Frozen in time

The crumbling baroque buildings, vintage American cars and Che have all become the symbols of postcard Havana. What will become of them now that Castro has resigned, wonders Observer architecture correspondent Stephen Bayley.

Sitting on the roof of Havana's Saratoga Hotel, mojito to hand, listening to the parping, belching traffic eight floors below, I wondered, in Castro's last days, how this photographically familiar – but emotionally strange – dream world was going to change now that El Comandante has resigned.

We are familiar with the image: crumbling Spanish colonial baroque, Flash Gordon-era American cars, cha-cha. Apart from the scary Stalinist monuments in the Plaza de la Revolución, and some gruesome 1970s tourist hotels, nothing of architectural note has happened since Fidel and his colleagues took over in 1959.



Thanks to the US blockade, Havana is as deep-frozen in time as the daiquiris the tourists drink at El Floridita. The conceptual clichés of Cuba are matched by the visual ones. Something, perhaps driven by the national taste for santeria, the Afro-Cuban religion that is by no means beneath the surface, generates a need for powerful, lasting iconography. Che, of course. But Hemingway, too. A popular postcard shows El Comandante and Papa comparing funny hats and beards. These are wonderful images, but half a century old.

And then there are the cars, as famous and unlikely as the cigars. There are perhaps 60,000 antique Pontiacs, Buicks and Fords chuntering around Cuba in clouds of blue smoke. These cars, patinated and re-made, sprayed and fettled, resuscitated beyond cruelty, if not beyond logic, have been declared part of the "patrimonio" (heritage). Soon, they may be replaced by Korean and Chinese alternatives.

The colonial houses are even older than the cars and their extent is astonishing. Their picturesque decay has made La Habana Vieja a UNESCO World Heritage site, but there is something appalling about taking digital picture pleasure in the misery of the people who endure it for want of some better opportunity.

If and when freedoms are returned; if and when Americans relax trade embargoes, what will happen to postcard Havana? Popular response to Castro's resignation was muted, not grief-stricken. I think they are expecting changes.

As the sun went down on Castro, we left the roof of the Saratoga to visit the lobby bar of the Riviera Hotel on the Malecon to watch the sun go down on the ocean. The Malecon is the treeless, concrete, ad-free, 11km long promenade that is the finest spot in Havana for solar reflection. And it's ripe for re-development. The Riviera, designed on very much the same terms and with the same colour palette as a 1957 Ford Fairlane Skyliner, was built by mafia gambling hoodlum, Meyer Lansky. It opened only days before Castro and 89 pioneers ousted Batista.

After 50 years of neglect, Lansky's successors and their retinues of lawyers, real estate agents, architects and interior designers will inevitably return. In fact, they are checking the leases right now, sitting in their boats on the Florida Keys, just waiting for the signal. Each of those crumbling houses has a pre-revolutionary resident family member with some claim to title, waiting for the moment. Here it is. Soon, each will be restored. Warsaw-on-Sea becomes South Beach.

Where to tap your Cuban heels

Everything in Havana inspires dance. There is music wherever you go. Always music. That's why people say that even when we Cubans walk, we walk as if we are dancing. One of the best ways to listen to music is simply to find it on the streets. You'll hear all kinds, especially salsa and son [a combination of Spanish and African rhythms] and son montuno, which is real country music. Look out for the musicians (treseros) playing the Cuban tres guitar, a rhythm instrument which has three double strings.

If you want to dance, head for La Casa de la Música, which has two branches - one in Central Havana (Calle Galiano, entre Neptuno y Concordia, 0053 860 8296) and one in the Miramar district (Calle 20, esquina 35, Playa, +204 0447). They have live concerts most days, pack a lot of people in and the atmosphere's great. One thing you can be sure of, whether you're a beginner or if you know how to dance, is that you're never going to be left out. There's always someone who's going to pull you on to the floor and be your partner. And that's important because that's how you learn.

Where to refuel

Try paladares, small family-owned restaurants. A famous one is La Guarida (Calle Concordia 418, entre Gervasio y Escobar, +861 0023, laguarida.com, booking essential), which was the setting for the film Strawberry and Chocolate, nominated for an Oscar. Also very nice is La Divina Pastora (Parque Historico Morro y Cabaña, Carretera de La Cabana) a restaurant on the other side of Havana Bay - not very touristy, there's music playing and it gives you a fantastic view of the city.





Practise at the bar

The thing about Cuba is there really is no distinction between a venue where you should and shouldn't dance. If you were in a bar and got up to dance, I'm sure everyone would just get up and join in and the waiters would leave you to it.

My favourite drink? I like my mojitos. But you have to make sure it's the real thing because anything is called a mojito these days. One of the best is found at the magnificent terrace bar at the Hotel Nacional (Calle 0, esquina 21). They get it exactly right, down to the glass they use and how many ice cubes they put in it.

Watch the pros

If you want to watch dance, the Gran Teatro de La Habana (Paseo de Marti 458, entre San Rafael y San Martin, +861 3077) is a great place - it's the home of Ballet Nacional de Cuba and you can catch contemporary works and flamenco too. It's where the International Ballet Festival is held every two years (the next one is scheduled for October-November 2008). Many of the main figures in dance attend. It's been around since the 60s and is now a very established, respected festival. Everyone donates their time because of their love affair with Havana. The audiences may not have the money to afford to see the great productions but they are connoisseurs of dance and are very, very warm. If they like the performer, the reception can be overwhelming.





Take a dip

I have a house by Santa Maria, one of the wonderful white sandy beaches to the east of the city. Out of town is Macumba Habana (Complejo La Giraldilla, Calle 222, esquina 37) a magnificent outdoor venue with gardens and a swimming pool that attracts a young crowd. People go there in the afternoon and dance and sing throughout the evening. Best to check ahead to see who's playing.

 

Stretch your legs

One of the best places to go for a stroll is El Prado, a nice avenue linking the centre with the Malecón. The Malecón is the seafront promenade where you go if you want to mix with the locals and people-watch. If you want a bit of peace, go to Parque Lenin on the outskirts where you can picnic and also fish.



Out of town

Pinar del Rio province, west of Havana, is a magnificent landscape. Visit Las Terrazas with its many rivers and ponds where you can also go kayaking, or Soroa, which has a huge orchid garden with many species. This is where you may see the tocororo, the Cuban national bird, sporting the colours of the Cuban flag. (Tocororo is the title I chose for the production I choreographed, based on my life.)

 

Where to stay

As I have a house there, I never stay in hotels, but I think the Hotel Telégrafo (Paseo de Marti, +861 1010, habaguanex.com), with its mix of period and contemporary features, is one of the most interesting. It's very central, near Old Havana, so you have plenty of opportunity to soak up the sense of Cuban history.





What to take home

Go to one of the ferias - outside markets where you can buy paintings, handcrafted items and ingenious things that make good souvenirs. It's also nice to bring back coffee. And there's a good secondhand book market in La Plaza de Armas (Wed-Sat), a lovely place to browse where you can find some real gems among all the junk.

Enliven the senses on this overland journey through Cuba, with its blend of colours, flavours, aromas and sounds. Discover the faded colonial grandeur of Havana and Trinidad, the delightful rolling countryside with its tobacco and coffee plantations, the historical sites of the revolution and the ever-present rhythms of the son and mambo styles of music. Cuba is changing fast, so this is a great time to visit while its exotic and distinctive style remains.


The Caribbean Republic of Cuba consists of the 766-mile long island of Cuba, Isla de la Juventud and almost 4200 keys and islets. Perched at the mouth of the Gulf of Mexico, it’s just 110 miles from Florida. Colorful capital Havana, with its pulsating nightlife, proud culture and beautiful architecture, is the heart of the country. Outside the Caribbean’s largest city, life on thousands of fine beaches and in resort destination Varadero and former capital Santiago de Cuba carries on at the same laid-back pace.