“Hey there Irish lady. You wanna dance?” I was making my way through the music-filled ground floor of the Hotel Inglaterra in Havana when I turned to find the American journalist, whom I met on the Malecón earlier, with a fake Cuban accent mocking my dislike of the Cuban jintero custom of haranguing independent female tourists, something travellers on guided tours don’t experience. Despite my American acquaintance’s joke, the dancing was thankfully by choice leaving me at peace to savour the moment and my mojito.
Cuba, the island that dared to do its own thing since 1959, is on everyone’s to-do list ever since the restoration of diplomatic relations with the US.
I had great expectations of Cuba’s revolutionary sights but found that the most appealing attractions were those of the decadent pre-revolutionary era, the Cuba of Graham Greene’s espionage satire novel Our Man in Havana. I found myself traipsing between Havana’s hotels, the setting for many of the book’s scenes, taking refuge inside their grand interiors from the unforgiving heat and persistent jinteros.
First up was the Hotel Plaza, a two-tone yellow 19th Century building with a colonnaded ground floor, the front door of which opens onto Parque Central. Whilst the Plaza didn’t feature in Greene’s novel, Sloppy Joe’s bar at the rear of the hotel did and was where Agent Hawthorne persuaded vacuum cleaner salesman Jim Wormold, the novel’s protagonist, to reluctantly become M16’s man in Havana. In reality, Sloppy Joe’s was frequented by American tourists, a clientele which ceased when Castro came to power resulting in the bar’s closure. Thanks to a restoration project Sloppy Joe’s has returned to its former glory and it’s only a matter of time before it’s once again filled with American visitors.
The Prado (Paseo) is the main street which roughly divides Havana Vieja (Old Havana) from Centro Havana and it’s on this street where most of the city’s elegant hotels are situated. The Hotel Sevilla is the northernmost with its Moorish entrance on the Prado and its neoclassical entrance on Trocadero, and it was in this hotel – Room 501 – where Wormold received his instructions from Agent Hawthorne. In Greene’s book, the Prado is home to the Wonder Bar, the watering hole of his protagonist, but the bar no longer exists.
An establishment which hasn’t changed much from Greene’s novel is the Hotel Nacional. Situated overlooking the bay in the Vedado area this large art-deco national monument has a history as notorious as the poisoning shenanigans in Greene’s book are slapstick. Popular with mobsters in the 1940s and 50s, tunnels and trenches were dug in the back garden by revolutionaries and used as look-out and artillery points, with the artillery pointed directly at Florida. The tunnels and trenches house an exhibition on the Cuban Missile Crisis.
But of all my Havana hotel escapades the Hotel Inglaterra on the Prado made the most impression, which in a strange coincidence was Graham Greene’s apparent favourite as well. Wormold’s M16 handler and – spoiler alert – love interest Beatrice stayed at the Inglaterra, a national monument and Havana’s oldest hotel. The interior is Spanish-style with the exterior looking neoclassical French. The hotel doubles as a meeting point with mahogany chairs and tables filled with casual drinkers. The building oozes character, evocative of a decadent past. Live music and dancing takes place in the colonnaded area at the front to both hotel patrons and to local commuters waiting at the nearby bus stop.
Hemingway-related sights attract scores of visitors in Cuba. But its Greene’s novel, published a couple of months before Fidel Castro came to power, that is the definitive fictional take on Havana. Such is the novel’s renown I was receiving texts and emails from friends and family during my visit asking how “Our woman in Havana” was doing. Greene, a writer who also worked for M16, captures the mood of uncertainty and Cold War farce, and giving a description of the city that, to this day, remains true.
Check out my Cuba page for other destinations in this intriguing country.