Havana: A Tutti-Frutti of Desolated Pastels

Havana: A Tutti-Frutti of Desolated Pastels

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Valladares, whom everyone calls “Papito”, rinses my
soapy head as we discuss art and beauty. In some ways his salon
Arte Corte, on the second floor of an apartment block in downtown
, is like any Cuban hairdresser’s. There’s a woman
reading a gossip magazine while her foils cook and a man being
shaved meticulously with a cut-throat blade.

However, the shelves heave with memorabilia – razors, scissors,
brushes, vials, combs and mirrors – and the walls are lined with
paintings, many surreal and suggesting the theme of locks. In
Havana, even something as basic as getting your hair cut entails an
unravelling of secret and an evocation of the past.

“I travelled through the provinces to find these pieces,” says
Papito as he effortlessly starts to snip. “In this country, nothing
is discarded. The oldest chair is from 1890. Most are North
American, like my 1930s children’s chair.” Arte Corte opened in
1999 during the first flourishing of the private economy that
commenced falteringly in 1994, before speeding up during Raúl
Castro’s era from 2008. “It started with our drawings down the
staircase, then the street became the art,” continues Papito,
brandishing the hairdryer. “Now culture is transforming the space.
Since Arte Corte, 23 other small businesses have opened in Calle
Aguiar – galleries, hairdressers, restaurants and cafés. We are a
culturally rich country and we need to preserve that balance
between culture and society.” This being Cuba,
there’s a social aspect too – in the mornings Papito teaches
hairdressing to young disabled and vulnerable people.

Refreshed by his fervour and armed with a sleek sheet of
swinging hair, I step out to my next excursion, which promises a
glance back to the machinations of the last century. Pre-Castro
(i.e. pre-1959) Havana was so full of mafia that it featured twice
in the Godfather trilogy. These corrupt but exceedingly fun times
can be savoured on a whirl through the city with literature
professor Nelson. He picks me up outside the Baroque beauty of the
Gran Teatro de La Habana and whisks me into his open-top,
pillar-box red Buick ’57, playing Sinatra’s Fly Me to the Moon and
ruining my new hair in the process. (Ol’ Blue Eyes, by the way, was
a terrible mafia fiend, and although he was never prosecuted for
any criminal behaviour, he allegedly had mob ties from Chicago to
Detroit and loved forays to

Leaving behind Old Havana’s closely stacked streets, their
façades a tutti-frutti of desolated pastels, we emerge onto the
Malecón, Havana’s famous sea wall, and Tanganana Hill, where the
Hotel Nacional de Cuba has conspicuously loomed as part of the
skyline since 1930. In the hotel’s Churchill Bar, where Errol Flynn
ran up Ernest Hemingway’s tab, Nelson tells me about the project’s
refined heritage – the architectural firm McKim, Mead & White,
which mixed Sevillian,
Moorish and Art Deco motifs in an eclecticism that is
quintessentially Habanero, was also behind the 1903 redesign of the
West Wing and East Wing in the White House.

“Cuba during the 1920s was all about alcohol,” Nelson opines.
“By the time we got to the 1940s and 1950s it was all about
gambling and cocaine. High rollers came to the Nacional for free
accommodation, food, drink and coke. They’d go to the casino high
and drunk and waste a lot of money.” The scene peaked in 1946 when
the Nacional hosted the Havana Conference, the biggest gathering of
gangsters ever.

Next up, the mafia’s flashiest number – the Hotel Riviera,
bankrolled by Meyer Lansky, capo di tutti i capi (boss of the
bosses). Completed in 1957 in six months, the Riviera encapsulated
Miami Modern. Everything here whispered money. The titillating
sound of slot machines filtered into the lobby. From the casino, a
secret elevator sped to the vault; from the vault, a secret tunnel
to the street. Vast floor-to-ceiling windows in the lobby reveal
the tempestuousness of the Florida Straits. Nothing has changed,
neither the Cundo Bermúdez paintings nor the plates in the L’Aiglon

I ask Nelson to drop me back at Sloppy Joe’s. The number-one bar
with Americans during Prohibition, it fell into dereliction in 1965
and for 48 years was boarded up, its mahogany bar cobwebbed and
pictures of American celebrities festering on the walls. Then in
2013 the government unveiled a six-year restoration that stayed
obsessively close to the original, from the street signage to the
floor tiles. I’m not going to lie – the new Sloppy Joe’s looks a
bit like a Harvester. “Time was,” Nelson says, “that Americans got
off the boat in Havana harbour, walked straight down Obispo, got
their feet under the bar, stayed the night drinking, and got back
on the boat. It was the first place that American women drank and
smoked and showed their naked backs in public.” I skip the Sloppy
Joe sandwich (essentially a deconstructed hamburger on toast –
sorry Cuban Americans), wave goodbye to Nelson and head next door
to my favourite private antiques store in Havana.

Memorias is jewel-box small and sells military memorabilia,
stamps, cigar labels and boxes, china, photographs (I notice a
lineup of blotto sailors in Sloppy Joe’s in one picture), books
including Bibles and political tomes, and music and architecture
magazines, many from the early years after the Revolution. The
owner Alina Diaz allows me to cradle in my palm medals from the
Spanish-American Wars from opposing sides. The Spanish medal is
inscribed: “From Spain to the brave soldier who fought in defence
of the homeland, 1873”.

I emerge blinking onto the noisy pavement. I want a moment of
peace and so I head to the only place in Havana that I can be sure
of it. The 1876-built Cementerio de Cristóbal Colón is one of the
city’s grandest jewels, a huge 140-acre rectangle of leafy avenues
and grandiose mausoleums. In the 1990s, after the disintegration of
the Soviet Union when Cuba was left to rot economically, the
cemetery was almost abandoned and grave robbing of marble (and
human remains for palo mayombe rituals) was rife. However since the
millennium it has been back in business for visits. Cuba is one of
the noisiest countries I know. But crucially, Cubans do not stroll
. They consider it vaguely disrespectful and are
faintly wary of the spirits that might cling to them. They enter to
sombrely pay respect to their dead or perhaps lay flowers to the
volatile Afro-Cuban orisha Oyá, who lives at the door of the
cemeóteries, then skedaddle. They do not linger to read a
stranger’s epitaph. In short, Colón is full only of silence and
birdsong. There is no shouting, no cockadoodle-dooing, and no-one
yelling down a mobile phone to a relative in Miami. I love it.

As with Havana herself, a myriad of styles from Art Nouveau to
Neoclassical collide in this lovely citadel of the dead – but I am
looking for one humble grave. By the time I find it the sky has
taken on the dull stonewash of dusk and its angel wings and
crucifixes are dark cutouts against the clouds. A lone couple is
here, the woman’s head bowed in what seems like a gesture of
despair. She is nursing the small flame of a candle. When she
finally leaves, she walks backwards until she disappears under the
canopy of trees.

This is the grave of Amelia Goyri de la Hoz, known as the
“Milagrosa”, who died in 1903 in childbirth. When she was exhumed
three years later the infant that had been buried at her

feet was in her arms. La Milagrosa has since become a pilgrimage
for the parents of sick children who come to pray she might save
them, sometimes returning in gratitude with flowers and

I go back to rest in my beautiful antique apartment, carved out
of a rare 20th-century building in Old Havana and reincarnated into
glory by two French interior designers. Private rentals make for
more interesting places to stay in Havana as opposed to hotels,
which are always joint ventures with the state, especially now that
tasteful renovations such as mine are growing in number. Suite
Plaza Vieja looks directly onto the eponymous square, created in
the 16th century as an open space for bull fights, parties,
executions and markets. The Creole plutocracy would gaze on the
events from their balconies. In the past decade the square has
become a repository of attractive casa particulares as government
money has poured into the restoration of Old Havana.

Past the apartment’s Baccarat chandeliers and colonial-era beds
lies a roof with a glorious daybed hidden by a profusion of
bougainvillea. I nap here until my stomach growls, calling me
onwards to a lovely, tiny restaurant that celebrates the ageless
classics of the Cuban kitchen table of yore (from the mid-1950s
winding back to colonial times). Toca Madera is a little out of the
way, but I like heading to the leafy, diplomatic suburb of Miramar
on a balmy night – plus I am desperate for one of chef-owner
Enrique Suárez’s famed burgers. Suárez, a former engineer, dislikes
being called a chef and says he celebrates the long-standing “food
of the poor”, as he likes to call it. The restaurant works closely
with a small organic farm that provides fresh vegetables not
commonly seen in Havana, such as courgette, kale and rocket. On
this occasion Suárez places dishes with super-fresh ingredients and
intense flavour in front of me, including a simple burger bookended
with his pan perdu, a sort of caramelised crème pâtissière with ice
cream – a true Cuban dessert of dreams.

Half an hour later I am propped up at the bar watching the
regular Sunday night set at the jazz venue El Gato Tuerto, where
once you might have heard Pablo Milanés or Omara Portuond sing.
Tonight it’s Osdalgia Lesmes whose smoky-voiced passion fuels the
night like a modern-day Billie Holiday. With wild hair she never
cuts and a face that exudes the beauty of another era, Osdalgia
belts out songs to a lone guitar. They include a favourite of mine,
Aburrida (Bored), which tells of a woman’s prediction that she’s
soon to be dumped by a lover. Osdalgia sings filín – the word is a
bastardisation of “feeling” – which evolved out of bolero. Like
bolero it’s romantic, but with a jazz inflection and deeper
emotional charge – some aficionados consider it a revival of the
original trova, a Cuban musical movement dating back to the 19th
century. After her set and over a single malt, Osdalgia explains
that filín is an experimental genre with blues influence. “You’re
not enslaved to a tempo because it’s percussion-free,” she says.
“You’re free to tell a story and improvise, and let your feelings
soar. I fell in love with filín because it had its own culture of
love and poetry and longing.”

Young Cubans would consider filín excessively old-fashioned, the
music of their grandmothers, and Osdalgia is in some ways an
anomaly. In her forties now, she came of age in an era when
big-band timba dominated. But while they were quickening the tempo,
she was slowing it and souping up the feeling. In a world now
dominated by reggaeton, Osdalgia remains a rarity. But
is a city of rarities, making her a classic

Osdalgia heads off into the night with an attitude that makes me
think she’s not yet destined for her boudoir. In fact, neither am I
– HAPE Collective, the city’s best purveyor of pop-up parties, is
having a thing tonight, or as is its wont, a collaboration. A
party-loving graphic design studio is celebrating an anniversary
and HAPE is laying on the magic and musicians. The tentacles of the
party spill beckoningly out into the surrounding darkened streets
of the old town, which has seamlessly swapped the shrieks, taxi
horns and tinny reggaeton of the day for sleek electronica.

I’ve watched the antics of this collective with admiration as
it’s expanded over the last two years. No party is ever the same:
the list of Cuban and international musicians and electronic
artists is ever-growing and the revolving venues (in settings
including Brutalist shooting ranges, forest eyries and secret
rooftops) exude enchantment and mystique alongside a lack of
refurbishment that only Havana can provide. Sometimes HAPE succeeds
in revealing hidden aspects of vintage Havana to the Habaneros
themselves. Its signature place, to which it migrates back now and
then, is the 1909-built Moorish castle in Los Jardines de la
Tropical, a stupendous folly in the forest. If HAPE ever dies, its
fantastical parties will be reminisced about like the eclectic
soirées in an F Scott Fitzgerald novel.

I leave while the party’s in full swing to lay down my head in
my rather glorious
-inspired bedroom. It’s been a febrile day in which the
many facets of Havana’s history have absorbed me utterly in the
now, every conversation revealing fiercely that in this town, as we
all suspected, the past lives and breathes more brazenly than
anywhere else I know.