5 things you CAN’T miss on your next visit to Havana

There are dozens of places in Havana which you may have heard of already and therefore you may have them in your list of things to visit when you are there, but these other non-so-visited attractions are equally unmissable as they are linked in one way or another with Cuba’s turbulent and awe-inspiring past.

1. Visit John Lennon’s life-like bronze statue

Fidel Castro called the Beatle’s music vulgar. He did not want his people to listen to it. He thought the lyrics of some of the most beautiful songs ever written were right up against his ideas and the vision he had for his country. During Revolution times, Beatlemania was just a form of decadent American influence and therefore was banned.

This happened in the 60’s when Castro had just come to power after Batista was overthrown. Fast-forward the tape 40 years and then you find the same Fidel Castro, a tiny bit older and wiser, unveiling a bronze statue of his former enemy John Lennon at this cute park in Vedado, west of Havana Vieja.

Castro had made a U turn in the way how he perceived Lennon’s ideology and understood that more than an adversary John Lennon was just an individual fighting for similar causes. He was celebrated as a nation’s hero. A documentary about the singer was screened on the date and a concert was organized.

On a tile at the foot of the bench, there is a Spanish inscription that reads “Dirás que soy un soñador pero no soy el único” John Lennon. In English “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I am not the only one”. Castro identified himself with the singer’s revolutionary views and considered him not only a rebel but also a victim of the US government.

The statue is the creation of the local artist José Villa Soberón. Lennon sits at one end of the bench allowing ample room for tourists to sit down right next to him and take the mandatory IG shot.

Roman, our driver, grew up in the neighbourhood and he knew the park very well. He told us he spent numerous afternoons in the park learning to ride his bike until he eventually mastered the tricks to stay up right on two wheels. Also, his baseball coach lived across the park in a very cute and well-kept colonial house painted with vibrant tones emulating the colours of the Cuban flag. As we were leaving, he took us to the “Yellow submarine” cultural centre in a corner nearby. This is a place where you can see some Beatles memorabilia, listen to their greatest songs or perhaps attend a live show.

Interesting fact #1.  José Villa Soberón is also the artist behind the creation of the Ernest Hemingway statue at El Floridita bar, The Gentleman from Paris (El Caballero de Paris) outside the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis in Havana Vieja and the statue of the Spanish Flamenco dancer, Antonio Gades at Plaza La Catedral.

Ernest Hemingway, El Floridita bar | The Gentleman from Paris, Basilica Menor | Antonio Gades, Plaza de la Catedral

Interesting fact #2. The statue’s original bronze glasses have been stolen several times. Soberón decided not to replace them anymore. A local man places some cheap spectacles on Lennon’s face every time there is a visitor.

2. Visit the Christ of the Havana and enjoy the city’s view from the top of the Hill

After we attended the ceremony of the cañonazo at La Cabaña fort, our driver suggested to pay a visit to the massive Jesus effigy nearby. It has been atop of the hill for almost 60 years and it was inaugurated just before Fidel Castro entered Havana after Batista had left the country.

The park nearby could do with a little bit of extra lighting as it looked dark when we arrived but there were lots of locals enjoying the view of the Havana Bay, others just being romantic to one another and the odd tourist taking photographs

It is an impressive piece carved out of Italian marble from Carrara (Italy) brought to Havana on a boat and blessed by the Pope Pius XII on leaving the European continent.

It took the Cuban artist, Jilma Madera, 7 months to finish the statue

The statue is composed of 68 pieces arranged in 12 horizontal layers. The assembly was made following these layers around a vertical piece of steel. Each of the parts was anchored to one another using concrete and metal elements as construction moved upwards through the layers. The final weight of the statue is estimated around 500 tons and it rests on a 3-meter-high concrete pedestal. The Christ is 51 meters above sea level, in axis with the Havana Cathedral. It is believed that the statue was placed at the entrance of the bay, so it blesses all the ships sailing in and out of the harbor.

Interesting fact 1.  Locals suggest that the hands of the statue were sculpted in such manner, so it seems Christ is holding a cigar in the right hand and a mojito in the left hand, honouring popular Cuban culture.  I like the idea!

Interesting fact 2.  Christ of Havana is the largest sculpture ever made by a woman

3. Buy yourself a fragrance unique in the world: Visit Colonias Habana 1791

A visit to this store takes us back to the time of the colony when perfumes were prepared in a rustic and artisan way.  Some of those production techniques are still in place nowadays and through them the modern aromas are prepared.

Today there are 12 of them: rose, violet, lavender, jasmine, orange blossom, lilac, ylang-ylang, tobacco, patchouli, citrus, sandalwood and vetiver. There are also other less conventional such as gardenia and chocolate. The one I bought is called “Son de Cuba”.

If these were not enough, you can also have your own custom-made perfume by one of the specialist alchemists. They will ask you some personal questions about your character, your mood, nature, personality traits and from the information provided they will mix and match some of the in-house aromas to produce your own and unique fragrance.

Then you will need to choose from a selection of bottles varying in prices between 10 CUC and 30 CUC. Price varies depending on the quality of the bottle and its size. Some of them have been designed by Cuban artists and some others are imported. The bottle you have chosen then is closed off with a cork and sealed with hot wax to prevent any spillage while on transit.

The store also functions as a museum curating various artefacts related to the production of perfumes: marble mortars, copper alembics, a large size censer, nineteenth century old bottles, antique furniture.

Equally, aromatherapy plays an important part in Havana 1791’s raison d’être. Specialists at this store believe aromatherapy can cure ailments, control moods, combat anxiety, reduce stress, eliminate melancholy and even turn shyness into utter confidence.

So why not treating yourself to a relaxing massage using some of these miraculously healing aromas while visiting the Cuban capital? A facial massage costs around 12 CUC while a full-body massage is 25 CUC.

4. Visit the Capitol Building and admire the grandiose décor of the Hall of the Lost steps

To visit the Capitol Building please bear in mind the following:

Visits are guided in Spanish and in English only. Mondays are closed.

Wednesdays and Sundays visits are at 10:30 am and 11:30 am

Tuesday, Thursday, Fridays and Saturdays: 10:00 am, 1:30 pm, 2:30 pm and 3:30 pm.

Visits were free of charge until April 1st, 2018.

Tickets as of January 2019 are 10CUC for tourists and 10 pesos for locals

There will be only 4 groups of 15 people each allowed every hour and if you want to get tickets please do make sure to queue early outside the building, just to the right of the main staircase where tickets will be given on a first come first served basis.

We arrived in Havana on a Saturday evening, so we went along to the Capitol building and asked a guard about the visits timetable. He told us to come back on Sunday at 10:30 for the first visit. When we arrived the following morning all the tickets had already been distributed. Then on Monday was closed and on Tuesday we headed for Varadero. On our return to Havana a few days later, we made sure to be there first time in the morning on the following day. We went on Sunday at 9:00am and there were already plenty of people queueing. By 9:30 am all the tickets for the two allotted times had gone.

The entrance to the Hall of Lost steps is through the staircase on Paseo de Marti. At the top of the 55 steps of “La escalinata” (the staircase) there are two  6.5m-high statues designed by the Italian artist Angelo Zanelli:  Work to right and Virtue to the left.  The central portico behind is 36 meters wide and it showcases 12 roman style columns arranged in two rows. Behind the columns three large bronze doors also by Zanelli give entrance to the astonishing hall.

The Capitol Building project began in 1926 under the government of Gerardo Machado. The American company Purdy and Henderson was appointed to oversee the project and the Cuban architect Eugenio Rayneri Piedra was the designer. Before Castro took power and dismantled the central government, the Cuban Congress was housed in the building. Following Castro’s orders, it was turned into the Ministry of Science, Technology and the Environment until it was gradually abandoned to the elements.  Finally, in 2013 the Cuban Government decided to restore the Capitol building to its former grandeur and reclaim the role it was built for: to be the House of the Government. The National Assembly of People’s power went back to the Capitol building for the first time in more than 60 years in March 2018.

The project final cost was estimated back then at around $17 million pesos and more than 5000 workers were needed to finalize the building in less than 3 years. However, Cuba’s admiration for the building was not always the case. It is said that during the 1930’s and because of the Great Depression, the Cuban people were suffering from extreme poverty, and they were extremely unhappy with the amount of money spent on the project. After a series of protests and some attacks to the building, it was discovered that Machado’s face had been chiselled off from all the bronze bas-relief panels at the front doors. All the other panels and faces had been left untouched.

On entering the hall one thing catches your eye straight-away: La República.

This massive bronze statue was also designed by Angelo Zanelli and it is said that a creole Cuban woman served as Zanelli’s model for the statue’s body and the Greek goddess of wisdom Athena as his source of inspiration. The statue is decorated with gold leaf and weighs 49 tons. Zanelli cast the statue in Italy and brought it to Cuba in pieces which were finally assembled inside the building.

When we did our guided tour, we were told La República was the third largest in-door statue in the world, after the Great Buddha Daibutsu in Nara(Japan) and the statue of Abraham Lincoln in Washington. However, after some research done, I believe it is the second largest only after the statue of Avalokiteśvara Buddha in Ulan Bator – Mongolia which is almost 27 meters high. The Great Buddha in Nara is 14.98 meters high. Some others claim that the Athena at the Nashville Parthenon takes the first spot, but its height is only 13 meters. The statue of Abraham Lincoln is not higher than 6 meters.

As you look up there is another thing that can’t go unnoticed: the majestic 90 meters high dome made of steel and stone, fabricated in the USA and brought to the Island where it was assembled. Rightly underneath the dome, there was a 24-carat diamond which had been embedded on the ground and protected with reinforced security glass. However, on 25 March 1946 the diamond was stolen. The intrepid burglars left a note next to the allegedly unbreakable glass case: 2:45 -3:30 pm. Mocking the ease with which they had got away with murder and gone unnoticed.

Later the same year the diamond was mysteriously returned to the President Ramon Grau San Martin. In 1973 a replica replaced the precious gem for security reasons.  It’s now safely kept in the Central Bank of Cuba. However, there is no much certainty about the diamond’s fate and it is believed the diamond now is in the hands of a private collector. No one has ever been allowed after that date to have photographic proof of the diamond’s existence.

According to widespread belief, the diamond sat on the crown of Russian Tsar Nicholas II. It was brought to Cuba by a Turkish merchant who tried to sell it to the wife of President Alfredo Zayas Alfonso (fourth Cuban President from 1921 to 1925). She thought the asked priced $17.000 was too steep. The Cuban state finally bought it for $12.000. They decided to use it as a symbolic reference point to mark the kilometre 0 of all Cuban highways, in other words, all distances from Havana to other parts of the country were measured using the diamond as a point of reference.

The replica-diamond marks the centre of the Hall of the Lost steps known with this name because the arched ceiling is so high that it muffles any echo from footsteps. This imposing room has an impressive size: 1,740 m2 (120 meters long and 14.50 meters wide). It is through the hall that visitors have access to the the hemicycles, halls and galleries.

The room was used to throw exquisite receptions and banquets held by the Chambers in which the government was divided. These receptions would continue until Castro took power and the building became the Ministry of Science.

There are 32 beautifully crafted bronze candelabras made in France and 25 Italian marble benches distributed between the candelabras throughout the whole room. There are 42 doors giving access to inner courtyards and the rear section of the building. The ceiling is decorated with phenomenal frescos by Cuban and European artists

Interesting fact 1. It is said that the ghost of Clemente Vázquez Bello, who died in an attack in 1932, walks through this hall every night. Vasquez Bello was the Senate’s president during Machado’s presidency in the 1920’s.

5. Drink the best daiquiri in Havana at D’lirio restaurant

Just across the street from the Capitolio’s escalinata on Paseo del Prado 563, between Dragones and Teniente Rey streets, you will see a 4-storey building where Cubans and tourists queue in abundance, especially over the weekends. There are 4 restaurants with Nardos being the most favoured by the locals. D’lirio is on the ground floor and it is a nicer restaurant in terms of décor, service and quality of the food. 

At the rear of the restaurant there is a mezzanine with some tables, but the main floor is where all the fun is. The bar is at the front and if there is not an available table for you when you enter then you can drink a daiquiri (highly recommended) or a mojito while enjoying some live music. The lighting is very subtle. A picture of the Paseo del Prado hangs on the main room and it depicts the road in the 1920’s.

The food menu is extensive and there are vegetarian options which is unusual in a country where meat especially pork is of daily consumption. The portions are large, and they come with what Cubans call “guarniciones”. A guarnición is a side dish. With your main course you get to choose two options (free of charge) from a guarniciones menu: dark beans in a thick soup, boiled cassava, plantains, dark rice and beans (famously known as moros y cristianos), sauté vegetables, amongst others.

It is wise to order, between two people, one main course and two sides. Unless you are extremely hungry. We saw plenty of customers leaving the restaurant with leftovers from their dinners in carrier bags.

The name of the restaurant has been cleverly chosen. Lirio is the Spanish word for lily which is the flower featured on the front of the menu. They wanted to make a pun with the word “delirio”, Spanish for delirium. A state of mental confusion perhaps induced by the influx of succulent dishes and tasty alcoholic drinks.

Daiquiri is a cocktail drank everywhere in Cuba. We tasted it in many different places, including the obvious one at El Floridita bar. However, the quality and size of the Floridita daiquiri does not compare to the ones we drank at D’lirio restaurant. It is far tastier; the citrus tangy flavour is stronger but well balanced with the sugar; it is twice as big, and it is half the price. No brainer!

But before you leave, do try the amazing Pumpkin flan. It comes with a show of its own. When the flan arrives to your table, the restaurant will dim the lights a notch. Waiter stands in front of the table and pour sambuca into a cup. He then uses a torch to gently warm up the liqueur inside the cup until it lights up. Once the flame is on he pours the ignited sambuca on top of the flan and let it soak up the pudding until the flame goes out. You must let it rest for a few seconds and then try. It’s heaven in your mouth. The picture does not make justice to this pudding, but it certainly is delicious.

Please don’t forget to leave your comments below, positive or negative. I am very new at all these things blogging, so any feedback is much appreciated. Also, please share this post with your friends through all the social media icons below.

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