It didn’t take long before we knew we didn’t want to spend a lot of time in Havana. It’s beautiful – in the areas that have been restored anyway. But it’s a big city, and has the hassles associated with any tourist centre – people trying to get you into their taxi, restaurant, shop, horse-drawn vehicle etc. Wormold, the main character in Graham Greene’s wonderful espionage spoof novel Our man in Havana, had the same problem in the 1950s, though the services he was offered (beautiful women and dirty postcards mostly) have apparently changed with the Castro regime. Or perhaps it’s just that we look too old and dull.
Anyway, we decided we would choose a smaller centre for our pre-Emma-and-Ben arrival month, and settled on Cienfuegos, a city of 160,000 inhabitants on a large, attractive bay (apart from the chemical factory and abandoned nuclear power station) in the south of the country. It’s a nice city, newer than many of the others in Cuba, having been first settled in the early 19th century, rather than the 16th, as with many of the other towns. This mostly means it is less dilapidated. The centre has a sort-of French feel to it, as it was founded in 1819 by a French émigré from Louisiana, and was originally settled by 40 French families from New Orleans, Philadephia and Bordeaux. And while you do get the odd guy calling “taxi”(without much hope, it must be said) as you pass by, it’s largely hassle-free.
After a bit of searching we have found the almost-perfect casa particulare: roof terrace with a great view over the city, windows with a great view over the street, some cooking facilities, so we can start being a bit self-sufficient, and a friendly family running it. I served up my first pot of the Cuban staple, beans and rice, last night - with a bit of help from Carmen, the owner.
The only slight drawback to the street is that it’s round the corner from bus station, and on a slight incline, so the aging buses and trucks rumble past from about 5.50am and pour diesel fumes into our bedroom as they rev their way up the hill. But you can’t have everything.