Historic Havana

Not only are the Cuban capital's hotels smartening up their acts, they are funding the restoration of the rest of the city. Lizzie Matthews investigates...

7 mins

Every visitor to Havana knows what to expect – that labyrinth of peeling façades, crumbling walls and tired ironwork,which has starred in countless films and coffee-table books. Irresistibly photogenic but horribly impractical – and ever-so-slightly terrifying to wander round without a hard hat.

The truth is that the majority of Old Havana’s buildings are balancing on a knife edge, each one being held up by its neighbours.You get the impression that if one were to stumble to its knees, the entire city would collapse around it like a pack of cards.

For Old Havana, communism has been both its saviour and its nemesis – with little or no money to replace the dilapidated old buildings with modern tower blocks, the original city has stayed standing. Just. On the flipside it has also meant that the city has become one of the poorest,most

heavily populated inner cities in the Americas. Pop your head round the door of one of the old colonial mansions and you’ll find an entire neighbourhood – dozens of families living on top of one another under one roof. Their situation remains desperate, so it is little wonder that building restoration doesn’t appear top of their list of priorities.

Fortunately, for one man it does. Eusobio Leal has been Havana’s official city historian since 1967. Following Old Havana’s graduation to the UNESCO World Heritage List, Fidel finally gave Leal the go-ahead in 1993 to establish Habaguanex – a state enterprise devoted to the rejuvenation of the old city,while attracting tourism (and cash) at the same time.

Habaguanex now owns 19 meticulously restored hotels, as well as restaurants, bars and even horsedrawn carriages, all of which generate funds for the city’s restoration. This money also pays for construction projects, public services and utilities as well as the upkeep of 36 antique palaces, museums and gardens.

The restoration project is ambitious – a frightening 40-year project – and they’re just over a quarter of the way through. The good news is that the results are starting to show.

Wandering through the Old Town, there was a welcome addition to the constant soundtrack of salsa and wheezing Buicks – the sound of chinking metal and blades whirring through wood. At a street corner, a plasterer was perched on a precarious ladder, putting the finishing touches to a smart, restored mansion block.

The ornate façade of the Gran Teatro was partially obscured by an overcoat of scaffolding and chiselling workers. Just off the Plaza Vieja, a school for young carpenters – Centro de Formación de Jóvenes Restauradores – was busy training the next generation of skilled artisans to continue the project.

Perhaps the most noticeable difference was in the Plaza Vieja itself. Having seen photographs of the place in 1995, it was barely recognisable. Emerging from the crumbling side streets I found myself in an elegant plaza where balconies actually looked capable of supporting more than a balloon, and where buildings met each other at perfect right angles. Neat rows of potted trees and cast-iron balls marked out the edge of the square, and a smart, new fountain babbled smugly in the centre.

Just one building didn’t fit into its spanking surroundings. Wedged in between the smart pastel façades was the Plaza’s last remaining restoration project, a precarious arrangement of wood that looked like a giant game of Jenga. Propped up on makeshift wooden supports, a series of wavy balconies clung on to disintegrating plaster by its fingernails.

In any other country this building would have been surrounded by warning signs and red tape. In Cuba, the inhabitants were still going about their daily lives, hanging washing lines between the wooden supports,walking around the gaping holes in the floorboards, apparently oblivious to the work going on around them. A stroppy budgie was the only one who seemed unhappy with its living conditions.

But such is the way of life in Havana – everyone and everything hangs on until the bitter end. The city’s restorers are simply trying to ensure that the end doesn’t come too soon.

Hotel Raquel

The Raquel had a prosaic start in life as offices,a warehouse and a fabric store. But now it’s a handsome hotel that has been lovingly restored by Habaguanex in one of its most recent and

ambitious projects. In the heart of what was once the Jewish quarter, it is a mere bagel’s throw from Cuba’s oldest synagogue and has a strong Hebrew heritage.

The airy,art nouveau entrance hall has a spectacular stained glass ceiling that throws down dappled patches of light onto the floor below. The bedrooms all have biblical names and have been carefully designed with varnished wood ceilings and wicker furniture that has a typically Cuban rhythmic squeak.

There are 25 rooms – ask for one of the three rooms situated on the top floor. Each of them lead directly onto the building’s roof terrace where you can escape the frenzy of the streets below. A mosaic-tiled cupola offers shade from the Caribbean sun and the views are fab. Perfect for an afternoon nap with a book and a mojito.

Rates: Standard rooms from £73 per night and Junior Suites from £88 per night.

Contact: Calle San Ignacio 103, esquina Amargura

Tel: +537 860 8280

Hotel los Frailes

Don’t be put off by the hooded friars padding silently around the entrance – these are in fact the staff of Los Frailes,easily the most quirky of Havana’s smaller hotels. Just yards from the Monasterio de San Francisco de Asís, this was the residence of the fourth Marquis Duquesne at the start of the 19th century. Now,Los Frailes is a haven of calm – a welcome break from the frenetic streets of Habana Vieja.

Inside,among the battered leather sofas and terracotta tiles,an octogenarian band quietly warbles and strums in a corner. A curtain of dangling plants draws you into a cool,stone courtyard, which has its own freshwater spring. The monastic atmosphere extends to the bedrooms,with their heavy wooden beds,antique furniture, wrought-iron lamps and painted tiles. The ground-floor rooms don’t have windows but their high ceilings and inherent charm prevent them from being claustrophobic –and,of course, they’re wonderfully quiet.

Rates: Standard rooms from £57 per night and Junior Suites from £65 per night.

Contact: Calle Brasil (Teniente Rey) 8

Tel: + 537 862 9383

Hotel Conde De Villanueva

Down a quiet side street lies the red-brick façade of the home of the Count of Villanueva.This is very much a man’s hotel – nine rooms decorated in a classic,unfussy style with high,beamed ceilings,comfy sofas and a well-stocked bar.

However,there is more to this hotel than meets the eye.It is in fact a tribute to tobacco,a celebration of the cigar.Each room is named after a famous Cuban tobacco field; photos of famous cigar lovers line the walls; and above the plant-filled courtyard you’ll find smoker’s heaven: the House of Habanos – an overwhelming collection of Cuba’s finest cigars, complete with a tasting room where you can puff away to your lungs’ content. Only in Havana.

Rates: Standard rooms from £73 per night and Junior Suites from £107 per night.

Contact: Calle Mercaderes 202, entre Lamparilla y Amargura

Tel: +537 862 9293

Hotel Ambos Mundos

The Ambos Mundos is famous for its Hemingway connections – he lived here while he wrote For Whom the Bell Tolls. It’s easy to see why he was so taken with it – built in the 1920s,it has a lofty art deco lobby with a huge bar that serves potent mojitos,a temperamental original lift (often out of order) and a rooftop terrace with magnificent views.

Despite all this,it might leave you feeling disappointed – the Ambos Mundos relies too heavily on old Ernest. His room (No.511) has been turned into a mini-museum, his signature is framed on the lobby wall and you can’t turn a corner without being confronted by his bearded face staring back at you. I suppose you can’t blame them,but no amount of memorabilia was going to distract me from the fact that my room (next door to Ernest’s) was small and characterless and the lobby was filled with bothersome Hemingway fans each afternoon.

Rates: Standard rooms from £73 per night or Junior Suites from £107 per night.

Contact: Calle Obispo 153, esquina Mercaderes

Tel: +537 860 9530

Hotel Santa Isabel

You’ll be hard pushed to find a more beautiful setting than that of the Santa Isabel. Its cream-and-blue arches sit on the eastern side of the leafy Plaza de Armas,where old men sit under the trees to chat and feed the pigeons. The 17th-century Santa Isabel was the home of the Counts of Santovenia until 1867 when it became a hotel. Today it doubles as a gallery, with Cuba’s most influential artists exhibiting throughout the building.

It’s an elegant place,a little worn round the edges perhaps,but one of the few larger hotels in Havana that is not overrun by big tour companies. Most of the 27 bedrooms overlook the square with tall,shuttered doors leading out onto bright balconies. Faded carpets and Spanish colonial furniture fill the rooms,a fountain gurgles in the courtyard and breakfast is served under the arches where the Count’s carriages were once parked. Starting the day with a coffee in the early morning sun,looking out over the newspaper-sellers and gardeners in the Plaza de Armas is unbeatable.

Rates: Standard rooms from £114 per night and Junior Suites from £149 per night.

Contact: Calle Baratillo 9

Tel:+537 860 8201

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