The lure of dazzling, palm-fringed, white sandy beaches, the stunning backdrop of mountains, the charm of the ruins of palaces once teeming with life and the sensuous rhythms of this incomparable island have moved authors such as Ernest Hemingway to tell wondrous tales.
The slim, deferent and majestic outline of the silver royal palm of Cuba, up to 40 metres tall and defiant of the wildest of storms, is the national symbol of the República de Cuba. It has come to represent the unbending character of Cuba and dominates the landscape, 70% of which consists of flat to gently hilly plains. The green island’s fertile limestone soil and wet-dry semitropical climate produces lush, diversified vegetation with some 8000 different kinds of flora, creating ideal conditions for agriculture. Sleepy villages in the famous tobacco fields with the characteristic red earth in the west, sugar cane plantations in the centre of the largest Antilles island and rolling lemon, coffee and banana plantations in the interior transport the visitor back to a world untouched by the pace of modern living. Beaches that stretch as far as the eye can see, crystal-clear water with pleasant bathing temperatures between 25 and 28 degrees all year round plus 330 days of sunshine per year are ingredients that make Cuba a dream location for tourists. Mountainous massifs with an altitude of up to 2000 metres and evergreen moist forests sprawl along the southern coastline, the largest of which is the Sierra Maestra, close to the heart of the Cuban revolution, with its highest mountain, the Pico Turquino. The bizarre, cone-shaped mogotes, densely vegetated limestone hills that were the obelisks of a massive system of caves thousands of years ago, are part of the unique natural phenomena of the Valle de Veňales in the west of the island.
“City of Pillars” (Alejo Carpentier, Cuban writer)
An imposing blend of Caribbean élan and the melancholy of days gone by give Havana, founded in 1519 and capital city and cultural and political heart of Cuba, an attraction that is hard to resist. The time-scarred splendour of the buildings, the flash of Cadillac chrome and beat of Cuban rhythms all tell of the city’s turbulent past. The strategic location of this “gateway to the New World” which still today is a spectacular sight viewed from the sea, once lured sea travellers laden with gold and silver and soon became the most important harbour in the Caribbean and Spain’s outpost in Latin America. The boom bestowed on the country by the slave trade and the planting of tobacco and sugar transformed Havana in the late 18th century into one of the most dazzling cities on the American continent, witnessed by the newly-built palaces, elegant boulevards and magnificent theatres. Under the eye of the United States Cuba was declared a republic on 20 May 1902, sparking an era inspired by the “American way of life”, which lasted up to the revolution and during which Cuba in the golden ‘twenties acquired the status of an enigmatic, if slightly tarnished beauty. In the ‘forties gambling, drug peddling and prostitution thrived under US Mafia bosses, who also outdid each other in the building of elegant hotels. The revolution, reminders of which such as Fidel Castro’s field telephone and Che’s (Ernesto Guevara’s) blood-stained shirt in the Museo de la Revolución put an end to the glitz and glamour. The triumph of freedom had a downside, witnessed by an economic downturn and the corrosive poverty of entire swathes of residential areas with their graceful arcades and decorative villas whose architecture and blossom-filled inner courtyards were redolent of the Moorish culture of Andalusia. It was not until UNESCO nominated the derelict old, historic part of Havana as a world heritage site in 1982 that the magnificent palaces with their unique blend of colonial and art nouveau, modern and art deco architecture, were restored to their former glory and in some cases took on new leases of life as hotels, bars and boutiques. In this country of colour and scents, Cuban cooking – a fusion of Spanish and African influences with some Caribbean touches – is less overwhelming than one would expect, something that cannot be said of the smell of cigars and traditional music competing with heady rum cocktails and the throb of the salsa beat, unmistakeable and essential elements of Cuban lifestyle.
The Rhythm of Cuba
The soul of the music of Cuba as made world famous by Wim Wender’s Buena Vista Social Club, is the “son”, an interchange between choir and singer popularised by travelling sugar cane workers in the Havana of the ‘twenties and later developing into a Creole trademark. Double bass, bongo drums, maracas and two claves provide the beat for Cuba’s national rhythm, backed by the distinctive sound of the Tres Cuban guitar and the proud voices of Cubans singing of the charms of Havana. But the unique night life of this cosmopolitan hot spot is now best expressed by salsa, its smooth mix of son, rumba, cha cha cha and mambo being ideal for dancing – the preferred local form of expression. The sounds of Havana are a reflection of the life rhythm of its inhabitants in the golden ‘twenties ts, that blend of impulsive exuberance on the one hand and relaxed enjoyment on the other which embodies the polarity of the island.
Fotos: Fotolia: © C. Schoettler, © M. Popcorn; © Michel Permeke – “Havannas-Großer Genuss aus Kuba” – Neuer Umschau Buchverlag – Fotos: Kris Viegels
- Kuba: Fotolia: M. Popcorn
- Kokosnuss: Fotolia: M. Popcorn
- Bavaro beach: Fotolia: CMYK
- Cuba, Schweinetransport: Fotolia: C. Lippmann