A good Havana tourist

I took a city tour – one run by the same government tourism organisation that puts money into city renovation projects. (Brownie points for me.)

Still, tours are a mixed blessing. As Geoff rightly puts it, you pay to sit in an overly-air-conditioned bus and stare through the windows at what you could see for free wandering the streets. And in many ways he is right. There were only two stops on the bus part of my tour. The first was at the Plaza de la Revolutión, one of those vast empty squares dedicated to fallen heroes, with oversized pictures, slogans and flags.

The second was outside (not inside, note) the 18th century Fortaleza de San Carlos de la Cabaña. It would have been good to go inside the fort, as it is very fine - built by the Spanish to make sure the vile British never captured Havana again (they did in 1762 and the Spanish only got it back by swapping it for Florida). But we only stopped long enough for us to look at Cuba’s Guinness Book of Records-awarded longest-ever cigar (90m) and be encouraged to splash out on our own cigars and rum.

Still, while tours can be frustrating, I still believe they are worth it for the information you get. There are always some wonderful historical or other snippets to be had. My favourite on the city tour was the fact (so wonderful that I still find it hard to believe it’s really true) that the Spanish initially named the island now called Cuba “Jane”. After the daughter of the Spanish king. Or at least “Juana”, the Spanish equivalent. Sometimes “Juana la loca” (crazy Jane), though I couldn’t work out if it was the princess or the country considered mad. Only later did the colonisers realise that “Jane” could perhaps be the least cool name for a country ever, and they reverted to the indigenous Taino Indian name Cuba (pronounced Cooba).

Another interesting piece of information garnered from the tour was about the slave market. African slaves first arrived in Cuba in 1522, and were conveniently bought and sold in a market adjacent to the port. When the Catholics built a monastery and church dedicated to San Francisco de Asís on the same square, the priests and congregation complained. Not about any human rights issues involved in the trading of men, of course, but about the noise, smells and general disruption of having a slave market outside their place of quiet prayer and contemplation. They lobbied to have the market moved, and it duly was. Thus the power of the Catholic Church.

Cuba didn’t abolish slavery until 1886, 350 years after it was introduced. It was the second-last country in the Americas to do so.

A third thing (promise I won’t bore you with any more) is about the Capitolio Nacional building, a grand edifice built with Cuba’s post-WWI sugar boom money and extremely reminiscent of Washington’s DC Capitol Building. The entertaining thing is that due to some problems with the American building’s dome, Havana’s Capitolio is 5m taller, was completed before Washington’s and is more ornate. No wonder the US imposed that blockade.