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28 May 2016 / leggypeggy

Street walking in Havana—highly recommended

Havana at night

Havana at night

Walking tours are a great way to get to know a foreign city, and Poor John and I have done many around the world.

This year, we were lucky enough to have almost three days to stroll around Cuba’s Old Havana, also known as La Habana Vieja.

Darbel, a young Cuban who teaches English part-time, guided us on the first day, and we managed to blunder around by ourselves for two more.

I thought his name was unusual and he said his mum made it up. Darbel knows his city well and is very proud of its history, architecture, museums, galleries and plazas. So this post covers our day with Darbel.

Statue of Cervantes

Statue of Cervantes in the park that’s named after him

We started with a visit to the statue of Spanish novelist, poet and playwright, Miguel de Cervantes, in a park that bears his name. His works had so much influence on the Spanish language that it is sometimes called la lengua de Cervantes (the language of Cervantes). This statue, by Italian sculptor Carlos Nicoli, was unveiled in 1908. It’s thought to be the first monument to Cervantes erected in the Americas.

Havana Cathedral

Havana Cathedral

Next stop was the Plaza de la Catedral with its magnificent Catedral de San Cristóbal or Cathedral of the Virgin May of the Immaculate Conception. This plaza used to be a swamp. It was drained and used as a naval dockyard until the cathedral was started in 1748. The cathedral was closed when we were there, so we didn’t get to snoop inside, but we could admire the Baroque facade.

Most of the church is built from coral blocks cut from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico. Marine fossils can be seen in the walls, but I learned about that too late to photograph any.

The exterior is interesting other ways. The right bell tower is wider than the left, and holds two bells that were cast with gold and silver mixed into bronze, which supposedly makes the sound sweeter. The cathedral supposedly has the only Baroque façade with such a distinctive asymmetrical feature.

I was stunned to learn that the cathedral once held the remains of Christopher Columbus. Apparently in 1796, after the Peace of Basel was signed and Spain ceded most of the island, Hispaniola, to France, Columbus’ remains were moved to the cathedral’s Altar of the Gospel. His remains were returned to Spain in 1898.

Not far from the plaza is the legendary bar, La Bodeguita del Medio, one of Ernest Hemingway’s favourite watering holes and a popular stop for tourists.

Next stop was the Plaza de Armas, built in the 1600s and used for military exercises (hence the name) until the mid-1700s. Today it’s lush with palm trees and other tropical plants, and popular as a place for Cubans to relax.

A popular second-hand book market operates next to the plaza. It’s open Tuesdays to Sundays and has all sorts of classic Cuban books, many out of print. I couldn’t find any cookbooks, but about a week later we saw the books and stands being packed up at the end of the day. Seems they have a storage building on the edge of the plaza. That was also the day we saw the dancers bringing zing to the plaza.

But for now I’m sticking to our day with Darbel.

Plaza de San Francisco

Plaza de San Francisco

Customs House Havana

Overlooking the harbour, a cruise ship and the vacant Customs House.

So on to the Plaza de San Francisco directly across from the port. The Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis is the most important building in the square. Built between 1580–91, it has a 42-metre high bell tower that Poor John and I climbed. That gave us a great view of the plaza, as well as the harbour and the old Customs building, which is now closed but will probably be turned in to a luxury hotel one day.

Havana, old square/plaza

Vieja Plaza or Old Square

Our final stop was the Plaza Vieja (Old Plaza). In days gone by, it was the scene of executions, processions, bullfights and fiestas. In recent years, the plaza has been restored to its old elegance. The fabulous buildings that border the square include the elegant Casa del Conde Jaruco, now a venue for art exhibits. The upper floor has wonderful half-moon stained-glass windows.

But wait—as the pushy TV sellers say—there’s more.

Darbel was supposed to spend an entire day with us, but we had an air-conditioning flood in the room at our homestay, so we were off to a very late start. As a result, we had only four or five hours with him. Luckily, he kindly offered to return to give us a night expedition. Yes please, we said.

Fort during the day

Fort during the day

The main aim of our evening excursion was to experience the cannon-firing ceremony at the Fort of Saint Charles (or Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña), which we had seen during our daytime outing. The nightly firing dates back to colonial times and signals the closing of the city gate.

The fort, also known as la Cabaña, is on a peninsula. We could have taken a taxi around to it, but it was much faster and much cheaper to go by local ferry (about 10 cents a person). If you ever need to cross the harbour in Havana, use the local ferry and give them the smallest coin you have.

After we crossed, we walked up to the fort. There was some time before the cannon-firing at 9pm, so we visited the statue of Christ and enjoyed views over to the harbour. What a great view of Havana at night. Especially great to see the

Havana fort, souvenirs

Souvenirs galore

Once you get in the fort, there are souvenir sellers everywhere, so it’s true—you must enter and exit by the souvenir shop! Not surprisingly, the firing itself is surrounded by ceremony, uniforms, drums and pomp.

Overall a great day, and I’ll be back soon with new views of our other two days of strolling in Havana.

San Francisco square at night

San Francisco square at night

84 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. pedrol / May 28 2016 10:15 pm

    Sounds amazing! In fact, Havana is in my bucket list, so it was great to read your article.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Fiona McLellan / Dan Werkman / May 28 2016 10:23 pm

    I totally agree with you on your first point. The only way to really experience a place is on foot. Great post. Dan

    Liked by 4 people

  3. wfdec / May 28 2016 10:23 pm

    I love it that the Castro regime did not try to eliminate all signs of the decadent imperialist past. And I thank you again for letting me see so much that I have dreamed of for years.

    Liked by 5 people

    • leggypeggy / May 28 2016 10:38 pm

      So wish that I could have taken you with us.

      Like

  4. Vicki / May 28 2016 11:53 pm

    Those night shots are superb, Peggy.
    (I’m totally envious of that night photography, as well as the tour).

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / May 29 2016 8:14 am

      Thanks Vicki. It sured helped to have good lights to point at. 🙂

      Like

  5. gallivance.net / May 29 2016 12:12 am

    Nice post and photos Peggy. We look forward to the time when the US and Cuba get their act together so US citizens can visit easily, instead of jumping through so many hoops. Most people seem to have good things to say about it, and I’ve seen some wonderful photo essays of the “faded glory” side of Havana. BTW, what’s the deal on your homestay there? ~James

    Liked by 3 people

    • leggypeggy / May 29 2016 8:15 am

      All of our accommodation there were homestays and I’m going to do a post about it. It’s a big business in Cuba.

      Liked by 1 person

    • Ray / Jun 11 2016 3:57 am

      This country is truly stuck in 1959, and while I am usually for capitalism, this is one time where I hope the ending of the U.S. trade embargo results in responsible tourism growth in Cuba. There is a ton of history here that I would hate to see become a “Disney-fied attraction,” like Che Guevara’s Mausoleum, if that makes sense at all? Here’s hoping it all works out for the best for everyone!

      Like

      • leggypeggy / Jun 11 2016 1:37 pm

        It makes complete sense. Like you, I hope Cuba’s tourism develops responsibly. Fingers crossed.

        Like

  6. apriltulip / May 29 2016 12:12 am

    Wow! So atmospheric! Havana is very beautiful in shabby-chic sort of way. Great photos!

    Liked by 4 people

  7. susan@onesmallwalk / May 29 2016 12:59 am

    It’s so nice to see Cuba opening up to tourists. I like your little pieces of advice – ‘give them the smallest coin you have’!!! Wonderful way to explain all the coin confusion from country to country.

    Liked by 4 people

    • leggypeggy / May 29 2016 9:59 am

      The coin advice came from Darbel. He paid our fares on the way over and we paid on the way back.

      Liked by 1 person

      • susan@onesmallwalk / May 29 2016 10:05 am

        It’s better advice than our usual – putting an array of local coin in our hand and letting them pick!

        Liked by 2 people

      • leggypeggy / May 29 2016 11:22 am

        Yeah, that’s always a leap of faith.

        Like

  8. mukul chand / May 29 2016 3:38 am

    lovely post

    Liked by 3 people

  9. spearfruit / May 29 2016 4:21 am

    Amazing photos and tour Peggy. I really enjoyed you taking us with you! Have a great day. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  10. dfolstad58 / May 29 2016 5:24 am

    The square at night photo caught my eye. Interesting post title?

    Liked by 4 people

    • leggypeggy / May 29 2016 8:23 am

      The square was especially gorgeous at night. Couldn’t resist using ‘street walking’ in the title.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Yahooey / May 29 2016 5:28 am

    I had a good chuckle at the title of the post and then settled down to enjoy another wonderful post;.

    Liked by 5 people

  12. chattykerry / May 29 2016 7:37 am

    Wonderful shots and story. I, too, was caught by the title! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • leggypeggy / May 29 2016 8:24 am

      I’d better do more street-walking posts. I have plenty in reserve. 🙂

      Liked by 2 people

  13. Curious to the Max / May 29 2016 10:23 am

    Peggy, What is that statue -thingey in the middle of Vieja Plaza? Looks like a metal flower. Is it a local artist or . . . ?
    P.S. If you are going to street walk you’re suppose to TAKE the BIGGEST coin and not give out any.

    Liked by 3 people

    • leggypeggy / May 29 2016 11:15 am

      There’s a lot of interesting sculptures around Havana. That plaza has a few pieces and I think ‘metal flower’ is the best description of the one above.

      And thanks for the coin advice. What was I thinking?

      Liked by 1 person

  14. Yvonne / May 29 2016 10:33 am

    Oh, THAT kind of street walking! You’ve inspired me to book a walking tour when I head to Naples next year. I hope I find the equivalent of Darbel.

    Liked by 4 people

  15. gerard oosterman / May 29 2016 10:53 am

    Isn’t it wonderful to have countries that have sculptures of great writers and artists? Of course, we have The Bradman museum, and let’s also not forget we keep Phar Lap’s horse heart pickled in jar, for overseas visitors to admire.
    I am waiting for a life size bronze statue of our Nobel prize winning writer Patrick White to feature in Canberra in front of Parliament house. Perhaps cannons being fired might be a call too far.

    Liked by 3 people

    • leggypeggy / May 29 2016 11:20 am

      We have some great statues in Canberra. You’ve inspired me to do a piece on them.

      As for cannons, we get them here too. All 21-gun salutes used to be fired from Mt Pleasant which is behind our house. Used to scare the begeezus out of me until I realised what they were. Keep in mind that I moved here after several years in Syria and Lebanon in 1982 in the midst of the Lebanese civil war. I was used to booms being bombs.

      Like

  16. nimitode / May 29 2016 3:17 pm

    Thankyouu for this post! Walking around in a new place is possibly the best way to know the place better

    Liked by 3 people

    • leggypeggy / May 29 2016 4:00 pm

      You are most welcome. Yes, walking is the very best way to get to know a place.

      Liked by 1 person

  17. thegreyeye / May 29 2016 5:50 pm

    wow, Havana is beautiful 🙂

    Liked by 3 people

  18. voulaah / May 29 2016 6:17 pm

    So beautifuol all these photos Peggy
    Thank you so much for sharing
    Happy sunday
    kisses

    Liked by 1 person

  19. poshbirdy / May 29 2016 6:20 pm

    Lovely post as ever. My fav photo is of the cars by San Francisco Square

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / May 29 2016 9:31 pm

      I liked that one too, which is why I included it.

      Like

  20. derrickjknight / May 29 2016 7:43 pm

    A lovely tour, Peggy. Darbel was a star.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Oz's Travels / May 29 2016 10:27 pm

    Great post, can’t wait to visit Cuba myself!!

    Liked by 1 person

  22. Brenda / May 29 2016 10:27 pm

    Beautiful photos of the night. You are fortunate to have visited before the huge tourist influx that I’m sure is about to descend. I’m picturing the Customs House as a luxury hotel with cruise ships all lined up.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / May 29 2016 10:28 pm

      Oh yeah, I think Customs House will go the way of tourism.

      Like

  23. Carol Ferenc / May 30 2016 7:24 am

    This looks like so much fun, Peggy! Wonderful photos and Darbel sounds like an outstanding guide!

    Liked by 1 person

  24. stellalucentellc / May 30 2016 7:41 pm

    So cool to be able to see a place that for years was totally closed off to us! Thanks for the photos.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / May 30 2016 8:32 pm

      You are most welcome. We loved having the chance to see Cuba.

      Like

  25. starrywazzoh / May 31 2016 11:05 am

    Excellent tour report of a city I long to visit

    Liked by 1 person

  26. Sharon Bonin-Pratt / Jun 3 2016 11:49 am

    So much history in Havana. I hope the Cubans are able to renovate and restore the magnificent old buildings before they crumple into total oblivion as it appears they are headed. Did you get to meet any everyday Cubans or only those involved with tourism? A resilient people – I wish them well.
    And can’t wait to read about your next adventure in Cuba.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 3 2016 10:49 pm

      Major buildings are being beautifully renovated and this is expected to continue. I’m working on a post that shows some of work.

      And as you’ve already discovered, we’ve had good contact with everyday Cubans. Stay tuned for more.

      Liked by 1 person

  27. Karen / Jun 7 2016 12:57 am

    It must have been a wonderful experience, thanks so much for sharing your story and photos. Now that we are living in Florida and so close to Cuba, I think a trip there will be in our future.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 7 2016 10:48 am

      It was fantastic. Lucky you for being so close. Go soon, if you can. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  28. dfolstad58 / Jun 8 2016 3:02 am

    I recently returned from Ottawa leggy one, lots of statues and memorials there and Montreal also is very scenic. I understand that Quebec City is a wonderful city to visit but all those cities are more than 3500 km from my home in canada but I visit eastern canada infrequently.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 8 2016 12:04 pm

      We loved Montreal, but have yet to visit Ottawa and Quebec City. One day!

      Liked by 1 person

  29. Ray / Jun 11 2016 4:20 am

    Been to Cuba twice, but have stayed at all-inclusive resorts both times. Hoping to make it back to Cuba a third time soon before American corporations slowly make their way into the country. The next time I go to Cuba, I plan on backpacking around the country by staying at Casa Particulars. What is the name of Darbel’s place and how can we arrange to stay at his Casa Particular?

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 11 2016 12:20 pm

      Hi Ray, Darbel was our guide, but he didn’t run the casa particular we stayed in. Our stays were organised through a mob called Bamba Experience. It’s a sort of umbrella outfit with a network of homestay providers. The best thing about using them was that they arranged our bus tickets, which, if you travel independently, can sell out and leave you waiting a few days to get on the bus. But if you have time to wait for tickets, I suggest you organise homestays through this website — https://www.homestay.com/ — search for Havana. And I can send you Darbel email address.

      Like

  30. jeanleesworld / Jun 12 2016 11:50 am

    You have such a gift of balancing the life of place with the life of people. One can look at these pictures, and feel the thrum of life.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Jun 12 2016 3:34 pm

      Thanks Jean. Cuba is so full of life, which made it fun and invigorating to be there.

      Liked by 1 person

  31. Dinata Misovec / Jun 24 2016 7:15 am

    Thanks for the virtual tour; I’m looking forward to more. We haven’t gone to Cuba yet, but probably will one day as it is only 90 miles away.

    Liked by 1 person

  32. Keith Haney / Jun 30 2016 1:09 pm

    Thanks opening a lost world for us.

    Liked by 1 person

  33. WP.Andrew / Aug 8 2016 6:08 am

    I’d like to visit Cuba and you’re right even in Oxford walking tours are a great idea.

    Liked by 1 person

  34. A Girl with Geography / Nov 29 2016 1:27 am

    Thank you! I was going to discover Havana on my own in a month and was looking for places to go. Your article sums it up perfectly.

    Liked by 1 person

    • leggypeggy / Nov 29 2016 10:02 pm

      Glad to be of help. Feel free to bombard me with questions. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • A Girl with Geography / Nov 29 2016 10:06 pm

        Oh thank you! You might regret offering that 😉

        Like

      • leggypeggy / Nov 29 2016 11:01 pm

        No regrets on that offer. Happy to advise when I can. 🙂

        Like

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