Doctor's Review: Medicine on the Move

October 17, 2017

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Classic Cuba

Venture outside the resorts for some authentic R&R in Old Havana

Ah, Havana, that last bastion of retro-Communism. A Big Mac-free metropolis of steamy nights with faded colonial architecture in the pastel shades of antique hand-tinted photographs. Everyone ambles with the delicious aimlessness of those on a perpetual day off, contrasting with a madcap, macho-fuelled onslaught of honking Russian Ladas, Czech motorcycles and candy-coloured, shark-finned pre-1960 Buicks, De Sotos and Cadillacs.

A weekend getaway for baked sun-seekers, the Caribbean capital of culture is making a comeback to cool as Castro & Co loosen the leashes. Formerly swish suburbs like Vedado and Miramar where Frank Sinatra and Mafia cronies once cavorted are slowly evolving, but Havana’s heart beats quickest in Old Havana.

Oozing with history and colonial charm, UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site and made it their Latin American headquarters, restoring a warren of 16th-century Spanish forts, peeling grand hotels, teetering theatres and exquisite crumbling rowhouses.

Castro wanted no sterile Disneyland so the lived-in Habana Vieja bustles with ordinary life; grandmas peer down from high balconies, kids practise soccer on the cobblestones while capitalism makes baby steps into their midst. Overstaffed/understocked Russian department stores have given way to chic boutiques offering artisanal soaps or imported shoes. There are pocket-sized rum, pharmacy and cigar museums, outdoor bookstands in shady plazas rich with the aroma of high octane coffee. Artists sell paintings and stylized Marxist propaganda at the daily Calle Tacon Market. Locals open their doors to welcome guests into their casa particular, the Cuban B&B, or invite diners to their in-house paladar restaurants for home-cooked meals.

Music isn’t played in Havana, it erupts, spilling hot jazz, salsa and tango from bars and cafés. Whirling dervishes with a killer beat make their way through the streets, a surreal parade of stilt walkers, flutists and fiddlers. Talented soloists along the wave-splashed Malecón seawall commune with their saxophones and trumpets.

Prowl bustling Obispo Street, hop scotching between Hemingway’s haunts like La Floridita and the rooftop bar at Hotel Ambos Mundos (he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls here) to search out the frostiest daiquiri. While the music is hot, hot, hot, the food is not, not, not. But when you’ve got everything else, who needs to eat?

The go-to spots

Pick up a copy of Cartelera, a free entertainment listing magazine at hotel front desks.
Tropicana   Time travel to the real-deal retro 1940s open-air dinner theatre cabaret show that once hosted Nat King Cole and Carmen Miranda. Tel: (011-53-7) 267-1010 ; www.cabaret-tropicana.com.
Museo Nacional   Fine art museum including innovative contemporary works. Tel: (011-53-7) 861-3858; www.bellasartes.cult.cu.
Museo de la Revolución y Memorial Granma   A memorabilia-laden tribute to the 1959 revolution, the museum comes complete with bits of shot-down US spy planes. Tel: (011-53-7) 862-4091.
Taberna de la Muralla   This is Havana’s only brewpub on the cobblestoned Plaza Vieja. A local hangout with good, simple BBQ menus, a selection of brews and live music. Tel: (011-53-7) 866-4453.

Trendy vittles

Los Nardos   Havana is not known for its cuisine, but up a rickety flight of stairs this Spanish/International eatery is well loved. Like many, they accept no credit cards. Tel: (011-53-7) 863-2985.
La Guarida   Havana’s most famous paladar — it starred in the film Fresa y chocolate — serving Caribbean cuisine like ceviche and fresh snapper. Tel: (011-53-7) 862-4940; laguarida.com.
La Bodeguita del Medio   Sure, it’s touristy, but Hemmingway knew the perfect place to sip a mojito and enjoy Cuban classics like black beans and slow-roasted pork was amid a warren of graffitti-scribbled walls where troubadours stroll. Tel: (011-53-7) 867-1374; labodeguita.com.

Best crash zones

Hotel Saratoga   The swank boutique hotel opposite El Capitolio, the capital building, has chic colonial styling and all mod-cons. From $230. (All prices in US dollars.) Tel: (011-53-7) 868-1000; www.hotel-saratoga.com.
Hotel Nacional de Cuba   Historic, classic digs of choice on the Malecón for the likes of Frank Sinatra and Winston Churchill since 1930. From $170. Tel: (011-53-7) 873-3564; hotelnacionaldecuba.com.
Hotel Florida   Restored to colonial elegance, this small gem is right in the middle of the old city. From $170. Tel: (011-53-7) 862-41-27; hotelfloridacuba.com.
Casas Particulares   Homestays offer simple digs, but a friendly way to meet locals. For more information, drop in at one of the tourism kiosks around Old Havana and ask about staying in a Casa Particular.

This article was accurate when it was published. Please confirm rates and details directly with the companies in question.

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