Food Traveler Magazine Winter 2016 - Page 77

The Bay of Pigs. The Cold War. The Cuban Missile Crisis. Say “Cuba,” and that’s what comes to mind for many Americans, but all that seemed like a distant dream when the 704-passenger Adonia, a cruise ship operated by Fathom Travel and owned by Carnival Corp., sailed into the Port of Havana on May 2nd. Dancers gyrating to a hypnotic Afro-Caribbean beat welcomed us to the island nation that has always been so close, yet so far away because of decades of travel restrictions. As we made our way through the terminal, the pulsating rhythm built to a frenetic crescendo, ratcheting up the excitement surrounding the historic maiden voyage of the first American cruise ship to sail from the United States to Cuba in almost 40 years. I felt privileged to be part of it all. The recent thaw in U.S.-Cuba relations has many Americans eager to visit the mysterious, beguiling neighbor that echoes with music and shimmers with heat. Because Cuba’s tourism infrastructure is in its infancy, a seven-day cruise that docks in Havana, Cienfuegos and Santiago de Cuba is an attractive option. OLD HAVANA A walking tour of Old Havana, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, showcases centuries-old architectural gems from the Spanish colonial period. Majestic renovated buildings, many painted in rainbow pastels, line five cobblestoned plazas. These venerable grande dames wear their wrought iron balconies and stained glass windows like eye-catching, heirloom jewelry. But stray just slightly off the plazas, and the scene changes from one of resplendence to one of neglect and decay. Paint peels from graffiti-blemished buildings like blistered, sunburned skin. Rust runs like dirty tears from wrought iron balconies. For every building that has been restored, there are at least two that have not, but that’s Cuba – a juxtaposition of the best and worst of everything. I tried to imagine Havana in the heyday of its mid-century glamour. In the 1940s and 50s, the capital city was the epicenter of hedonistic nightlife for American celebrities who flocked to this sultry, tropical playground, checking their inhibitions at the airport upon arrival. A night on the town meant dressing to the nines and trying your luck at one of the many Mafia-owned casinos or taking in an over-the-top cabaret show at the famous Tropicana. The casinos are long gone, but the 77-year-old Tropicana is still a Havana hotspot, enticing tourists with sexy, longlegged showgirls sporting feathers, sequins and little else. Aside from a never-ending parade of vintage cars, the club is one of the few things that survived the 1959 revolution. A DAY WITH THE DEAD A cemetery may seem like an odd choice for a shore excursion, but at Cementerio Cristóbal Colón, I was immediately struck by the ethereal beauty of the 136-acre sprawling burial ground named for Christopher Columbus. Ornate mausoleums, crypts and family chapels in architectural styles ranging from classical to art deco make the place feel more like a charming sculpture garden than an ancient necropolis. As I wandered among the imposing statues, the soft strumming of a guitar reached me, and I felt compelled to find its source. In Cuba, impromptu musical performances have a way of popping up almost anywhere, but I didn’t expect it here. I followed the soothing melody to a crowd of women gathered reverently at a towering marble sculpture of a mother holding a baby. It was the grave of La Milagrosa or “The Miraculous One.” Amelia Goyre de Hoz died in childbirth in 1901, and her infant son soon followed. The pair were buried in the same coffin, the baby at the feet of his mother. According to legend, when the tomb was opened, the baby was cradled in his mother’s arms. La Milagrosa is an unofficial saint, revered as the protector of children. Many women visit her grave to pray for a healthy pregnancy. In a particularly poignant moment, a young woman flung herself at the venerated monument, FoodTraveler l Winter 2016 75