny fragment of a collective history, an imperfectly shaped but colourful tessera that makes up the mosaic.  Havana's cemetery, extending over 140 acres, is jam packed with them.

it is in the Vedado part of Havana.  The easiest way to go there is on the Havana Tourist Bus.  It stops near the main entrance. There is a small entrance fee.  Inside you will find very little shade and, with the sun bouncing off stone and marble, you'll be hot and glad of bottled water, hat and sun cream.

Tempting though it is to highlight memorials and mausoleums, there is so much here that perhaps it makes more sense simply to wander without trying to find other people's recommendations. Whatever you discover will be a piece of personal history.  Here are some that Andrew photographed.

During our several hours of wandering, many funerals took place in the cemetery chapels.  We have read that space is so tight that after three years remains are removed from their tombs, boxed and put into storage which explains the functional building below.
It's a very ugly building so let's finish with beauty!
These wreaths were fantastic, brown paper doughnuts adorned with flowers.  They attracted hummingbirds too.

The cemetery is full of art.  One piece of sculpture caught my eye: a beautiful art deco white marble pieta which, I have since learned, is by Cuba's most famous sculptor, Rita Longa.  it is a piece of sighing simplicity and I'm going to contradict myself and suggest you do seek this one out.  It is on the tomb of the Aguilera family. I cannot believe we don't have a photo of it.  Take a look at a picture that appeared in The Guardian newspaper here  It's right at the bottom of the page which also features other art deco highlights around Havana and comes courtesy of the travel writer and photographer Claire Boobyer.


Friday 12 June 2015

Cuba: Agios Nikolaos Greek Orthodox Church, Havana

On our first day in Havana I was feeling overwhelmed.  I'm an English country girl and this city was fabulously exciting but kind of brutal too - very hot, humid, noisy and dusty.  To come, by chance, across the Agios Nikolaos Greek Orthodox Church with its quiet, shady garden was salvation for a bombarded soul.

The church feels like a secret, and I've noticed people asking how to find it on travel forums.  It is tucked behind another church, the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi (Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis) which is on the Plaza de San Francisco.  Take a look at a picture of the square below:
See the trees at the end of the church?  The Greek Orthodox Church is hidden amongst them and you will find the entrance into the garden on that bottom corner of the square.  There is a sign.

Agios Nikolaos Church is modern, built in 2004 to serve Havana's small orthodox christian community.

Inside the atmosphere is reverential but also welcoming.  It feels like a place to pause and reflect, whatever your religious beliefs.  The same is true of the small garden.  It is a place to simply 'be'. Within it, under the canopy of the trees, all is calm. Beyond it, all is hectic.  

You can wander or sit and rest for as long as you like.  And you'll be in good company.  The statuary invites you to relax with it.

Mother Theresa sits reading the bible, and her meditative state encouraged me to decide I would come back to the garden with my own book (I was reading Elizabeth Gilbert's 'Eat, Pray, Love' at the time) if I needed some respite from the busy streets.  

I didn't return.  I got used to the heat and the excitement of Havana swept me along for the next three weeks.  But I knew this sanctuary waited for me.  It is a gem of a place.    

Tuesday 9 June 2015

Cuba: The Cuban Emerald Hummingbird

                                                                                                                                              Photo: Andrew Holman

Meet the Cuban Emerald Hummingbird (Chlorostilbon ricordii), a tiny bird full of pizzazz.  This one sat still for so long I began to fear someone had stuck his tiny feet onto the thin stem of clematis he was using as a perch in the Botanical Garden in Vinales. But no, he did launch to catch several flies: hummingbirds feed on flower nectar for energy but need insects and spiders for protein, vitamins and minerals etc.  Blogging gives you an education!

We spotted hummingbirds in lots of places around Havana and Vinales: it was a thrill every time. With the exception of this laid back little chap, they were doing exactly what you'd expect, flying and hovering at breathtaking speed, sometimes backwards, between flowers to feed on nectar. Apparently, when in flight, they have the highest metabolism of all animals (except insects).  This is necessary to support their incredible 'humming' wingbeat and requires a huge daily consumption of nectar.

Our first sighting was near El Capitolio, right at the heart of Havana.  The bird seemed surreally fragile against the harsh backdrop of lorries, cars, buildings and crowds of people.  As it flitted between flowering shrubs, it looked small enough almost to be an insect.  And it's set me wondering. Could it have been the other Cuban hummingbird, the Bee hummingbird, which lays claim to the title of the smallest bird in the world?  We'll never know, but I mustn't get competitive: there's more than enough magic in this emerald beauty after all!  

                                            Feeling ruffled                               Photo: Andrew Holman

Friday 5 June 2015

Cuba: Camerata Romeu ~ Havana's fabulous all women string ensemble

These women are amazing!  And they've just added another reason to my list of 'whys'.  I'm looking at this photo of them receiving their applause after a wonderful concert and asking myself, 'did such a small group of musicians really create such an incredible sound?'  They can grow music to an acoustic and emotional crescendo vast enough to make the building and your elated heart burst and then, at a baton stroke, drop it to a whisper, like a secret for your ears only.      

They are called the Camerata Romeu and they specialise in playing Cuban classical music.  It's as vibrant as Havana: pulsing, alive and as hot as the Caribbean but classy with it. If that weren't enough, in one of their pieces these girls turn their strings into percussion instruments and, to an intoxicating Cuban beat, the cellists dance.

The staggering part is that they play everything from memory. Take a look.  There are no music stands and not a sheet of music in sight!  And they do this not only for their Cuban programme but also for the international repertoire of well known composers they play.

Thanks to a little piece of serendipity, we were lucky enough to be invited to 'gatecrash' a private concert they were giving to an American tour party.  If you are visiting Cuba as part of a cultural tour, I would definitely recommend requesting it be included.  The group's website: and Facebook page are rather out of date (Internet is still so difficult in Cuba and not the part of daily life we take for granted), but there are contact details there.

Concerts take place at the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi (Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis), pictured below.  It is on Plaza de San Francisco, an attractive square which is on the tourist trail and easy to find.  The church is the group's 'home base', where they rehearse as well as perform, so it would be a good place to enquire about up and coming concerts when you are in Havana.

The tour group we 'gatecrashed' were retired professional musicians and they raved about the performance.

I hope you get the chance to enjoy this treat for yourself and, as things change in Cuba, that these fabulous musicians get to enjoy the international recognition they deserve.  

Kelly x

If you're interested you can hear some live recordings here.

You'll need to sign up for Dropbox but it's free and reputable.

Tuesday 2 June 2015

Cuba: 18 of my favourite things in Havana (and beyond)

I'm teasing you today with a list of eighteen of my favourite things in Havana and beyond.  It's a trailer for future episodes, a chance to toss in some more breathtaking photos of this amazing country that might not otherwise find a home, and, if you're planning a trip to Cuba very soon, I hope it will give you some quick pointers to special experiences.   It's an eclectic mix (and if you've been following me regularly, you'll know I love eclecticism!) and it's in no particular order.

I'll be writing about them all in more detail over the coming weeks.

1.  Communal taxis.  These are the beautiful, beaten-up 1950s taxis that transport Havanans around the city along set routes.  As a tourist you can share the ride too.  I urge you to!
10/10 for fun and authenticity.

2.  The Ballet Nacional de Cuba.  One of the most uplifting dance performances I've ever seen.  Don't miss it, even if you don't think of ballet as your bag,

3.  The Camerata Romeu  A fabulous, all-female string ensemble who play music so breathtakingly well, it makes your soul soar up into the basilica of the Church of Saint Francis of Assisi (Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis), the group's home venue.

4. The St. Nikolaos Greek Orthodox Church  A sacred jewel with a peaceful garden full of beautiful sculpture and statuary

5. Esto no es un cafe  This was our favourite restaurant,  Read my and other people's reviews here.   

6. The fruit and vegetable markets of Havana  Wherever I go, I just love stalls of fresh produce, it must be the hunter gatherer in me.    In Havana there are produce barrows on every street corner, small greengrocers in most streets and, heaven, several large markets of ripe, delicious produce.

7.  The havana tourist bus  This bright red, open-topped bus is definitely for tourists and not authentic Cuban, but it's a great way to get a feel for the city.

8.  The Colon Cemetery (Cementerio de Cristobal Colon) in the Vedado part of Havana, this is a fascinating place and said to be one of the great historical cemeteries of the world.

9. Cuban coffee  It's roasted differently, I think.  For a good cup, follow the aromas that greet your nose.  I have a few tips to share.  And don't forget to bring some home.  There's nothing like it to evoke memories of a wonderful trip.

10 Breakfast at the Hotel Inglaterra  An early morning walk across the city and breakfast at the Hotel Inglaterra.  Such a serene way to start the day.

11 The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales  I fell in love with its verdant interior patio; the shady home of snooty peacocks and a place to dream.

12 Vinales  Our three week trip focussed on Havana because we believe things are set to change more quickly here than in the countryside.  But I'm a country girl at heart and a weekend in Vinales was one of my absolute highlights.  Wish we'd stayed longer.  The Cuban countryside beckons for our next trip ... See:  The Road to Vinales and all the fun of the fair, Vinales: breathtaking rural landscape and Vinales: the tobacco harvest

13 The flower market  Every so often we came across flower sellers in the dusty streets and my heart sang.  Then we found a small flower market.  I was over the moon!  We humans need natural beauty like never before, I'm convinced of it.

14  The Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes  A fantastic museum of Cuban art dating from around the 18th Century to the late 20th Century.  You'll have it almost all to yourself!

15  The architecture  If you're going to develop an unexpected interest in architecture, then Havana could be where it'll happen.  I fell in love with so many of the buildings, especially the ones that are on their knees.  Who decides what to save when there is so much in need of rescue?  I'll be trying to find out and attempting to unravel some of the architectural styles in my own words!

16  Hummingbirds  Magic on wings.  You find them in the city and the countryside.

17  The Plaza Vieja  A gorgeous square in Havana, beautifully restored and said to be the most architecturally eclectic one in Havana - well, I had to like it then!  Vibrant, lively, very popular with tourists and Havanans because it is such a glorious space.

18  Coppelia Ice Cream Parlour  The Ice cream institution in Havana.