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Gilberto 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 Old Havana, 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 Havana.)
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, Roman, 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 restaurant.
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 in graveyards. 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 plaques.
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 Portuondo 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 Havana is a city of rarities, making her a classic Habanera.
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 Pompeii-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.
Cuba Private Travel curates bespoke encounters in Cuba. Five nights in Old Havana staying at Suite Plaza Vieja and on an exclusive guided basis from £1,170 per person.
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