Tina and I are achieving a long held ambition - to drive Route 66. It runs right through the USA from Chicago to Santa Monica in Los Angeles. She's Louise - on the grounds that she looks a little like Susan Sarandon. So I'm Thelma. Incidentally, referring to Route 66 is the only time when Americans pronounce the word 'route' properly...
We're beginning in Chicago, the third largest city in the USA and a tourist favourite. The name Chicago is derived from a French rendering of the indigenous Miami-Illinois word shikaakwa for a wild relative of the onion, as there was a lot of wild garlic growing in the area when it was first recorded in 1679. Chicago has had several nicknames throughout its history: Chi-Town, Second City, City of the Big Shoulders and of course, The Windy City, Chicago developed in the 1800s as the Nation's Railway Hub.
But Chicago is probably most famous for its 1930s architecture and the Gangster Era, when Prohibition was repealed. The 1920s saw gangsters, including Al Capone, Dion O'Banion, Bugs Moran and Tony Accardo battle law enforcement and each other on the streets of Chicago. And Chicago was the location of the infamous St. Valentine's Day Massacre in 1929, when Al Capone sent men to gun down members of a rival gang, North Side, led by Bugs Moran
There is a cool front sweeping across the country, so it's 'only' mid 70s and raining. Time to hit the museums of Chicago. This involves walking about eight miles in all, almost half of this round the galleries themselves. The aquarium, (complete with dolphin show and 4D experience - 4D involves getting wet and being poked in the back) the Field Museum (The Natural History Museum meets The British Museum) and The Art Institute (pretty good collection of impressionist paintings). Louise (Tina) is ecstatic.
Chicago has a great vibe. It feels a little older than most American cities and it has long buzzy shopping streets full of brownstones, star spangled banners and neon signs. And of course, lots of skyscrapers.
We find signs for the beginning and end of Route 66 on adjoining streets and pose for pictures under both. Does that mean we've done it already?
It's sunny! And now I can see Lake Michigan sparkling and sweeping on forever, from the hotel window. There are flotillas of teeny white boats bobbing around. It must be a day for skyscrapers then, in the city where they were born. Breakfast in Lou Mitchell's old fashioned wooden diner, voted 'best breakfast in the USA’. It's pretty good and we get free doughnut holes (I thought that would be a handful of nothing, but it's the scooped out middles) and little round caramel chocolates called milk duds. Route 66 signs all over the walls, so we have to take photos.
Eating otherwise is a traumatic experience. Ordering alone is stressful, as every item comes with a choice. And the choice is usually burgers, burgers or burgers.
Then up the old Sears tower (now Willis). It was the highest building in the world, but then Dubai took over. And now, apparently it's not even as tall as the new World Trade Centre, which is nearly finished. Anyway, brilliant view and the scrapers are fewer, but more interesting than the ones in the Big Apple. Curlicues, domes and gilt edging. Then a boat trip up the river and out on the lake to see the skyline view. Just to make sure we have really seen every scraper from every angle we then zoom up the John Hancock tower to check out the view from the other end of Downtown. (See how American I am already?)
Then a musical evening. First, duelling pianos in a bar where the musicians play driving and car songs for us, and then, a bit worse for wear due to the accompanying margaritas, we head for the Chicago Chop House. More live music, steaks, and more margaritas. Somehow, the bill comes to 334 dollars. I think it will be iron rations only for the next two days...
Turns out we have already seen all the sights due to our marathon efforts on Wednesday. And the weather is iffy again. So I spend most of the day getting my camera repaired. At least it has started to play up when I am somewhere that I have a chance of dealing with it. I find a little Russian guy who does it in 4 hours. The repair costs exactly the same as yesterday's dinner. Supper tonight is the doggy bag remains of yesterday's extravaganza.
Chicago to St Louis - well it didn't look far on the map. And we only got lost three times. But they like to place the brown Route 66 signs just in front of left turns on three lane highways, so it’s all a little disconcerting. The road twists and turns across the Interstate routes. It's crumbly and has an unbelievable camber, so we threaten to end up in the ditch all too often. Sometimes there is more than one Route 66. The historic one and the historic historic one. Sometimes there is no Route 66 at all. This is definitely small town America. Prairie prairie quite contrary. Mile after mile of rippling green corn, gleaming silos and white clapboard houses with emerald manicured lawns, neatly arranged in semi circles. The obligatory Stars and Stripes flutter above.
We have a Ford Explorer, a giant of a thing. It's like driving along in a coach, peering down on everyone else. Serendipitously our number plate is 6966. Make what you like of that. We also have guide books depicting all the kitschy must see Route 66 sights. Restored fifties petrol stations, cosy diners with flashing red welcome signs, giant statues and murals are common. Get your Chicks on Route 66, Dicks on Route 66 and so on. And the slightly more esoteric. A phone booth on top of a courthouse roof? Lincoln mania - he was born here. It soon becomes clear that if we stop and search for all the recommended sights, the trip will take us a year. So we drive on, singing, to the Mississippi. There is a lot of road!
Another song to sing - Meet me in St Louis. The obvious attraction to meet under is the 190-metre Gateway Arch. It is the world's tallest arch and you can travel up it in a precarious looking lift. The other most noticeable feature is the sports stadia. The most famous sports team is the St. Louis Cardinals (Major League Baseball), but there are also the St. Louis Blues of the National Hockey League, and the St. Louis BattleHawks of the formed XFL.
Dinner at the very hip Oyster Bar on Broadway. The ultimate in shack chic. All coloured lights and wooden tables. And very good live R & B. Nice cocktails too....
Today promises to be exciting. An Al Qaeda red alert and a severe weather warning for heavy rain in Missouri. There is a belt of thunderstorms veering across the country. We are warned not to park near any creeks... This is where most of the pioneers set off west. It’s a bit different for us. We have to navigate the endless shopping outlet suburbs of St. Louis. But then we hit the Ozark Hills, lush green forests and little winding roads. It's a bit like Sussex. And we instantly get lost. So it's the wrong sort of excitement for us and that is very much the pattern for the day. It rains a lot, but no flash floods.
We are already pretty much take it or leave it now when it comes to Route 66 signs. They are everywhere (though confusingly sometimes blue in Missouri), except at junctions when you need them. Giants abound. Everything is the biggest and best. The tallest totem in the world. The biggest gift shop in the world, the largest rocking chair. What sort of inferiority complex dreams this lot up? We drive through Cuba (Mural City) and are staying in Lebanon so it's a worldwide tour too. We board in a forties motel - Munger Moss - and eat in a redneck diner. Moonshine margaritas and hickory smoked ribs. The meals are giant sized too. And so are a lot of the people.
Southwest through a corner of Kansas to Oklahoma City. The scenery not as I imagined, when I read my Steinbeck. It's all velvety green rolling hills, ponds, and haystacks. Maybe it’s the unseasonal rain. We can see the road unwinding in front of us like an endless Big Dipper. The sun is now out and the thermometer has climbed steadily, topping out at 106 degrees. We’re frightened to open the car doors in case we get fried. The undulations have been interspersed with little cowboy and mining towns. Adobe brick, crenellations, boardwalks, more flashing signs and lots of fat men with long pointy beards. They would make good dwarves if it wasn't for the dungarees and baseball caps.
Each little town has a tumble down store selling memorabilia that is run by a delightful wizened little old man. Or so it seems. We have been pursued all day by a squad of French tourers on motor bikes. And we have only got lost once. This is because we have almost got the hang of this now. We have armed ourselves with a GPS, a road atlas, a zillion free tourist guides and a newly acquired turn by turn guide. But when we can, we just follow the Harleys.
Hot, hot, hot, melting. We tip 107 degrees today. A quick zip through downtown Oklahoma. Amazingly there are oil derricks and nodding donkeys in the grounds of the domed Capitol Building. I'm told that Oklahoma now has more oil than any other state. That accounts for all the greenery.
Thank God for the reversing camera on our private tank. How else would we get back on the right road? Tina wants to do most of the driving. I'm not sure if this is because she doesn't trust me behind the wheel or because she doesn't want to navigate. But mine isn't the easy option. I have to concentrate the whole time. I've only got to nod off for one minute and Tina is careering off in the wrong direction.
We meander back and forth across the Interstates, often on the frontage roads, with pantechnicons thundering above. The scenery is fascinating as it changes continually. Today it’s more how I imagined Oklahoma to be. Cinnamon soil and dead flat except for the odd mesa. There are Chisholm Trail markers and I'm recalling John Wayne in his leather chaps urging his cattle along in the searing heat. It must have been hard work.
Then off and over the border to Amarillo. (Time for Tony Christie). Texas is pretty flat too, but green and spiky. With huge skies. Everything in Texas is huge, of course. We've just seen the biggest cross in the Western Hemisphere. There's a cowboy there, head on his saddle, hat tipped over face, sleeping under a tree. Just like the movies. He says he is riding to California and it will take him another three months.
Amarillo might take some finding but there's little extraordinary to see. Its a bustling city with busy interstates crossing it. There's a Route 66–Sixth Street Historic District a hub for dining and antiques, with art deco and Spanish Revival buildings, We're staying at the Big Texan Motel. Biggest of everything. The staff here are certainly hugely rude. Everyone else along the route so far has been really friendly and chatty. Though the Texans are bigger and brasher. The motel serves 72 ounce steaks in a giant saloon bar. All plush velvet, cowboys and moose heads. The best rooms are set up like colourful little gold rush town hotels with swing doors. But the nasty receptionist has put us in the Horse Hotel instead…..
We motor on across the Texas Panhandle. Today it's even flatter, flatter than Holland with far more windmills, though these are old fashioned metal pumps or whole seas of modern turbines. And we've just driven past a ranch with 28,000 cattle. We didn't count them but you can smell them. We have a surfeit of Longhorn logos. Or real horns, on the front of limousines.
We're collecting creatures too. There are so many insects that we can hardly see out of the windscreen for brown squiggles. The radiator grille is stacked full of carcasses. There are even whole locusts in there.
We visit an art installation. Some artists collectively called Ant Ranch were commissioned to shove ten psychedelically patterned Cadillacs into the middle of a field. You can add your own graffiti. (Yesterday we saw Bug Ranch, an ironic take on this, with four VW beetles.) An early lunch at the Midway Point Cafe. Only 1391 miles to go. Everything that moves (or doesn't) in the cafe bears a Route 66 logo, including the salt cellars. Dennis, the friendly owner, serves us his 'ugly pies'. They look ok to me. Perhaps they're called this because they are very sweet and make you fat.
In New Mexico the landscape is instantly softer. Blue-green hues, some gentle undulation again and delicate pork pie mesas. A little further in is a great long line of turbines perched on the top of a ridge like the Zulu army massing at Rorke’s Drift. Though I suppose that here it should be the Cheyenne.
It's a little cooler today, as there is more wind. The locals say it stops blowing for two days in October. And we can take it easy as we've just gained an hour. The hills grow taller and we roll through a canyon past the Rio Grande. This really is cowboy and Indian country.
Albuquerque is the biggest city in New Mexico. (Yet another song - in fact more than one....) There's a plate glass modern downtown, whilst Adobe Navajo and Hopi craft and jewellery shops line the cobbled streets of Old Town Albuquerque, which dates to 1706 . There's San Felipe de Neri Church, five museums, and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, which traces the area’s tribal history.
Everyone here seems to be Mexican. Well, it is New Mexico. I dust off my Spanish and we dine on pork and chilli. We are still suffering the next morning.
A relatively lazy day. A round trip of just 100 miles odd through the mountains and mesas (one eye open for Red Indians) to Santa Fe. This seems much less of a challenge than mainstream 66, but the GPS has a hissy fit and freezes every time I try to enter the words Santa Fe. So, we get lost again, ending up in the middle of a field. When we eventually arrive it is much smaller than Albuquerque but even more Mexican. Everything is low lying adobe.
But my God do you need money to shop here. It's all pristine art galleries, up market clothes shops and high end jewellery. Madam declines to negotiate for a discount on 1200 dollar boots thank you. We do go into a café though and rashly order carrot cake. We still haven't learned that we should only order one dish between the two of us in the USA. These slabs of cake are gargantuan. So we request take out containers and it's gateaux for every meal that day.
There have been more changes in scenery today than in Henry V. Travelling from Albuquerque to Holbrook in Arizona we have seen mesas, red desert, yellow desert, green plains, sand dunes, mountains, lava, limestone escarpments and climbed 7,300 feet over the Continental Divide. The temperature has veered from 55 degrees in the rain to well over 100 later. Our lips are parched after only ten minutes in the desert. How did these cowboys manage? We have only gone wrong once and that wasn't our fault. They shut the road. There are also uranium mines, a nuclear museum and the site of the first atom bomb test. Native Indian pueblos, trading posts and a glitzy Route 66 casino.
And all this before we hit the Petrified Forest National Park. Fabulous scenery in the Painted Desert first with multi-hued mesas. I liked the blue ones best.
Then to the 'forest,' which consists of petrified logs arranged artistically around, as they have been dug out of the lava and sand. We have to be interrogated to make sure we haven't taken any pieces away with us. Rangers keep popping up to check on us. Tina admires one lady’s eyebrows so we take her photo. (So far Tina has had her picture taken with a park ranger, a transvestite, a policewoman, John Wayne and Teeny Tiny, my travelling bear.) When we get out of the park there are lines of shops selling more pieces of petrified wood than we have seen in the whole forest.
We are staying in a very basic town called Holbrook in a very basic motel. It is right next to the rail road. Every time a train goes by the ground shakes. It's like being in an earthquake.
Winslow and we stand on the corner along with everyone else to Take It Easy. The second verse of the Eagles song refers to a time when Jackson Browne's automobile malfunctioned in Winslow, Arizona, requiring him to spend a long day there. In 1999, in responding to the lyrics that made it famous, the city of Winslow erected a life-size bronze statue and mural commemorating the song at the Standin' on the Corner Park.
Then a quick zip to Meteor Crater. The crater was created about 50,000 years ago during the Pleistocene era ( think open grassland dotted with woodlands inhabited by mammoths and giant ground sloths. This giant hole (diameter 1200 metres) was excavated by the impact of a nickel-iron meteorite about 50 metres across.
It's interesting, but a bit of a rip off at 16 dollars to peer over the edge and visit the tiny museum. Despite historic attempts to take the crater into public ownership , it remains in the hands of the Barringer family. They proclaim it to be the "best-preserved meteorite crater on Earth". Since the crater is privately owned, it is not protected as a national monument, but it was designated a National Natural Landmark in November 1967
We are muralled out and blasé about tepees by now. So a side trip to Phoenix south across greener bobbly desert is called for. I expect that the scenery will become ever more arid. Wrong again. It's all pine forest, pretty green and very hilly. In fact there are a lot of twisty turny mountain roads through the forest.
And then more desert, but mountainous desert with more twisty turny roads. This is the land of the Apache. Much fiercer than the Navajo if the films are to be believed. I'm anticipating them creeping up on us, but then things get even better. Cacti. Proper tall spiky cacti with prongs. It really is just like the movies. This is confirmed by the proliferation of ranches called The Ponderosa or The High Chaparral. I am a little disconcerted when I scramble out to take the obligatory pictures as I am assailed by gunfire. Am I really in a movie? Fortunately, it seems to be coming from a little further away, in the scrub. We beat a hasty retreat and kick back in Scottsdale. Palm trees and swimming pools.
This is where the Route 66 action really begins. Now we have a Mustang and sweep off north towards the Grand Canyon. It's a shame that the thunderstorms pursue us and we have to make a hasty and illegal stop on the Interstate to put the roof up. It seems for a while as if our canyon plans will all be dashed. But then the lightning retreats and the sun peeps out. We get our views across the spectacular toasty buttes of the canyon. And amused French tourists take our diving off the edge of the canyon Thelma and Louise photos.
First, back to Route 66 at Flagstaff for about a hundred miles. I have missed the road's quirkiness and endless variety. There is plenty of kitsch at Seligman, with mannequins cavorting in the road. Unfortunately, it attracts the tour buses from Vegas and so this is the first Route 66 spot that is heaving.
Then, on to Vegas itself, which, of course, is also heaving. En route, still more changes of scene. To begin with, exceptionally pretty forests and mountains with refreshingly cool crisp air. A complete rainbow - not quite shot of the storms yet - but mostly the sky is unflinchingly blue.
Then wide open spaces as The Mother Road deviates its furthest from the Interstates. Though I suppose I should have expressed that the other way round. Some meadows spread with custardy carpets of blooms, a canyon or two. Some very flat dirty yellow landscape with odd fluffy cacti as we skirt the Mojave Desert.
Then, another turn off at Kingman and past the Hoover Dam. The Hoover Dam is a concrete arch-gravity dam in the Black Canyon of the Colorado River, right on the border between Nevada and Arizona. Its construction, during the Great Depression, cost over one hundred lives. It was referred to as the Hoover Dam after President Herbert Hoover in bills passed by Congress during its construction, but was perversely renamed Boulder Dam by the Roosevelt administration in power when it was finished. The Hoover Dam name was later restored by Congress. The dam created Lake Mead, the largest reservoir in the United States by volume, when it's full and a popular recreational area. More dry smouldering mountains as we enter Nevada, and then the glittering lights of Vegas.
I know that my title is a cliché but the whole place is a cliché. Predictably the GPS has another strop and takes us on a tour of virtually the whole city before we arrive at our hotel tetchy and glowing. At one point the temperature reads 119 degrees.
Our room has a huge bathroom with a window into it, two flat screen TVs, a dishwasher (?) and a view down the strip and across the desert. The neon is commencing its action.
We eat a huge breakfast in the largest and most highly rated buffet in Vegas. Our room is extremely high up, on the fifty- fifth floor and it has a balcony (unusual in Vegas as there have been too many jumpers in the past). However, we are both too giddily frightened to venture out onto it. It is about as hot as it gets on the planet. There is so much traffic on the strip that the cars can't move.
A stroll and a bus down The Strip. We are awed by the famous fountains weaving sinuously at The Bellagio, volcanoes exploding and pirates dancing with sirens. The hotels are so enormous that it takes fifteen minutes to navigate across the frontage of just one. And that's if you can find a way through, as they cunningly try to inveigle you into the casinos. The people here are even more gargantuan than elsewhere. The restaurants serve the cheapest, most outstanding food in the USA - so they say.
I prefer the more happening vibe at Fremont Street, which is packed with tourists, live bands, wannabes dressed as every character you could possibly think of, swathes of flashing lights and (what else) The Biggest Screen on the Planet, splashing across the arcade roof.
Back down The Strip we buy super deal cowboy boots (what am I going to do with these in the South Pacific?) and stop for a drink in St. Mark's Square in Venice, watching the gondolas sweeping by. The Venetian (with The Palazzo) is the biggest hotel in the world and of course we get lost under its fake puffy cloudy skies. Then off to Paris to book seats for the Jersey Boys tonight. It's the best show in town, of course. Some time by one of the pools before we set off. It's the 'quietest', but it's jammed totally full of bodies.
It’s a very long day on the road, not helped by the fact that we oversleep due to our late show. The desert goes on forever and its brown scrubby desert now. The road is a veritable Big Dipper and we leave our stomachs behind at every crest. The temperature goes up and up. The only excitement is when the petrol gauge (sorry gas) starts to dip dangerously low in the middle of nowhere. It wouldn't be so bad if we could stick to the Interstate, but all the traffic lights from San Bernardino into the suburbs of LA on 66 make the journey interminable.
I get the impression that the Californians think that they don’t have to try very hard when it comes to Route 66. There are a few signs dotted around. But they have the beautiful people instead. The beautiful people, I have to say, give no quarter on the roads. It's hell on earth when we are allowed onto a freeway, careering round bends and getting cut up on both sides. It’s just like The Wacky Races. I discover that the brake on my side of the car is pretty ineffective. As well as the cartoons they have the movies. Everywhere we visit has been in a film. The Baghdad Cafe, Victorville (Kill Bill), Barstow, (Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). If it hasn't been in a film it's advertising its availability to be in one.
We progress slowly from the desert to the old winery and orange grove country. Palm trees proliferate and the countryside becomes green again as we wind through the foothills for the whole afternoon and evening. The foothills of what? I never did discover.
It's almost too dark to pick out the Hollywood sign as we lurch down Sunset Boulevard and through Beverley Hills. The Ferris wheel on Santa Monica Pier is glowing red and the End of the Trail sign is almost indecipherable. But we did it.
We are staying in Venice Beach. Brighton meets Blackpool. The beach is more Blackpool - huge and sandy. It's a pretty edgy area full of street performers and bars. But it verges on sleazy as well. We walk just up the road to Santa Monica, immediately going up market. Salcombe meets the French Riviera. Big expensive hotels and seafood bars. And this is Baywatch country. Lifeguards in red cozzies.
Afterwards we drive up Rodeo Drive with the roof down, though waving cameras out of the window rather spoils the effect. There are certainly lots of beautiful people here. I note that it seems de rigeur to have a tattoo nowadays to be a beautiful person proper. Not only are the beautiful people aggressive on the road they are very loud too. Everyone has a relationship to discuss at the top of their voice as they walk along the street. Usually with someone on the other end of a cell phone.
Hollywood is cold and wet, but there are the classic sights: Graumann's Chinese theatre and its pavement stars, Universal Studios (Jaws and the set for Desperate Housewives), The Sister Act church, the sign on the hills behind and a tour of Hollywood Houses, with a commentary on who is supposed to live where.
The LA galleries are well worth the time - there are heaps of them. One of the most notable is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA), in the Miracle Mile vicinity of Los Angeles. LACMA is on Museum Row, adjacent to the La Brea Tar Pits (George C. Page Museum). It's the biggest museum in the western USA. Up the coast, the Getty Museum. It's collection grew so big that it had to be split into two campuses. ]The Getty Center is located in the Brentwood neighborhood of Los Angeles and features pre-twentieth-century European paintings, drawings, illuminated manuscripts, sculpture, decorative arts, and photographs. The original Getty museum, the Getty Villa, is located in the Pacific Palisades neighborhood of Los Angeles and displays art from Ancient Greece, Rome, and Etruria. this is the one with with its over the top architecture and incredible views
And I acquire a taste for appletinis.
Not the best day. We decide to drive a hundred miles south to San Diego, nearly on the Mexican border, but everyone else seems to have the same idea. And there are a lot of people in California. The traffic is so ghastly on the freeway that we eventually give up a little short of our destination and spend the afternoon on the beach at La Jolla. Apparently there are road works, and a ball game and some horse racing all going on. The beach is just as crowded as the road, but entertaining. There are giant seagulls (what else?). They have the beach well under control. We watch one fly down and poop on the guy picnicking in front of us. The guy screeches and runs into the sea to wash. And the seagull swoops in and snatches his sandwich. Very funny.
Another meandering day. We wander north up the coast on an aptly named scenic highway that perches precariously above the ocean and then flattens out through the vineyards. Tina has finally realised what 'PED XING' painted on the road means. We hang out with the stars again, this time in Malibu, eating brunch at the mountain racquet club and trying to work out who lives where. There are basketball games on Venice Beach. The teams are a motley crew, but if the announcer is to be believed the players are all famous movie stars or ex Globetrotters. It's a good rah-rah atmosphere.
The clouds linger over the peaks, as they have all the time we have been here, and, come to think of it, every time I have visited LA. We are sitting on the beach as it's our last day, but we're shivering. We get tantalising glimpses of blue sky and scenic views. That really sums California up. It's beautiful and extreme, promises much and doesn't always deliver. When there is a prize on offer you get knocked over in the scrimmage. But I'm sad that my Route 66 excursion has finished. It has been a great trip. Now I'm off to the airport. Part II of the adventure is about to commence. The Cook Islands next.
Cuba’s not the easiest of countries to navigate. Simon Calder wrote in 1998 that you were 60 times more likely to crash on Cubana, the national airline than British Airways, and friend Pat is anxious to say the least. We've used BA to get to the Caribbean, but our internal flights are with Cubana. This is the biggest island in the Caribbean and it’s too large to drive across comfortably. Copious amounts of alcohol have to be supplied when Pat actually gets to see the ancient looking prop planes. They're all but duck taped together.
Travel by car isn’t much less stressful. Most of the transport is 1950s, due to the U.S. trade embargoes (wonderfully atmospheric – it will be such a shame if new cars and parts finally become available) and all the cars are owned by the Cuban government. We have to hire a car and driver. Very few of the Cubans speak English and my Spanish is limited, so we have to trust that instructions have been passed on properly and we’re going in the right direction. Many of the roads are still unpaved. It's not a promising start.
Cuba is an archipelago of islands. The main island, also called Cuba, is the largest island in the Caribbean. When viewed from the air it resembles a crocodile, so it is also referred in Spanish as “El Crocodilo” or “El Caima.” It's surrounded by four smaller archipelagos. This is the second-most populous country in the Caribbean after Haiti, with over 11 million inhabitants.
Cuba was a Spanish colony until the Spanish-American War of 1898, when it was occupied by the United States. It gained nominal independence as a de facto United States protectorate in 1902. Cuba struggled along, eventually, as a fragile republic until a coup in 1952, when Fulgencio Batista became the dictator. This oppressive and corrupt regime was ousted by the (eventual) communist movement, lead by Fidel Castro. Since 1965, the state has been governed by the Communist Party of Cuba. There have been strong links with the Soviet Union. These almost led to nuclear war, during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. Trade with the USA is still banned, as a consequence, as is most travel between the two countries, though diplomatic relations were restored a few years ago.
Voting in Cuba is legally mandatory. The literacy rate in Cuba is one of the highest in the world. And, Cuba has been involved in a, perhaps surprisingly, broad range of military and humanitarian activities throughout both Africa and Asia. People travel there for healthy treatments, which are well developed. However, this remains a poor country and a single-party authoritarian regime where political opposition is not permitted. Reporters Without Borders has characterized Cuba as one of the worst countries in the world for press freedom.
Havana, the capital of Cuba, is three cities in one: historic UNESCO listed Old Havana, affluent modern Vedado, and the newer suburban districts. We spend most of our time in the old town, with its narrow sixteenth century streets, Spanish squares, pastel houses, churches, imposing cathedral and mid twentieth century vibe. The fascinating Museum of the Revolution is also here, with its tanks and aeroplanes. They’ve even got Che Guevara’s blood stained clothes.
The people are friendly, in Spanish anyway, the men especially so. Except when I’m grabbed by the neck down a side street. The robber’s taken my silver chain and left me with long scratch marks. I’m a little shaken - I thought I had worn my ‘cheap jewellery’. The bars are lively, the musica is intoxicating, the hotel basic (groaning plumbing with spitting pipes) and the food pretty awful. Must-sees are La Bodeguita del Medio (home of the mojito) and the strangely cramped and barred establishment, La Floridita (cradle of the daiquiri) where Ernest Hemingway spent his time writing “The Old Man and the Sea,” and “For Whom the Bell Tolls” – and drinking.
A storm follows us on the road to Trinidad. There are corrugated roofs spiralling through the air and the water is rising on the road ahead. Then the car grinds to a halt. The driver seems perplexed, but eventually signs that we've run out of gasolene. It's not even a simple as fetching some in a container. There are few stations and besides, he doesn't have a can. After four hours, another car arrives to take us to Trinidad. Fortunately, it's stopped raining by then.
When we finally arrive, it’s a colonial gem with cobbles, bells and churches . They could have filmed the Good, the Bad and the Ugly here. Sugar cane is the second major crop in the country and Trinidad is the centre of this industry. We take a train ride through the Valle des Ingenios, to view the toy sugar mills in the cane fields. Now we're on the set of Gone with the Wind. Round faced mamas with spotted headscarves are dragging sacks and manning market stalls around the photogenic Tower of Izuaga. It's history is less appealing. It was built in 1751 to use as a watchtower to control the slaves. Sauntering on the beach, we're attracting quite a lot of male attention. They know enough English to shout out what they deem to be compliments, but it's persistent and eventually tiresome.
A twelve hour coach trip to Santiago (de Cuba). There's a water feature on board, the driver wants to be taught English (naturally) and the air conditioning is so cold that I'm concerned we're now going to end up like the carcasses in The Long Good Friday. And I'm travel sick of course. Santiago is the second largest city and very industrial. There is a smoke-belching harbour with an oil refinery, cement works and power station. It's also the original home of Bacardi. Bacardi rum hasn’t been manufactured here since the revolution, but there are plenty of other makes available. (Coco-cola is also banned by the way.)
Sightseeing here (again pursued by unwanted admirers) includes the El Morro Fortress, with its sea views and cannons, and a boat trip round minuscule Cayo Granma (great name), with its stilted red-roofed houses. We have an atmospheric hotel with a long veranda to sit on (drinking cocktails) and admire the gorgeous illuminated cathedral. 'Bella, bella', shouts the cook as he shuffles by.
Another bus, another full sick bag. Baracoa is the oldest settlement in the country, (this is where Columbus landed the first time he came) and it shows. It's lush, but crumbling. Nevertheless, our hotel has a fantastic setting, with a pool in an old fortress and stunning views over two bays and Anvil mountain. The drawback of course is the walk back down to town and back up. It's carnival time and the streets are crowded and humming with Afro Caribbean rhythms; the boys here are extraordinarily persistent. Hiss, hiss, 'Chica, Chica. Come and dance.' Pat insists that we retreat.
A flight (this is where Pat requires considerable soothing) back to Santiago and then another to Viñales. Viñales is the heart of the tobacco growing industry and wonderfully scenic. Green sponges of limestone hills rise majestically from cinnamon coloured soil, especially beautiful viewed first thing in the morning, with the mist swirling. It's a pastoral idyll, except that nowhere is exempt from cigar selling and ‘cigar factory tours’. Cuban cigars are promoted as the finest cigars in the world and we are educated in the different types available - and, sadly, offered a chance to roll one. Our driver, Paco, hurtles around, blowing kisses into the back seat, all the while.
Our final port of call is the island of Cayo Levisa. We travel by speedboat from Palma Rubia, to an isolated hotel on strips of sugary white sand, where the driftwood is artistically draped. The waiters, Louis and Reineldo attempt to teach me to salsa in the humidarium, where they keep the cigars, it’s too hot to dance outside. They’ve got a crafty bottle or two hidden away in there too.
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