Alicia Alonso (born in 1920) is the diva of Cuban ballet. The dancer is a legend, a world-renowned and admired prima ballerina, choreographer and ballet teacher. She first performed on Broadway in 1938 and in 1940 became the first Hispanic-American dancer at the world-famous American Ballet Theatre in New York and went on to become their prima ballerina. In 1948 she founded the Ballet Alicia Alonso in Havana. This company eventually became Ballet Nacional de Cuba in 1959, and Alicia Alonso is still the director today. After completion of the reconstruction of the Gran Teatro de La Habana Federico Garcia Lorca in 2016, this wonderful historic building opened its doors under the new name of Gran Teatro de La Habana Alicia Alonso as a tribute to Alicia’s lifetime contribution to Cuba’s national culture and the world of dance. (photo: Along with Roberto Fabelo, viewing the work “Se convirtió en cisne y voló” 2008)
Bodeguita and Floridita
“My mojito in La Bodeguita and my daiquiri in El Floridita” is the famous statement made by Ernest Hemingway that attracts nearly every Havana visitor to the two premises, La Bodeguita del Medio (Empedrado Street) and El Floridita (Obispo).
Because of this they are usually overcrowded and a cosy drink has become virtually impossible – it is alleged that more than 73,000 daiquiris are served annually, just in the Floridita alone!
There is a Spanish fortress called Castillo de los Tres Reyes del Morro that guards the entrance to Havana Bay. The locals refer to it as “El Morro” for short and it is named after the rock on which it stands. The Bastion “La Cabaña”, situated right next to it, is mainly famous for being the headquarters of Che Guevara in 1959.
Every night at 20:45 the Cannon-Shot Ceremony begins: soldiers wearing 18th century uniforms parade as gunners, lamplighters, flag bearers and drummers and a cannon is fired at 21:00 hours precisely. In colonial times the sound of the shot signalled the closure of the gates of the city walls – today it signals the start of Cuban nightlife! The La Cabaña complex is now part of a historical park and, along with the El Morro fortress, houses several museums that are open to the public.
As with most other carnivals of the world, The Carnival of Havana owes its origins to medieval Italy. Every year in February, shortly before the beginning of Lent when Catholics are prohibited from eating rich food in preparation for Easter, life is celebrated to the full. This tradition came with the Spanish conquistadors and explorers from across the Atlantic Ocean and the colourful festival was held in Havana for the first time in 1573. Barriers between social classes fell when revellers cavorted in masks and costumes on the streets of Havana. Fireworks and decorated floats, “muñecones” (giant figures) and “faroleros” (dancing men) were a huge part of the celebrations. Slaves imported from Africa also became an important part of the carnival with, at the time, their strange instruments and dances that added yet another dimension to the experience. The first Carnival of Havana in the 20th century was held in 1902, the year of the introduction of the first Cuban president and in 1908 two large groups of dancers, Los Componedores de la Batea and El Alacrán, appeared on the scene. These groups, known as “comparsas”, originated from outlying neighbourhoods of Havana and became a symbol, not only of the carnival in Havana, but of Cuban culture in general. Over the decades many other carnival groups were added that have become an integral part of the The Carnival of Havana’s spectacular extravaganza: Las Boyeras, Los Guaracheros, Los Mambises, Los Marqueses de Atarés and La Sultana.
The Ceiba Tree at Plaza de Armas is considered to be the birthplace of Havana. At this spot in 1519 the first “cabildo” (city council) of the San Cristobal de la Habana settlement was established and the first mass was celebrated. Governor Cagigal de la Vega erected in 1754 a three-side column bearing inscriptions mentioning the event.. On the other hand, to solemnly and sumptuously ratify the site, Governor Francisco Dionisio Vives ordered the construction on this same location of the commemorative El Templete. Unfortunately the original tree has not survived the centuries and the one we see today was planted in exactly the same place in the spring of 2016. The tree is said to have secret powers and every year on November 16th, the day of the founding of Havana, the people congregate around the tree to make a wish. Fulfilment of these wishes are guaranteed not only for the admirers of the patron saint San Cristobal (Saint Christopher), but also for followers of the Afro-Cuban religion that sees the Ceiba Tree as a symbol of their saints.
There will be huge celebrations at the Ceiba Tree in 2019 when Havana celebrates her 500th anniversary.
The City’s Boroughs
For tourists, the most attractive neighbourhoods are the two central districts, La Habana Vieja (Old Havana) and Centro Habana. In the old town, the most beautiful buildings from the Spanish colonial period have been restored but in Centro Habana the quaint ramshackle charm of authentic everyday life can still be found. In the district of Vedado you can immerse yourself in a world of noble villas and beautiful gardens. There is also the Colon Cementery (span. Cementerio Cristóbal Colón) which is the largest cemetery of Latin America and a real necropolis. In the outlying districts are the often recommended Hemingway village Cojimar and the Playas del Este, the favourite beaches of the Habaneros.
The Cohiba is the flagship of the Cuban cigar industry. The first Cohiba was hand-rolled in 1963 for Fidel Castro by the master cigar maker Eduardo Rivera and, for almost twenty years since, Cohibas were only made as gifts for heads of state and diplomats and were presented with personalised banderoles. This fine cigar with the typical black and yellow band has only been available for purchase by the general public since 1982. The name is an ancient Indian word for the tobacco leaves that were rolled and smoked by the natives and are now made in the factory, El Laguito, near Havana.
When the Spanish conquistadors first set foot on the island in 1492 they were introduced to many pleasurable foods: maize, cassava, peanuts, sweet potatoes, peppers, “yautia” (a type of root vegetable known as “malanga”), pineapples and guava as well as many other Cuban agricultural products. The conquistadors brought poultry, cattle, pigs and horses with them to the New World and they quickly proliferated in Cuba, especially the pork which became a sought-after delicacy for the rich landowners. From Africa came the yam, bananas, okra pods and guinea fowl with dishes like “fufu” (mashed plantain) and “tostones” (fried banana) and the preference for rice that the Cubans owe to African culture. The Cuban penchant for fried food has been acquired from Andalucian immigrants. Close links to the Caribbean islands are also reflected in the existence of other recipes like the Cuban national dish, “Moros y Cristianos” (Moors and Christians), a harmonious blend of rice and black beans. Served as “Congri” in Haiti, there is a subtle difference where it is a combination of kidney beans (“congo”) and rice (“ri”).
At the beginning of the 20th century Cuba received a new wave of Spanish immigration. Mostly from Galicia and Asturias, the immigrants became popular cooks in restaurants and for families. They introduced stews with beans and chickpeas and spicy sausage (chorizo) to Cuban cuisine. The typical characteristic of Cuban gastronomy is “sofrito”, which is a mixture that combines tomato sauce with sauteed spices and is used as a hearty sauce or as a base for many dishes. Also, because Cuba is an island that is closely situated to the Gulf Stream, fish and seafood is naturally an essential part of local cuisine.
The Fuente de los Leones is the oldest fountain in Havana and was created in Italy by Giuseppe Gaggini and delivered in 1836. It is situated next to the St. Francis of Assisi Convent between the streets, Oficios and Avenida del Puerto.
A year later, the same artist created a second fountain for the city: The Fuente de la India and this has been regarded as the symbol of the Cuban capital for many years. It is situated diagonally opposite the Capitol Building.
In 1938 the Fuente de Neptuno (Fountain of Neptune), which represents the god of the sea holding his trident, was constructed. It is located at the harbour entrance close to the waterfront, diagonally opposite the Castillo de la Real Fuerza in the Avenida del Puerto.
The legendary engineer, Don Francisco de Albear y Lara, who designed and built the aqueduct of the city of Havana, has a fountain dedicated to him as a monument. His statue was inaugurated in 1895 (eight years after his death) and is directly in front of the famous bar, El Floridita. The aqueduct won the gold medal for technical and aesthetic excellence at the Paris World Exhibition in 1879 and is still in operation today.
One of Havana’s landmarks is the Malecón, which was constructed between 1901 and 1952. This is an 8 km (5 mile) long seawall that is a popular meeting place for both locals and tourists alike, usually for sunbathing, fishing, swimming or for bartered deals. Along the esplanade, art installations are on display during the Biennial and the adjoining avenue is the perfect route for a tour in one of many popular classic cars. In winter the Malecón is not such a good place to be because of the strong storms that whip the waves so high that they can crash onto the other side of the road!
Peanut vendors can be seen on every street corner in Havana. They sell “Mani” in narrow paper cones and often advertise their goods musically, usually with the first two verses of the song “El Manisero”.
The Calle Obispo (Bishop Street) is considered by most to be the most popular street in Havana. It is mostly famous for its many shops and markets between Bernaza Street and Plaza de Armas.
The street was named after two venerable bishops, Fray Jeronimo de Lara, who lived there in 1641, and Pedro Augustin Morell de Santa Cruz, who regularly used the street when leaving his house in Officios, a street nearby.
Even though it was the first paved road of the city, Calle Obispo was originally just a narrow alley resembling a corridor with no door or gate through which goods were transported into Havana via the Monserrate Gate. Today it is an important populated boulevard and the entrance to Habana Vieja (Old Havana).
One of Calle Obispo’s most architecturally beautiful landmarks is the Ministry of Finance and Prices building on the corner of Cuba Street. This was once the centre of Cuba’s financial district and was even known as the “Wall Street of Havana”.
Among the most historically traditional places in Calle Obispo are the Florida Hotel and the Hotel Ambos Mundos where the writer, Ernest Hemingway, preferred to stay and would love to stroll to his favourite bar, El Floridita, in the 1930s.
The history of Cuban rum is as old as the island’s colonisation itself and is distilled from the sugarcane that Christopher Columbus originally introduced to Cuba on his second voyage to the New World. The term “rum” is assumed to originate from a blending of the words “rheu” (“stem” or “trunk” in Sevillian dialect) and “bouillon” (“broth”). In the Caribbean dialect it became “rumbillion” and, eventually, simply “rum”.
Of the many distilleries and brands in Cuba, Bacardi has been by far the most famous and over the 19th and 20th centuries became the largest exporter of the island. After the revolution in 1959, Bacardi was one of the large private companies that were nationalised so the owners emigrated and took the name with them. Since then the Cuban rum industry has been rebuilt and the brand, Havana Club, which was founded in 1878 in Cárdenas, was revived. Its trademark is the Giraldilla, a statue that symbolises the city of Havana. The international distribution of Havana Club has been managed by the French company, Pernod Ricard, since 1993.
White rum is obtained after three years and is ideal for cocktails. Carta Oro takes five years to perfect into a warm, golden rum and the famous seven-year-old dark and mellow rum shimmers like dark amber.