a unique perspective on this crazy world

czech nouveau riche

FINALLY…. writing something new… have been travelling a lot so definitely more to talk about – and had enough time to find the Prague photos!

As already noted, Prague has come a long way, baby… Luckily, there is still plenty you can do on a budget but, if you have a little more money to blow, it’s even more enchanting.  There are now boutique hotels and one of the best is Hotel Josef.  You can walk to many attractions and there is a metro stop a couple of blocks away if you want to do something more adventurous.  Included in the price of your room is a sumptuous breakfast.  On the plus side, you will likely do plenty of walking, some of it uphill, so you can indulge without guilt.

worth the walk

A great journey is to walk through the Old Town over the Charles Bridge (or a less famous one if you don’t like crowds) to Malá Strana.  It’s the baroque neighborhood near the castle.  It’s worth checking out St. Nicholas Church but even more interesting is just walking the medieval streets.  Nearby is Hradčany, the homeland of the support staff for the castle in medieval Prague.  The castle is the obvious draw but it’s also worth checking out the Loreta.

It’s a baroque place of pilgrimage.  It’s modelled on the Santa Casa in Loreto, Italy.  The Santa Casa is

how the aristocrats live

supposed to be the home of the Virgin Mary.  Dorothy wasn’t the only one to have magical journeys.  The Santa Casa was moved by angels to Croatia when the Turks threatened Nazareth.  When the Turks got close to Croatia, the angels delivered the house to Italy, finally landing in Loreto.  There are some impressive frescoes and a spectacular treasury.

One of the reasons Prague has become such a popular destination is that there is gorgeous architecture from all sorts of periods, especially older periods when elaborate, unnecessary details were standard fare.  This architectural splendour extends beyond tourist attractions.  The night I arrived I was dining alone and didn’t know the neighborhood yet so spent quite a while wandering the streets and was starting to worry there might not be a seat for me so decided I needed to make a decision.

art deco extravagance

Then I saw it… a stunning art deco building that looked to have empty seats.  Francouzska Restaurace.  The space is sublime.  The staff were friendly.  What was most impressive though was the food.  An exquisite meal at a great price, including foie gras terrine with chocolate, lobster bisque and champagne!  It was so fabulous I made a second visit with my Toronto friend.  He was equally impressed.

If you are more into beer than champagne, Prague is also wonderful.  Czech beer is world famous and they didn’t need to wait for the craft beer movement to start making great beer.  There is actually a place called the Prague Beer Museum, which is highly recommended.  Most fun is to do flights so you can try different styles before committing.

There is definitely nightlife, although a lot of it is low key and sometimes quirky.  In one nightclub, they showed a ski movie as part of the entertainment and the crowd was really into it.

artistic cerny

Quirky is definitely part of Prague’s character.  One of the best ways to experience that aspect of the Czech

not your average sculpture

identity is to seek out David Cerny’s sculptures.  I didn’t see them all.  An excuse for another trip to Prague?

There is no question Prague is a destination where one visit doesn’t seem enough…

 

If you have nostalgia for the 1980s – or you just appreciate quirky stuff – you definitely need to spend time in eastern Europe.  Many people think the 1980s were all about doing coke in the bathroom at Studio 54 or Limelight and providing free advertising for brands by wearing logo goods like a walking billboard.  Certainly that WAS part of the decade but that was not MY 1980s.  The 1980s were also a decade of great protest, recession and budget creativity.  People shopped in thrift stores (it wasn’t vintage back then, just cheap :)), they hung out in cheap neighborhoods that had not yet been gentrified and drank terrible draft beer that cost a dollar, they went to see movies for almost nothing in repertory cinemas.

For a lot of people it was a time when you did a lot with very little.  I met an artist on a trip to Vancouver because he liked the cheap white Keds that I had decorated with coloured markers when they started to get dirty so I wouldn’t need to buy a new pair.  I still remember the thrill sitting on the floor in a rundown building on Queen Street watching a Laurie Anderson video.  I met someone who had organized a poetry slam so I started going regularly to hear people read their work in a bare bones club.  It was astonishing how much fun you could have while having almost no money.

It’s hard to find that experience these days in North America or western Europe.  Almost everything is slick now and anything trendy gets copied across major cities much like the malls are now full of the same global brands.  So, if you want to find something quirky and original, you need to head to places that are not so gentrified.  One of the best times I’ve had this decade was when I revisited Berlin for the 20th anniversary of the wall coming down and discovered Mitte, which felt like I was back in 1980s North America with cheap beer and simple pop-up nightclubs that never seemed to close.

I would certainly highly encourage a visit to Berlin but Prague is probably quirkier these days.  We saw the tourist highlights I’ve already mentioned but we also spent a day doing stuff off the beaten path.  Our first stop was Vyšehvad.  There is a cathedral as well as a cemetery.  The cemetery is the resting place of many famous Czechs.  Normally I don’t see the appeal of cemeteries but this one is really worth checking out.  We didn’t know most of the luminaries but the architecture involved in some of the tributes was spectacular.

great view!

great view!

Our second stop was totally different in almost every aspect.  It was one of the highlights of the visit for me.  One thing you

what's up with those babes?

what’s up with those babes?

will find in eastern Europe is TV towers.  Most are worth visiting because they provide a spectacular viewpoint from which to observe the city.  The TV tower in Prague is a little extra special though.  It boasts a restaurant, a very fancy bar and even a hotel room if you want the full experience.  The other notable aspect is the David Cerny sculptures attached to it.  They were meant to be temporary but proved so popular they are now part of the tower.  Just what are those babies doing???  Looking for David Cerny sculptures is a Prague adventure I would highly encourage you to indulge in.

cheap creativity :)

cheap creativity 🙂

After checking out the view from the top of the TV Tower and trying absinthe in the bar, we headed for our final quirky destination – the Cross Club.  The Cross Club is a multicultural centre that took me back to the 1980s in a big way.  Everything seems built out of necessity with a limited budget.  The creative use of rebar is worth the visit alone.  There is also a restaurant, several bars and even a nightclub.  We did a little of everything.  It’s definitely more a destination if you’re in your 20s but it’s worth getting out of your comfort zone even if you are little more ancient and it definitely felt like we were in “real” Prague.

Prague is more real than Paris but parts of it are now firmly established on the global tourist circuit so, if you are the kind of person who wants to understand a place rather than just ticking off the sites on some pedestrian bucket list, do get off the beaten path… Prague is so great at the non-beaten path you will get all kinds of suggestions just googling Prague off the beaten path…  Being quirky is synonymous with being Czech it seems 🙂

p.s. my apologies – it’s never happened before but somehow I seem to have lost most of the photos from this trip so the visual factor is not what I would like it to be.  On the plus side, there are lots of images of Bratislava, Prague and Vienna on the internet 🙂

 

the chinese are coming ;)

I was very lucky that I happened to be living in Europe in the late 90’s so getting to Prague was not difficult.  We stayed in a guesthouse that still reeked of Communist architecture and the city was still coming to terms with the concept of a market economy.  Prague is one of the most beautiful cities in the world and, at that time, I felt like I had wandered into a Brothers Grimm fairy tale.  We happened to be there on the night in spring where people hike up a hill to scare off witches… something to that effect anyway 🙂  Witches figure into mittel europa tradition a lot.  There was also bonfires and beer, which I think might have been the more important part of the tradition.  I just remember how magical it was to be walking through the forest late at night full of moody atmosphere and torches.

This time I arrived in Prague to rain so spent a day wandering the city in subdued lighting and drizzle, which somehow seemed to fit the city.  Prague has had a complicated history and it feels melancholy.  It’s a dramatic place and it feels right that a place like this would elect a writer and philosopher as its first President (in direct contrast to a President who doesn’t even read books 😉  You can experience Prague on several levels.

climbing the hill for a better view

climbing the hill for a better view

It’s a pretty place with a castle, some museums, a cute Old Town and lots of gorgeous buildings so you can treat it like Disneyland and just follow the other tourists and take photos of the pretty things.  Prague has centuries of fascinating history, though, so you can definitely dig deeper.

According to legend, Princess Libuše had a vision of Prague long before any building began.  It started with the castle.  It was built around 880 and is one of the largest castles in the world.  It is on a hill and a medieval fortress in addition to being a castle.  Later Prague became a major trading hub and, as with the rest of middle Europe, a jewel to be fought over and traded.  For tourists, the castle is one of the main draws.  There weren’t many people there in 1999 but I understood that had all changed – and that was an understatement.

One of the big changes for tourists in the past decade has been the steady rise of the Chinese economy.  I was in China in 2008.  Back then, most people had very few holidays and travel was mostly to other parts of China.  Since I travel to all sorts of destinations, I see who the tourists are.  It’s very interesting.  In Cambodia, there are a lot of French tourists and hardly any Americans.  The Chinese travel the way the Japanese did decades ago – on group tours with someone who speaks their language.

It’s maybe partly the group tour aspect but they seem to be interested in famous stuff.  I made the mistake of going to Galeries Lafayette in Paris during Golden Week, which is a Chinese holiday week.  What was fascinating is that Printemps is only a short walk away (and an equally impressive Parisian department store) but the Chinese tourists were all at Galeries Lafayette.  Based on my observations, I suggested to my friend that we visit the castle in the afternoon when the tour groups had already left.  It proved to be a winning strategy.

The other really big draw in Prague is the astronomical clock.  It was built in 1490 and was a technical marvel of its day.  It still chimes on the hour so it’s wise to

an amazing way to tell time

an amazing way to tell time

arrive early if you want a photo without other people’s heads in it.  It’s in the Old Town Square, which is charming.  If you want to get some good photos or soak up its medieval atmosphere without being jostled, get up early when it is surprisingly empty.  I also discovered that, if you head off the main routes, the streets are quiet.  It seems like a lot of tourists in Prague are on a group program that follows the main routes to the key sites. You’ll want to see them too but it also means there is another Prague that is as yet undiscovered.

worth the wait

worth the wait

St Vitus Cathedral is the other highlight.  It’s part of the visit to Prague Castle.  When we arrived, the line was gigantic so we checked out some other parts of the castle first and were able to enter with barely a wait.  As more of us become tourists, you need a strategic plan 🙂

The final “must see” is Charles Bridge.  It was commissioned in 1357 and is a massive stone bridge across the Vltava River linking the castle to thriving medieval Praha.  Even with the tourist mobs, it’s a wonderful place to stroll.  There are lots of artists and artisans selling their wares and you can get some very cool souvenirs for a very reasonable price.  It is also scattered with statues of saints and glorious views of the river and the ancient city.

These sights take you back to medieval times and it’s easy to imagine the Brothers Grimm are at one of the local taverns and you could join them for a beer.  There are very few places in the world where you can truly imagine you are part of a different century.  For that reason alone, Prague deserves a visit.  What makes it even more special is the quirky nature of Czech history and the off the beaten path adventures you can enjoy once you’ve seen the highlights and want to be a traveller instead of a tourist…

 

the post-soviet economy…

When I was growing up it was Czechoslovakia.  There were enough immigrants in the middle Canada town I lived in to have their own church.  Back then it wasn’t very sexy to be Czech although it likely should have been 🙂  Unfortunately, the Soviet rulers weren’t keen on any of their satellites developing an open relationship with the west.  I was on my way for a second visit to Prague because one of my best friends had been invited to speak at a conference there and I had irresponsibly cashed in some airline points and decided to join him.

The best deal, though, was to arrive in Vienna and take the train to Prague.  Since two of my destinations were second visits, I decided that I should also check out Bratislava as it was enroute.  October is a tricky time in Europe.  It can be ideal but you can also arrive to an early taste of winter as I learned in Bratislava.  I would certainly encourage you to go but visit in the summer when you can take a boat up the Danube, which would be the perfect way to arrive.

You should stay at Marrol’s Boutique Hotel.  You can find cheaper options but it is great value if you appreciate design and the minibar is free 🙂  It was one of the best hotel experiences of my life.  Since I was underdressed for the Arctic conditions outdoors, I spent more time at the hotel than planned and was happy it was such a pleasant place to hang out.  There is even a restaurant.

I did steel myself and make enough brave forays into the elements to see the main sights.  There’s certainly enough to see to fill a day but you can stay longer and soak up the ambience and enjoy the emerging food and wine scene.  If you like nature, you can travel into the countryside.

Slovakia has a fascinating history of migration, conquerors and empires like all of Europe.  The first recorded history shows the Celts settling near the Danube.  The Celts definitely got around!  As did the Romans and Germanic tribes.  Then it was time for Attila the Hun to make his mark.  Attila’s sons were a hot mess so that provided an opening for the Slavs to arrive.  Things were very messy in the early days with lots of different groups intermixing and claiming territory.  Then it was time for the Hungarians to stake their claim.  The Mongols followed, mostly causing havoc.  The Mongols retreated and it became a place of kings, castles and medieval towns.

In the Middle Ages, the territory that is present day Slovakia was part of the Kingdom of Hungary and an important economic and cultural region, partly because it was teeming in natural resources and had a thriving mining industry.  Since it was prosperous, it was traded and dominated by all sorts of powerbrokers for several centuries until the Ottomans took over.  Of course, the Ottomans and Habsburgs duked it out until the Habsburgs won.  In the 18th century, a Slovak identity started to emerge.  They still had to deal with the Hungarian and Austrian kingdoms and that made life complicated.

In 1896, the concept of Czecho-Slovak Mutuality was established in Prague to strengthen Czecho-Slovak cooperation and support the secession of Slovaks from the Kingdom of Hungary. The Magyars did not go down easy.  Franz Ferdinand is not just the name of an English band but one of the key players in World War I.  Things didn’t go well for him but it did allow Czechs and Slovaks within the country and abroad to push for a new state named Czechoslovakia.  The kingdom of Austria-Hungary dissolved as a result of the war and in 1918 Czechoslovakia became a country.  The merger was never wholly successful.  There were also significant German and Hungarians populations within its official boundaries so that just made everything even more unstable.

The first attempt at establishing a Slovakian state doesn’t have the best provenance.  They went with an authoritarian government aligned with the Nazis.  They caught on and in 1944 there was an uprising against the Nazis.  Apparently it was the Czechs who elected a Communist government following the reestablishment of Czechoslovakia after World War II.  All regretted it and life was tough until 1990, the next time people actually got to elect the government.  The issue of a separate Slovak state was already an issue.  On 1 January 1993, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic each simultaneously and peacefully proclaimed their existence.

Slovakia in 2017 is still an emerging place but it’s pretty modern and very easy to visit.  As noted, Bratislava has a long and colourful history but it doesn’t have the architecture of Vienna or Prague so there are fewer tourists.  The Chinese have already arrived though so I would go sooner than later.

It is a 21st century mix of old and new.  There is a charming Old Town.  There is an intriguing blue church worth seeking out.  There is a bridge over the Danube called the UFO Bridge, which also features a bar and restaurant.  People are friendly.  You can navigate most of it on foot.  Naturally, there’s a castle, which provides a great viewpoint to look out at the city and the Danube.

It’s definitely a place to check out if you are in the ‘hood – and everyone should see Prague at least once 😉

 

It is always my goal to try and help the local economy in all countries that I visit.  The easier it is to navigate, the easier it is to acquire information and meet locals so that you can get a better sense whether you are impacting the lives of individual citizens or governments or giant corporations.  Communism is in theory about the people so should make it easier to boost the bank accounts of ordinary people through tourism but it is generally the opposite.

It’s hard to know what is controlled by the government, advertising is suppressed and not everyone is comfortable expressing an honest opinion.  That doesn’t mean you give up though, just that you have to try harder.  As I earlier expressed, I really wished I had done more homework before I arrived in Havana and highly encourage bringing a guidebook!

Of course the other thing that works in every place is to chat with locals.  You might meet some on the Malecon.  It’s a seafront promenade that stretches for seven kilometres.  Personally I found it a little underwhelming and having to navigate several lanes of crazy Latin drivers without traffic lights just made me feel as though I was back in Pompeii risking my life on the roadway so I could catch the bus back to Rome.  There is a lot I like about Latin people but their driving habits are not in that category.  Nevertheless, as long as no one plows you down getting there, it offers a great view of Havana.

great atmosphere

great atmosphere

I preferred to meet my locals in Old Havana where the traffic is mostly on foot.  The most fascinating conversation I had was when I was buying souvenirs on Calle Obispo and met an American who was relocating to Cuba.  He was a big fan and an entertaining guy.  A liberal Republican!  He had lots of interesting views involving a few conspiracy theories.  Much to like.  Much to question 🙂  I had been lured in by a young Cuban entrepreneur promoting his wares on the street so felt I was supporting the local economy.

Also spent some time at Sloppy Joe’s, a restoration project of a Havana institution.  It is definitely new Cuba and an interesting

hipster cuba :)

hipster cuba 🙂

counterpoint to all the crumbling buildings.

The other thing I would recommend is taking a shared taxi.  I didn’t do it on purpose.  The taxi to Plaza de Revolution was so expensive I thought I would walk back but instead just managed to get lost in Nuevo Vedado.  It was illuminating though.  I found a hotel where Cubans would stay rather than foreigners.  Of course, that also meant the guy at the front desk couldn’t call me a taxi.  It was Mother’s Day so taxis were at a premium.

I discovered that it appears the street names in Vedado are marked on stones at ground level rather than signs above eye level… why it is easy to get lost.  Since I had to find my own taxi, I attempted to figure out how to get to a main street and managed to get back to Avenida de los Presidentes, a place I knew well from my earlier experience lost in Havana.  It wasn’t easy to find a taxi that wasn’t filled with passengers but finally a car stopped.  I had read about the shared taxis so figured it was better than being lost.

It was a great insight into the real Cuba.  There are two currencies – local pesos and tourist pesos (which are equivalent to a US dollar).  I had been living in the tourist peso economy and the taxi driver was quoting the fare in local pesos.  The other passengers were lovely and helped me to figure it all out and I think we both won.  It cost me almost nothing and the driver got a crazy tip.

I would definitely encourage you to seek out the real Cuba and support the new entrepreneurs.  One of the easiest ways is dining at paladares.  You will need to seek them out as they are typically on the second floor and advertising is very minimal.  I used my guidebook and discovered a great one and a classic one.

classic cuban cuisine

classic cuban cuisine

The classic one was El Gijones at Prado #309.  You can look out on the Prado and eat a very reasonably priced meal of pork, rice and beans.  Classic Cuban fare.

Even better is to seek out Paladar Los Mercaderes (Mercaderes #207).  It’s a charming, romantic space complete with

capitalist cuba ;)

capitalist cuba 😉

fresh rose petals on a marble staircase.  Some equally charming young men were at street level trying to lure me in but I told them I had already selected it as my dinner location.  I was really early so got incredible service and took my server’s suggestion to splurge on the lobster in coffee sauce.  It’s a Cuban splurge so not too bad on the budget and it was delicious!

It also allowed me to have some intriguing conversations with young Cubans.  Coming of age in Cuba in the 21st century is definitely an interesting experience.  They have grown up with a rich culture and a history longer than almost any in the New World but capitalism is seductive and they sense the need for change.  You can’t begin to debate the merits of capitalism or socialism in under a half hour but I told them Cuba was trending and their lives would be memorable… most memorable for me… they didn’t know what trending meant… why you need to see it now 😉

 

back in the day…

I went to Cuba because I wanted to see it before it turned into Miami 2.0.  It was a bit of an impulsive decision and I didn’t do any research so I was learning on the fly.  These days Havana has a romantic image of faded glory.  What I hadn’t appreciated was its critical role many centuries ago when ships and horses were the principal modes of transportation.  The city was founded in 1515 as San Cristóbal de la Habana.  The original site proved to be a disaster so the city was moved to the more geographically strategic location you will visit.

Its sheltered harbour was the perfect location for ships laden with the spoils of the Spanish conquistadores to take a break and group together before setting off for Spain in an armed convoy.  Trade has always been linked with wealth and prosperity.  Havana’s role in Spain’s exploitation allowed it to become the third largest city in the New World by the turn of the 18th century.  The two bigger cities were Mexico City and Lima.

Havana is a useful reminder in how the world order is in constant flux and how power has shifted geographically over the course of history.  Whether you care about the history or not, Habana Vieja is a delightful place to play tourist.  Since it’s really old and the main transportation mode back then was by foot, you can easily walk the entire area.  It’s a great way to get in touch with Cuba, observing both the architecture and the people.

living in the past present

living in the past present

There is a LOT of history in Havana.  If you stay at the Hotel Parque Central, you will walk onto the Paseo de Marti as you start your day.  It’s known locally as the Prado and is a tree-lined boulevard that slopes from the harbour to Parque Central.  It was completed in 1852 and the paseo refers to the daily carriage rides made by the aristocratic families who built mansions along it.  Look for the bronze lions, marble benches and brass gas lamps.  At night you will feel as if you have been transported to 19th century Paris or Madrid.

Another place to check out is the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, both for the art and the glamorous building within which it resides.

In Old Havana, the best street to head for is Calle Obispo.  I found it by instinct but confirmed in my guidebook that it is a tourist mecca 🙂  Parts of Havana are being restored and this street is one of the recipients.  Advertising and souvenirs are tough to find in communist Cuba but this street has some fledgling capitalists.  I even found an open air market and bought some wooden jewelry from an enterprising young woman.  Most intriguing are the old pharmacies that allow you to step into another century without a time machine.

Naturally there is a church 😉  The Catedral de San Cristobal is considered to be one of the most beautiful churches in the Americas.  Of course there is also a Plaza de Armas.  There seems to be one in EVERY Latin city.  It’s a gorgeous viewpoint from which to experience Baroque colonial Havana.

There are a couple of worthwhile tourist destinations near the Plaza.  Be prepared to be a

a view on history

a view on history

little fleeced as a tourist with impromptu tour guides expecting tips.  Castillo de la Real Fuerza is a 16th century castle, complete with moat, and the oldest military construction in Havana.  The Palacio de los Capitanes

the perks of imperialism

the perks of imperialism

Generales is a baroque palace built for Cuba’s old colonial rulers.

The final destination really worth checking out is the Plaza Vieja.  I found it by walking down Calle Mercaderes keeping my distance from a guy with a snake wrapped around his neck who appeared to be charging tourists for photos with the snake.  Capitalism takes many forms 😉  Apparently the original wealthy colonialists lived on the square partly to watch executions and bullfights from their windows but in the 21st century it is beautifully restored and much less threatening.  During my visit, there were all sorts of colourful artistic dogs scattered around the plaza.

I had seen posters advertising the dogs but it was all in Spanish so I never really understood

super cute dogs of mystery :)

super cute dogs of mystery 🙂

the purpose.  I could have asked someone but I liked the sense of mystery – the juxtaposition of something that looked very 21st century modern developed world city sitting in the middle of a colonial square reminiscent of a time when the conquistadores didn’t see anything wrong with their actions.  A physical symbol of the complexity and fluidity of history, something you feel more acutely in Havana – just one of the many reasons you should visit 😉

 

going native…

Staying at the Hotel Parque Central put me firmly in gringo tourist land, an obvious mark flush with hard currency.  Tourism has turned Cuba into a fascinating hybrid culture with lots of unexpected consequences.  There is idealistic merit in having all jobs paid a similar wage but, in 21st century capitalism, the approach is completely opposite.  Cuba’s model might work if it could exist as a self-sufficient closed society but instead it had to let in the rest of the world in limited ways to survive.

The unexpected consequence is that it might be more lucrative in 2017 to drive a taxi than to be a doctor.  How to behave as a tourist is complicated but you will definitely get constant sales pitches if you stay in the tourist ‘hood.  I always like to try and understand the places that I visit and one of the best ways to get familiar with unfamiliar surroundings is to walk.

Luckily Havana is very safe so you can wander quite freely and it’s likely you can find a taxi to get you back to the hotel if you get too ambitious.

My first big Havana adventure was supposed to result in photos of Plaza de Revolución but everything unfolded in an entirely unexpected way.  According to the map, I could just walk in a straight line along one of the main streets until I reached VedadoVedado (`forbidden`) was originally a buffer zone to protect the city from pirate attacks.  In 1859, a plan for urban expansion was created with strict building codes that established a grid with broad sidewalks, gardens and parks.  There are few tourist sites but it is a great way to experience middle class Cuba.

It is also the home of the University of Havana.  I stumbled upon the university by accident rather than design but it is one of the oldest universities in Latin America with gorgeous classical buildings and historical significance.  I stopped to take a photo of the university entrance and that was how I met Rolando.  He said that the views were better from inside.  Since he is a Spanish professor at the university, he took me on a grand tour.

Unfortunately, it`s not an official tourist activity so you will just have to get lucky.  It`s definitely good to talk to locals to get a better understanding of the complexity that is modern day Cuba.

I ended up spending a few hours with Rolando.  First, he toured me around the university, including the Museo Anthropologico Montane, the Saracen armoured car captured in 1958 by students in the fight against Batista and the balcony from which Castro delivered speeches to incite students toward revolution.  Then he showed me the room Castro rented when he was a student.  He explained the ration system for food and took me into one of the stores where Cubans can exchange coupons for food items.

creative recycling

creative recycling

Rolando then took me to a cool neighborhood filled with impromptu performers and art made from stuff that would likely go into a landfill in North America.  Our final venture was a cocktail based on an ancient recipe in a tiny, funky bar.  Latins love sugar a lot more than me so it wasn`t really my thing but the experience was memorable.

off the tourist path

off the tourist path

He had to go to work so gave me directions to the Plaza de Revolución but I never figured out Vedado as the streets are not marked in a normal way.  It`s a pleasant place to get lost so I just went with it and finally found a major street that I could locate on the map so that I could eventually make my way from la Avenida del Presidentes to Calle 23, also known as La Rampa, and one of the most famous streets in Havana.

hotel-nacional

living la dolce vida

That`s where I rewarded my hours of wandering on foot through Havana with the beautiful frozen daiquiri previously mentioned.  It also allowed me to get a good overview of Havana and figure out where the Hotel Nacional was by looking out the window!  This time I counted the streets very carefully and make it to the new destination without any extra steps.  The Hotel Nacional was built in 1930 as a refuge for wealthy Americans.  Since it has hosted a cornucopia of famous people and featured heavily in the history of the mafia.

It also features a delightful terrace where you can sip an overpriced drink and look out at the ocean and much of Havana.   By that point, I was content to head back to tourist land and pay for a taxi.  All the wandering though made me bold and encouraged me to delve further into the real Cuba…

 

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