** hopefully will upload photos later – struggling with internet here 😘
Sunday 22nd September 2019
As we had an early morning flight, we checked into the Bloc Hotel inside the terminal at Gatwick Airport on the Sunday evening. Quite the experience. Slick service through from parking and registering the car, bus ride to the terminal and a smooth and friendly hotel check in. The room however was like moving around on a postage stamp – the bed took up most of the space and was cleverly tucked right up to the edges of the room leaving a small space for manoeuvring in through the door, with a bijou wet room en-suite to one side. You literally could have showered sat on the toilet! But such amazing design – all that you needed at your fingertips and the bed was huge and SO comfortable. The large TV was installed into the wall at the foot of the bed. After dinner in one of the terminal restaurants we tucked ourselves up in bed to watch the final episode of Peaky Blinders – it was so close it was like having Tommy in the room with us!! Would highly recommend this hotel experience – although probably a whole sight less precarious if one of you hasn’t got a broken foot!!!
Monday 23rd September 2019
We were up at 6.00am fresh as daisies and all checked in by 7.00am. We were impressed with Norwegian Airlines – for a low budget airline we found the service excellent, the aircraft was roomy and the food not bad at all. Of course it was a sort of no frills experience – luckily we had come prepared with film loaded iPad as the in-flight entertainment was non existent. But, considering what we had paid to get us as far as Miami, we gave it the thumbs up.
Now, Miami airport was not such a joyous experience. The airport personnel were SO stern and militant, I couldn’t help but giggle all the time at the seriousness of it all. We snaked for miles through passport control and then on reaching the desk we were interrogated police style and had our fingerprints taken. I maintained my British smile and eye contact but only a deadpan face was returned. Checking onto the flight and obtaining the Cuban visa was the easiest and quickest and most friendly part … and then it was on to the security. Well, it was like we were being lined up to go into prison or into the army. This rather large security officer barked instructions at us – “ 2 lines” “I said 2 lines” “walk now” “walk quickly” “stop” “stay in your line” “walk together” “come back, start again” …. and all the time sniffer dogs were being paraded around. I had to keep thinking of something serious so that I didn’t fall about laughing.
Relieved to get through in one piece, we checked onto our American Airlines flight to Santiago de Cuba. All good, had a delicious meal in the airport, flight was fine despite being surrounded by a large group of particularly noisy American fellows who were on a musical jolly (numerous musical instruments in the overhead lockers) to Cuba. Short flight and a more relaxed experience through Cuban passport control. Incredibly hot and humid, outside and in, even though it was 8.00pm local time. Baggage collection took some time and it was interesting to see some of the items coming through – lots of TVs and plastic clad bundles. The next mad situation was getting out of the airport – we had to queue and be checked one at a time to see that your luggage matched up to your details. But naturally, Cuban queueing is not polite British style – it’s a free for all. So in the end it was ‘do as the locals,’ we had to drop our principles and push our way through like everyone else. Once the doors opened, we faced a barrage of taxi drivers and hoteliers plying for business, so it was a case of further physically pushing our way through. Luckily our airbnb had arranged a driver for us and he dutifully showed up with sign displaying “Steve and Dee” … we had been rescued! The immediate impression of Cuba is one of a land that time forgot, one of tiredness and decay – the cars and buildings being the most visible signs. Yes, the old 50s American cars are something to behold – Cadillacs and Chevrolets a’plenty – but our particular transport tonight was a clapped out yellow Lada that rattled us all the way to ‘Casa Susy’ – our home for the next week.
Susy and her family are an absolute delight – we were greeted with warmth and shown our room which is perfectly comfortable. We had drinks on the terrace and met Beethoven the dog who was to become a close companion. English speaking is fairly limited in the household so broken Spanish, google translation and hand gestures are going to be in full use. We opted for an early night after our long and ‘interesting’ day. And both slept well despite thunderous rain.
Cuba is definitely going to be an experience!!
Santiago de Cuba
Tuesday 24th September 2019
Susy and her family had laid out a tremendous breakfast for us on the terrace. Seems like we may eat like kings. There was a large platter of home grown fruits, yoghurt, cereal, fresh bread rolls, preserves, luncheon meat and cheese and a freshly prepared omelette. Fruit juices, tea and coffee were also set out and cake arrived later. We are the only guests here – we’re not sure if that’s because it’s out of season – there is only one other room. So we are literally being lavished with Cuban hospitality. It is essentially their family home – Susy, her Aunty and her Grandmother and Susy’s boyfriend (who had been our knight in shining armour at the airport)! Our room is an annexe to the house and has air-conditioning (thank the Lord) and en-suite. And there’s a pretty garden area with swimming pool – not 5* luxury but certainly everything we need.
After breakfast we took a walk around the local area – we are quite some way out of the city, we find ourselves in the heart of Cuban village life. In some ways it looks run down but with the sunshine, the brightly coloured houses and the oversized green plantation, palms and vivid coloured flowers, there’s such a richness too. We found our way to the village market where there seems very little to sell but crowds gather all the same. Young boys circle around with their horse and carts … looking at the state of the poor horses this is definitely not to be encouraged. There are absolutely no tourists in sight, we must seem such an oddity. The people all look healthy and smiley – some greeted us, others just stared. We felt a little conspicuous in taking photos so just snuck in a discreet couple of selfies.
We enjoyed a bit of pool time on our return. 50 laps of the pool followed by some relaxation on sun loungers and getting stuck into a good book. The resident dog (Beethoven) and his sidekick cat hardly leave our side. The garden is surrounded by luscious fruit trees of numerous types and we are serenaded by cockerels, donkeys and grunting pigs in the neighbourhood. Overhead vultures circle in large numbers – always reminds me of the ‘Jungle Book.’
So, after a few hours of jet lag recovery, experiencing extreme heat and then a terrific downpour, we headed into the city of Santiago de Cuba. Susy had called us a taxi – another ancient Lada arrived – fills you with great confidence when the driver struggles to keep his door closed! And boy this is pothole city – makes for an interesting ride.
On reaching the centre we were struck by the magnificent buildings from a time gone by, carefully maintained and painted in appealing yet clashing colours. And in between there are what would seem to us derelict buildings, unkempt streets but with the charm of local cafes, rooftop terrace restaurants and music venues. We had clearly chosen a quiet time of day as there were few people around and definitely NO tourists! So we just had a good wander trying to be brave enough to select somewhere to eat. The decision was taken out of our hands as one of the many ‘promoters’ that linger in the city streets casually struck up conversation and before we knew it we were being guided to a rooftop restaurant with a view … and his company for the next hour! Our new friend, Odelquis, spoke some English which was comforting, and he was chatty and funny, but being sceptical British tourists we just couldn’t figure out what he wanted out of the deal. After a couple of rounds of drinks which he’d asked to be included in, and during which time he’d told us his life story and about his daughter and how poor he is (even showed us his empty wallet), Steve bravely asked him what he wanted. He said he wanted nothing and that he would leave us to have our dinner in peace, but if we could spare him a couple of CUC (about £1.50) he’d be grateful. We made a deal to meet up with him on Friday night so he could take us to a couple of music venues for which Santiago is famous – he was more than pleased with that – he was positively beaming!
The mojitos and beers had gone down jolly well so we ploughed ahead and ordered dinner in this restaurant (with a view!!), we had a friendly waiter and live music entertainment…. and were the only diners in the house. Now, how could you go wrong with grilled chicken, rice and salad? Well, for one, the ‘chicken’ neither looked nor tasted like chicken – in fact it was so heavily garlic flavoured that you couldn’t eat enough of it to determine its source. We were also presented with a huge plate of deep fried banana chips which started off tasty but were also so over doused in garlic and salt that the banana didn’t get a look in! Our Lonely Planet book had pre-warned us that Santiago was not on the map as far as decent eateries were concerned, maybe this is to be an understatement. We settled ‘la quenta,’ embarrassingly leaving the majority of our meals, making gestures to suggest that we were full. Why do we feel it necessary to do this!?
We made our way back to the main square and ventured into the posh looking terrace of the Hotel Casa Grand, having done our local bit!! We mused through the menu while enjoying a couple of night caps, only to find that the food here was cheaper than where we had just eaten. We suspect that the local restaurants must have menus with different prices for tourists – had we been done? …. we shall find out over the next few days.
Wednesday 25th September 2019
A leisurely morning followed by a cultural walk of the city of Santiago de Cuba. We headed out to the city about 1.00pm and stopped for some lunch on arrival … a ham & cheese toastie seemed like a safe option. So it was about 2.00pm when we embarked on our Lonely Planet suggested cultural walk – taking in places of interest and museums etc. It was a long walk downhill to start and this took us to the waterfront – some large boats but very little activity. It was pretty enough I guess and there was some loud music blaring out in the park – sadly not live entertainment, it was coming through speakers! We wandered on … now following the uphill route. It was incredibly hot by this time and so humid – “mad dogs and Englishman…” springs to mind! To be honest we were struggling to locate said places of interest but then spotted some terracotta steps that were mentioned. Although feeling a little drained by this point we climbed them – unfortunately it was a climb too far and at the top I was suddenly overcome with heatstroke. I’ve suffered with this a couple of times in our last couple of years of travelling and so know the symptoms all too well. I had to sit on the kerb in the shade and moan and groan with tummy pains and nausea. Unfortunately my ham and cheese sandwich made a guest appearance!!! Eventually I mustered up the energy to walk on and had a shaky walk to a hotel for a mad dash into the toilets! After some shade and lots of water my body recovered. Managed a mooch around the cathedral but sadly that was the extent of our cultural afternoon.
Came back to our ‘casa particular’ for a refreshing swim. Susy cooked for us tonight – a delicious spaghetti bolognese – enough to feed an army. For a poor country they certainly don’t scrimp on portions … and to be blunt, they all look well fed! We’d managed to purchase a rather large bottle of Spanish red wine in the city which we enjoyed with dinner … well it was drinkable, let’s leave it at that!
Thursday 26th September 2019
Treated ourselves to some internet time after breakfast. It’s so weird how much of a culture shock it is not to have internet access at your fingertips, even for old fogies like us! It’s incredibly hard to get hold of and incredibly expensive when you do.
We hadn’t realised until a few weeks before travelling that we were actually coming during the hurricane season. Touch wood, no sign of too much wind yet but boy does it rain … fortunately it’s mostly during the night but occasional daytime downpours too. But today it is hot hot hot. So we enjoyed some pool time, swimming and lounging (mostly in the shade)!
Late afternoon we went to the bus and train stations to try and organise our journey to our next stop of Camaguey on Monday. To say nothing is simple in Cuba is a complete understatement. We had pictured meeting an English speaking driver who would willingly ferry us here there and everywhere – have yet to stumble across such a person. Instead we were met with serious faced personnel speaking only Spanish and showing no understanding of our pigeon-Spanish. It’s so weird how things happen though – there was a young Cuban girl there who was trying to journey herself and she spoke perfect English … and she came to our aid. It turns out there are no trains running and the bus cannot get enough fuel. She did however introduce us to a taxi driver who has said he will take us to Camaguey for CUC40 each … and there will be others in the car too. And it’s a much more substantial looking car! So we made the arrangements – now we just have to see if he turns up on Monday morning …. at least no money has exchanged hands yet.
After that we took a walk up through an area called the Oriente which is slightly more western than we had discovered before … but still no tourists! We made our way to what has become our favourite spot – the Hotel Casa Granda – our safe haven. We took the lift up the roof garden today which had amazing views over the city. When the cathedral bells rang out to the tune of ‘Ave Maria’ it was so atmospheric – as was the sky.
We downed a couple of beers and then decided to brave the food – Steve had beef fillet and I had grilled pork … both came served with tinned vegetables!! It was edible but meat quality here certainly leaves a lot to be desired. It seems such a classy rooftop restaurant, and large, but again we were the only diners there!
We listened to some Cuban musicians while waiting for our arranged taxi. Fortunately the heavens opened just after we had got into the car. We were laughing at the ‘one wheel on my wagon’ scenario … the taxi only had one working wiper blade and it was torrential rain …. luckily it was on the driver’s side!
We got back to Casa Susy to find there was a power cut. So we polished off our red wine by candlelight and retired to bed once the power was back on and the A/C was back in use.
Such is the life of two aging adventurers 🤣😘