Finally! We arrived in La Habana. Despite being tired from the long trip, and the stimulating 30 minute taxi ride from the José Martí international Airport, there was no way I'd go to sleep, so Vicky and I dropped our luggage at the Hotel Habana Libre in La Rampa, a central neighborhood in Vedado. Until the revolution, this was the Hilton Hotel that had been opened in March 1958 and had become a gambling casino and playground for rich Americans. But, the revolution triumphed on 1 January 1959, and Fidel Castro and his supporters took over the building on 8 January and nationalized the property. The Continental Suite, room 2324, was renamed Puesto de Mando de la Revolución; it served as headquarters during the next three months while Castro, the Comandante en Jefe, planned how to proceed. Of course, Hilton was unhappy and demanded two million dollars, which the new government paid.
The Habana Libre is near the extensive Malecón Seawall that hugs the coast for seven and a half miles (as seen above in the picture taken by Vicky), the University of Habana, the exquisite Hotel Nacional, not far from Habana Vieja, and diagonally from Parque de las Taquillas and the very interesting Heladería Coppelia. From the 23rd floor balcony window of the hotel we'd seen a very long line snaking around what seemed like a spaceship in the middle of the park. Those long lines squaring off the corners of 23rd and L streets turned out to be people socializing and waiting to buy ice cream. Ice cream!? All those people?! Yes. Heladería Coppelia does indeed sell delicious ice cream, we soon found out! It's one of a chain of stores found throughout Cuba. We walked through the packed perimeter and outdoor gardens, and the six dining halls housed under the "space ship," where people pay with pesos, but we had to buy at the empty part for tourists who pay with CUCs. From above, the building is indeed like a two-level spaceship, but from inside it looks like an inverted ice cream cone with stained glass windows. The "Cathedral of Ice Cream," as the place is commonly known, was built by Mario Girona, a Cuban architect who died in August 2008. It opened in June 1966, when the blockade was in full force and Cubans couldn't have soft drinks and ice cream, so, they developed their own.
The place is named after the famous ballet, "Coppélia" choreographed by Arthur Saint-Léon in 1870. To me, that's a strange choice of names, since the ballet depicts a Frankenstein-like plot about a diabolical inventor who makes a life-size dancing doll and then falls in love with it. In any case, there are 26 flavors that can be purchased from 11:00 AM to 10:30 PM. The best seller is fresa y chocolate, a phrase, I realized later, used as the title for a terrific film by Tomás Gutiérrez Alea, Strawberry and Chocolate, that I saw when it first came out in 1994. It's about Cuban society in 1979 during the peak of discrimination against homosexuals; the film opens with a scene at Heladería Coppelia.
Our first evening in Habana was pretty fun--imagine walking by the fragrance of orange blossoms with an ice-cream cone in your hand, and listening to sexy music and the roar of the ocean as the sun sets. Yeah, the next day we also enjoyed Mojitos (picture below) at the roof garden terrace of Hotel Ambos Mundos in Habana Vieja, where Ernest Hemingway spent a lot of time, in room 551, and wrote the first chapters of his novel For Whom the Bell Tolls.
Recipe for Mojitos: 2 ounces of light Cuban Rum, carbonated/Club water, wedges of lime, mint leaves, 1 1/2 ounces of sugar syrup. Muddle everything except the rum at the bottom of the glass, add ice, then add the rum slowly, stirring as the mint rises. Drink slowly and with people you like.