Our bus ride took us across town to the Callejon de Hamel, basically an ally named Hamel. The Hamel is a small two block long alleyway in the Afro-Cuban neighborhood. The ally is covered with the colorful, eclectic art of Salvador Gonzales. The buildings are covered in colorful murals. There are sculptures most people would probably call junk art. Salvador used old pipes, car parts, bike parts, bathtubs, and other assorted scraps of metal to make his sculptures. His use of bathtubs is particularly interesting. Some of them he cut in half and made benches from them. Others he put on pedestals or embedded in the walls. Salvador is self taught, he started with a few pieces in the ally near his home. He was encouraged by other residents and visitors to continue. He now has murals and art work all over the world. There is a small gallery of his art in the ally. These items are for sale, and I wasn’t allowed to take any pictures of them. You can walk up and down the small alleyway several times and see something new each time.
After learning about Salvador and seeing the artwork in the ally, we were taken to a small brightly colored room, decorated with more sculptures. There were chairs all along the walls, we all found a seat. Our resident Hamel Ally expert, who had told us all about the ally, started telling us about Cuban Rumba dancing. Rumba means party and this dance is certainly a party! It was created by freed slaves living in Cuba. It is a mixture of their African and Spanish heritages. The music, also called Rumba, is played with three different size conga drums. The beat is loud and lively. The dance is wild and exuberant. Some dances are showing off dance moves and skill. Other dances with a man and a woman, have sexual overtones. The man will make advances toward the woman and the woman will resist. This is not the Rumba that Robbie and I learned in ballroom dance class! They passed the hat at the end, a tip was well deserved. I wasn’t expecting the dance show and we didn’t have a lot of Cuban money left. I wish I would have been able to give a little more.
The Hamel was awesome! I did read about it when I was researching doing things on our own in Havana. It’s a little out of the way and I wasn’t sure if we would be able to get there or not. Even if we had been able get there, we would have missed the Rumba dancing. The dancing that we saw was done especially for our tour. The public dancing in the ally is only done on Sundays. It’s little things like this that can make doing a shore excursion worthwhile.
Old Havana is a very beautiful and colorful city. Robbie and I had an awesome day touring it. Although most of the old town was beautiful, I only have shown the beauty of the city. There are parts of Old Havana that were in near ruin. As we were walking through the streets we also saw buildings being repaired or restored. So I would say that Old Havana is a work in progress. The walking tour was great but we were exhausted. We had a relaxing meal and had a bit of a rest. I wanted to take a look at the city at night, so we went up to the upper deck. Old Havana was just as beautiful at night. I’m pretty sure that if we had wanted to, we could have taken a short walk through town. But as I said we were exhausted. I took some photos from the deck of the ship and we called it a day.
The fourth and final plaza on our walking tour was Plaza de Armas. The plaza is the oldest plaza in Havana. It was used for a military parade grounds for the near by Castillo de La Real Fuerza. There is a large beautiful park with lots of trees. Besides the castle, there is El Templete, a roman style temple commemorating the establishment of Havana. On certain days there is a used book market that is quite popular. The plaza is very close to the famous Malecon of Havana and the cruise terminal. A short walk from the plaza and we are back at our ship. We had a really nice day exploring Old Havana. The tour guide was really good, he had lots of info about Old Havana. He took time to answer everyone’s questions. We really enjoyed our walking tour of Old Havana.
Our walking tour of Old Havana included a stop at Palacio de La Artesania Casa de Don Mateo Pedroso. It was the mansion of Don Mateo Pedroso who was an influential man in colonial Havana. Inside of yet another beautiful interior courtyard there are shops selling arts and crafts. From time to time they have live music. There is also a rum and cigar bar. Here is where we learned about Cuban rum, coffee, and cigars. Cubans like to have rum and coffee with their cigars. We learned the proper way to light a cigar. There is a lit candle on the table along with some thin strips of wood. You light the wooden stick with the candle, then you light the cigar with the wooden stick. The chemicals in a match would ruin the flavor of a fine Cuban cigar. You then smoke the cigar and sip the rum and coffee. You do not inhale the cigar smoke. You drawl it into your mouth and enjoy the flavor and then blow it out. As I mentioned before, we normally like to do some exploring on our own. This rum and cigar experience is something that we probably would not have done on our own. We may have had rum and cigars but probably would not have learned about the Cuban tradition. We really enjoyed the rum and cigar experience. So taking a tour does have its advantages.
The stone castle in the photos is the police headquarters for old town.
The beautiful Catedral de San Cristobal is the centerpiece of the Plaza de La Catedral. The other buildings in the plaza were mansions of the 18th century rich and famous. They are now museums of art and history. El Patio, one of Havana’s more famous restaurants is also in one of the old mansions. The buildings are a rustic stone with blue wood trim, very rustic chic.
On the way to the plaza, we passed the Mural Historico Cultural del Liceo Artistico y Literario de la Habana, phew that’s a mouthful. It’s a large mural that depicts the history of Havana in the 1800s. It’s interesting to note, the mural is not painted. The artist used different shades of sand and stone instead of paint. The scene takes place at the Palacio del Marques de Arcos, just across the street. The large wooden door in the mural is the same door that we are looking through in the photo. We passed through the palace and it’s interior courtyard on our way to the plaza.
Our next stop was Plaza Vieja. At one time this plaza was the main square of the city. It’s surrounded by beautiful buildings centuries old. In the past they were mostly residences or apartments. Today most of them are museums, restaurants, or hotels. In the past decade or so, many of the buildings have been restored after falling into a state of disrepair. They have been painted in bright colors. Their colorful stained glass windows have been restored to their original glory. Plaza Vieja was really beautiful.
On our way there we passed through a building with a beautiful open courtyard in the center. There are a lot of these open courtyards in old town. They all have lots of plants and trees, giving you the feeling of being inside and outside. I really liked these courtyards.
Plaza Vieja also has a unique statue that seems to get a lot of attention. It’s a bronze statue of a naked woman, riding a huge rooster, holding a huge fork. The artist apparently gave no explanation of his artwork; he left it up for interpretation. There have been many interpretations. The most probable one says that the woman is a prostitute, the rooster represents the men who pay her and the fork represents the food that she puts on the table for her family with the money. It’s a most interesting statue for sure.
On our way to the next plaza we passed one of many little parks. They provide a nice green space that locals seem to enjoy. We also passed an interesting fountain. The water for the fountain ran through a trough down the middle of the street.
Due to the regulations for visiting Cuba, Robbie and I needed to do a shore excursion for each day in Havana. We chose to do a walking tour of Old Havana. I really like walking tours. I think they are the best way to see a city. You can get up close and personal; it gives you more of a feel for what the city is actually like. It’s also the best way to photograph a city. Another plus to doing a walking tour is that we got to walk off a lot of the wonderful food we had been eating on the cruise. There are four main plazas in the old part of Havana, Plaza de San Fransisco, Plaza Vieja, Plaza Catedral and Plaza de Armas. During our walking tour we visited each of these plazas. We got to see most of Old Havana along the way.
We started with Plaza de San Fransisco. Walking out of the cruise terminal, we crossed the street and we were in the plaza. The plaza is named for the Basilica Menor de San Fransisco de Asisi, that is the most prominent building in the plaza. Being near the port, this plaza was a center for commerce. Another prominent building is the old customs and stock exchange building. There is also a nice fountain, the Fuente de Los Leones. There were lots of locals enjoying the fountain and the plaza. There were also school children playing. Our guide, who was great by the way, was telling us that the color of the bandana the children were wearing indicated what grade they were in.
El Caballero de Paris
(The Gentleman from Paris)
One of the most prominent features of the Plaza de San Fransisco is the bronze statue of El Caballero de Paris. El Caballero de Paris was a well known street person who lived in Havana in the 1950s. He walked the streets of the city making friends with everyone. Most people were a bit leery of him at first, but they grew to really like him. When people would give him some money, he was known to give them back some change. He would also draw pictures on postcards to give out in exchange for money. He was born in Spain and moved to Cuba when he was 12 years old. So where did the Paris part come from? Nobody really seems to know. Some say it was from a french novel. He was also known to hang out at a place called the sidewalk of the Louvre. He also may have worked for a while at the Paris restaurant. He is also dressed like a Frenchman. What ever the reason, the people of Havana saw fit to honor him with a statue.
Our guide was telling everyone about the tradition of touching the statue. If you put your hand on his beard, grab his finger with your other hand and put your foot on his foot. Then you must look across the plaza, at the statue of the God Mercury on the dome of the old stock exchange building. This is said to bring you wealth and a return trip to Havana. I’m still waiting on both! I think there is a fair chance I may return to Havana. I’m not sure about the wealth.