Cuba – Havana Cars

The embargo froze (to a large degree) the state of transportation in Cuba. There are also a couple of oddities. 

While we saw a smattering of newer cars across the island, the number of cars still running and in good shape from the fifties is amazing. Many are used as taxis or are available for hire by tourists seeking a unique experience. Here are just a few. Enjoy!

Cuba – Havana

Our last stop in Cuba was Havana. Almost as old as Santiago de Cuba, Havana was founded in 1519. There are preparations everywhere for the 500th anniversary, which will be celebrated this fall. It is the largest city, with over 2.1 million residents.

It is a study of contrasts with most of the great architecture hundreds of years old and much of the more recent buildings displaying “deferred maintenance” issues. 

There is a vibrant tourism business, albeit visitors come mainly from places other than the U.S. It was fun to stop at the original Sloppy Joes Bar. The sandwich was, wait for it, a sloppy joe. We enjoyed looking at the old photos of Hemingway, Sinatra, Ted Williams and other celebrities that frequented the bar in its heyday. The second bar is a haunt of Hemingway’s.

While many of the living conditions are very tough, they have made great strides in literacy (from 50% in 1953 to over 98% today). Education is mandatory through middle school and free through college or trade school (including the medical and legal professions).

We were impressed with the Cuban people, I think that they are unfortunate victims of slavery and politics and have been for hundreds of years. I am certainly not a Castro apologist but their life now is better than it has been in the past under various regimes and dictatorships. If the decades-long U.S. embargo was lifter, their lives would certainly improve. In the mean time, they find joy in life and the love for their families and their country. It was fascinating to get to know a little more about them.

Cuba – Cienfuegos

Cienfuegos is a quirky city. Founded by the French as a holiday town, it has had many masters through the years and the architecture reflects it. There are a number of local streets that now house artisans selling their wares. 

The Cienfuegos Botanical Garden, founded by an American sugar planter named Atkins, started as a center for tropical plant research over a hundred years ago. For many years it was focused on the hybridization of sugar cane as well as organizing the planting of trees and plants imported from tropical areas around the world (there are over 2000 varieties). Today there are many groves of Banyan trees, a variety of Palms. Here is a Bamboo stand over fifty feet tall and a massive Culpo tree (similar to balsa).

Just up the road from the garden is Parque El Nicho. A short trek up through some lush green mountain scape you’ll find sets of swimming holes, natural pools and a stunning waterfall. It has a reputation as the most beautiful of Cuba’s numerous waterfalls

Cienfuegos is quite a bit closer to Havana and became powerful due to good growing conditions and massive sugar plantations. It also had several large casinos and a massive estate once owned by Meyer Lansky. The mafia had lots of “influence” in this city in the middle of the 20th century.

Baseball is a national pastime. In this city  of 150,000 they have a baseball park that seats 30,000. It is very visible from the harbor.

Cuba – Santiago de Cuba

We were pleased to learn of a Cuba immersion cruise. Cuba has been a bucket list trip for a long time. I was hopeful that we’d be able to spend some time there when things opened up a couple of years ago, but unfortunately things were clamped down again in 2017 with the new administration. When Regent offered a trip with six days of Cuba venues we jumped.

We sailed from Miami and our first excursion was supposed to be snorkeling out of Nassau.This was cancelled due to rough weather (nothing like the recent storms in Norway) so we wandered around old Nassau instead. Anything within walking distance from the pier was a tourist trap but it was nice nonetheless. We set sail that afternoon for Santiago de Cuba, the oldest (founded 1515) and second largest city in Cuba, located near the far southeastern edge of the island.

The main square is called Céspedes Park. It is home to Cuba’s only Cathedral, the Casa Granda Hotel and lots of signs and photos highlighting its place in the revolution. Fidel Casto proclaimed victory from a balcony on this square.

We took a side trip to a town near a former copper mine. It was so central to life in the town that the town is called El Cobre (the copper). The El Cobre basilica is home to the patron saint of Cuba, the Virgen de Caridad, and is a well-loved pilgrimage site. It is also used for Quinceañera parties for 15 year old girls.

We also visited the country’s best steel drum band (La Steel Band del Cobre). They were fantastic. They have a broader repertoire than I expected which ranged from local songs to the Beatles and Michael Jackson.

Our cultural exchanges were the highlight of Santiago de Cuba. Te professional Orfeon Choir gave us a small taste of the vocal talent in this city. Amazing.

Venice – Days 8, 9 & 10

What to say. We had relatively low expectations for Venice. We’d heard comments like “too dark,” “too smelly,” and “too dirty.” We experienced none of the above. In fact we’d return to Venice in a heartbeat.

 

We have visited a number of cities in the Baltic area who try to lay claim to being the “Venice of the North” – St. Petersburg, Stockholm, Brugges, etc. Their claims are not even close. It is one thing being a city with a bunch of canals, it is another being a city that would be lost without them. All of their infrastructure is canal centric – garbage trucks (boats), cement trucks (boats), taxis (boats) busses (boats), fishing (boats – oops well duh). Truly amazing, and it works. One very big side benefit is that you don’t spend time looking over your shoulder wondering when the next bus, car, motorcycle will run you over like we did in Firenze or Roma.

We also learned about the Doges (AKA Dukes) who ruled Venice for almost a thousand years. Their home, the Palazzo Ducale is breathtaking, as is the Basilica San Marco next door. Every direction you turn in the Piazza San Marco is beautiful.

The six of us took a two hour water taxi ride in and around the city and saw Venice’s beautiful landmarks from whole new perspectives.

I ended up taking about 300 shots in Venice alone. I am only posting a few. Many more from Venice and our trip in general can be found at Photos. I’ll end this final entry of our trip with some early morning (6AM) shots of the Piazza.

Modena – Day 8

On our way across Italy from Liguria to Venice we stopped in the outskirts of Modena. We visited a balsamic vinegar producer (an acetaia). Acetaia Paltrinieri has been in the business since 1845. We have long been balsamic fans and our interest has grown in recent years as we’ve watched our friends at the Terraces Winery in Rutherford, CA get ready to launch their balsamic offering. As Timm Crull often says; “You start a balsamic business for your grandchildren, not your children.” Seeing how Paltrinieri approaches their business confirms this approach as necessary.

Our tour let us see their production process from the initial stages through the curation of their batteries. Needles to say we came home with a couple of their delicious offerings.

Porto Venere and the Cinque Terre – Days 6, 7 and 8

We pulled into Porto Venere just in time for the golden hour of light (the last hour or two before sunset or sunrise is ideal for photography). The warmth of the light is wonderful.

The next morning we were scheduled to take a ferry to the towns of Cinque Terre. Unfortunately they were cancelled due to high winds. Not to be deterred, our bus took us to a stop above Manarolo. Mary and I had visited this area by ferry nine years ago so we were a bit skeptical that we would see as much, but in the end we had a whole new set of vistas and an expanded perspective on the area. We wandered around Manarolo and the paths above it. We had lunch here and then caught the train to Monterrosso al Mare. We are still in love with this iconic area. 

I had to capture a sunrise shot before we departed for Venice. Early morning photography is becoming de rigueur for me on these trips.

Lucca – Day 6

As we headed towards Liguria and the Cinque Terre we stopped for a couple of hours in Lucca. It is known for a couple of things – among them the very well preserved walls that date back to the eleventh century, the church San Michele in Foro, built before 795 and rebuilt in 1070, and the original home of Giacomo Puccini.

I have always loved the way Tuscans decorate their balconies and doorways.

Firenze – Days 4-6 (part 2)

There are other things wonderful about Firenze, including d’Uffizi and the Galleria dell’Accademia with Michelangelo’s David.

Not to mention the Arno River and Ponte Vecchio (with the crazy crowds) and the fun streets scenes (was this a BYOB party/parade). 

We also experienced an Italian cooking class, complete with student participation (the cooking AND the eating part). We made hand-rolled pici pasta, a garlic and tomato sauce typical of Roma, fettunta, bruschetta with white beans and a delicious Tiramisu. Nummo.

Firenze – Days 4-6

The Duomo, the Duomo, the Duomo (Also known as Santa Maria del Fiore.)

The Duomo up close.

The Duomo from across the river.

The Duomo as a backdrop.

The Duomo after a rain in the early hours of the day.

I am glad I wasn’t shooting film, it would have been expensive.