Behind Havana’s Doors

Written by Juliet Barcely, Photography by Miguel Angel Baez and Jorge Gavilondo

Cuba’s capital is a city of secrets. Architectural secrets, historical secrets, cultural secrets, scandalous secrets. To discover what goes on behind Havana’s doors requires diligent study. All along her streets you sense the life seething behind the ancient, sun-blistered portals. From within the buildings come snatches of song, bursts of laughter, amorous mutterings, explosions of music and the odd shrill scream of rage, but the doors remain firmly closed against the searing heat and all-permeating dust. Sometimes there’s almost noone to be seen in the streets, but what isn’t seen by the habaneros is often imagined and elaborated upon in extravagant gossip sessions behind closed doors, in which reports, rumours and Radio Bemba (bemba=lips) lavishly embroider upon the truth.

Only a small proportion of visitors to the city see behind her doors, either literally or metaphorically. Seeking sun, rum and romance, tourists reel merrily between beach, pool and the occasional day trip without ever appreciating the intoxicating complexity of this irrepressible city, whose qualities are so amply shared by its inhabitants. If you’re contemplating a trip to Cuba, your enjoyment and understanding of the country will be increased a hundredfold if you take the time to understand what lies behind Havana’s enigmatic doors.

Firstly it’s essential to open some of them. The sumptuous mansions of Old Havana were built by Mudéjar architects from Andalucia, and the Moorish stylistic tradition of ?houses whose designs shun the dazzle and dust of the streets in favour of the flower-filled shade of their inner courtyards can clearly be seen in La Habana Vieja. Long, apparently featureless walls are punctuated with massive mahogany portals which, if you push hard enough, will slowly swing open to reveal spectacular interior delights of columns, arches, stained glass, fountains and flower gardens.

The architectural marvels are not limited to Old Havana, however. The city is encircled by Renaissance and 18th century fortifications, and radiating outwards from the small nucleus of the Historical Centre is wave upon wave of stylistic development: Neoclassicism, Neobaroque, Art Nouveau, Art Deco, Modernism and wild combinations of the above which have perforce to be described as Eclecticism because no one can quite decide what else to call them. In many cases, buildings still retain their original decorative schemes and furnishings in aesthetic statements of amazing intensity.

Other doors open onto considerable cultural surprises. Pass through those of the Gran Teatro de La Habana to see the best opera and ballet in the Caribbean and amongst the best in the Americas. Behind those of the old Asturian club lies a world-class collection of international art. Heard some incredible salsa emanating from an anonymous-looking apartment building in Centro Habana? Don’t knock, noone could possibly hear you through the racket, just open the door and be enveloped in a steamy maelstrom of rum, casino and hilarity. Want to buy presents to take home? Shove on the big plate-glass door beneath the ornate canopy at the corner of Mercaderes and Obrapia to find yourself in the cool, scented atmosphere of Habana 1791, where experienced aromatherapists blend bespoke perfumes and seal them in ornate bottles.
Longing for the perfect cigar? Climb a small stair from the courtyard of the house of the Count of Villanueva, teeter along a creaky wooden passage and open a modest door into one of Havana’s very best, most picturesque and most anonymous cigar shops, where many aficionados from overseas maintain private humidors. Feeling a little faint after too much sightseeing? Open the mysterious door of the Museum of Chocolate.

Only vaguely a museum (a scattering of artefacts and some engaging wall panels), it’s really a temple to chocaholism, where tantalising truffles are made in front of you by graduates of the Cuban School of Chocolatiers.

Other doors open to reveal Havana’s fabulous nightlife. Those in the know begin their evening by ushering their friends through the pink, pearlised portals of a classic Cadillac, cocktails in hand, to cruise up the Malecón ocean drive at sunset, en route to dinner in one of the local paladares, restaurants run in private houses. Behind a slightly sinister door in a crumbling palace in Centro Habana lies Paladar La Guarida, patronised by everyone from Jack Nicholson to the Queen of Spain – don’t leave Havana without tasting La Guarida’s fabulous New Cuban Fusion food. After dinner, swing through the magenta leather doors of the Copa Room nightclub to see a wildly glamorous Fifties cabaret and lap up daiquiris as you lounge on the overstuffed aubergine banquettes.

Every year, there’s a night on which every door in Havana is flung wide open. This is New Year’s Eve, for which everyone in the city prepares for months. Most people eat dinner with their families then sally forth to spend the rest of the night drinking and dancing in and out of all their friends’ houses. Perhaps the most spectacular place for visitors to the city to be on the night of December 31 is La Plaza de la Catedral, where the entire square is converted into a scintillating outdoor party with a superb dinner, cabaret and dancing to some of the city’s best musicians. Book early to be sure of a good table; you’ll have the time of your life and, in the early hours of January 1, happily the worse for wear after a dizzying night of rum and riot, you’ll stagger back to your suite at the Hotel Saratoga and, with a sigh of delicious exhaustion, firmly close the door.

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