Havana. The very name evokes images of a seductive tropical paradise, off-limits and forbidden. Havana is sultry nights spent dancing with strangers and downing mojitos; it is high heels and red lips and vibrant flowers tucking back loose strands of hair.
Havana is rum and revolution; music and moros. It is a study in contradictions: Startling beauty and crumbling buildings; brutal dictators and a burgeoning arts scene. It is a city moored in time, never-changing and yet ever-changing.
Most importantly, it's where Fredo betrayed Michael.
But when we first set foot in Havana on a hot November afternoon on the tongue-twisting Perseverancia Street, my preconceived notions of this intriguing city are immediately dispelled. Dogs are barking, men are hollering. Children are crying and music is blaring. An old man with an impressive set of lungs is bellowing "CLORO!!!!" so loudly that it can be heard several blocks away.
I comprehend only snippets of Spanish as I carefully pick my way down the middle of a dusty street that is a veritable obstacle course of rocks, potholes, trash, and god knows what else. Directionally I'm at sea, and not yet convinced that the neighborhood we've chosen to stay in, Centro, is all that safe.
Yet amid this loud, crowded, dusty assault on the senses, there is beauty, so much beauty that I can't even begin to take it all in. Havana is stunning, like a tropical Paris, and I am torn between rejoicing in the city's magnificence and despairing at the senseless regime that has allowed so much of it to fall into ruin.
After just an hour or so in this noisy scrum, I am exhausted.
I am exhilarated.
I am falling in love.
Our journey began at the arrivals terminal at JFK -- yes, arrivals. Flights to Havana have their own private check-in area, tucked away at the end of a deserted, out-of-the-way corridor, which immediately gave the trip an air of secrecy.
And the flight itself had an aura of outright fantasy, seeing as how it was only about half-full.
A few short hours later, the island came into view.
We'd decided to stay at a casa particular -- the Cuban version of a B&B -- called Casa Densil. Praised as a "tiny gem" in Vogue, the magazine had also raved about Casa Densil's rooftop terrace and private feel.
We chose a casa over a hotel for the chance to live like real Cubans for a few days, though that usually also means living without air conditioning and even hot water. Casa Densil, however, offered both, along with a great location just a few blocks from the ocean and a short walk to Habana Vieja, the historical "old town" where many of the buildings date back to the 1500s.
We were greeted at the airport by a sweet ride -- a classic, emerald-green Chevy Impala -- and a sweet lady, Barbara, the daughter-in-law of Ezio, one of the owners of Casa Densil. We immediately noticed Barbara's accented Spanish, and were surprised to learn that both she and Ezio were not from Cuba, but from Italy.
Indeed, such is the allure of Havana that, although initially we couldn't fathom why anyone would voluntarily move to a communist dictatorship, by the end of our trip, the idea didn't seem so crazy.
Located just two blocks from the Malecón, or seafront promenade, Casa Densil was built in 1907 and retains much of its original architecture and decor.
Divided into two halves by an interior courtyard, the rental half of the casa consists of 3 queen ensuites plus communal living and dining areas, while the other half houses the owners' quarters.
Our bi-level suite consisted of a bedroom and small sitting area downstairs, with a vanity area and separate shower overlooking the courtyard upstairs.
One floor above, an expansive roof deck plays host to breakfast each morning, along with dinner under the stars by request.
Across the street, one of Ezio's friends was restoring one of Centro's many crumbling buildings to its former glory -- a small sign of progress.
After settling in and freshening up a bit, we set off to find the incongruously named Calle O'Reilly in Habana Vieja.
Named for Alexander "Bloody" O'Reilly, an Irish-born military strategist and Inspector-General of Infantry for the Spanish empire, today the street is home to some of the city's hippest bars and restaurants, including the one we were seeking, O'Reilly 304.
But first we had to get from Centro to Vieja. Centro has variously been described as no-frills and crowded, with LaHabana.com helpfully pointing out its potholed streets and "frenetic (even daunting) street life." It was, in fact, all those things, but it was also positively buzzing with the contagious energy of daily life in Havana. (LaHabana also noted that some of the city's finest restaurants are in Centro, and so I rest my case.)
As we approached Vieja, the tenor of the neighborhood began to change; it became prettier and better-manicured, but also more touristy and less authentic.
It was to be our first meal in Havana, and we were a bit apprehensive, having heard stories about some restaurants running out of plates, utensils, and even food. That was certainly not the case at the stylish O'Reilly 304, where we ordered up an assortment of mini empanadas, croquettas, and papas bravas, all accompanied by complimentary fried plantain chips studded with large slivers of garlic and served with a fiery salsa.
For bebidas, Angel decided to try the local beer, Cristal, while I took our waitress's advice and had a watermelon mojito.
The mojito was delicious -- strong and swampy, just the way I like 'em -- but I was surprised to find myself stealing sip after sip of Angel's crisp, refreshing Cristal.
After lunch, we explored Calle O'Reilly a bit, then made our way over to La Bodeguita del Medio, one of the most famous spots in Havana to sip a mojito.
Roughly translated as "the little bodega in the middle," La Bodeguita opened in 1942 as a small grocery store; later, it began offering snacks and drinks for the regulars. One day one of those regulars, a journalist named Leandro Garcia, decided to write his name on the wall, and soon many other distinguished personalities followed suit, including Brigitte Bardot, Ernest Hemingway, and the former president of Chile, Salvador Allende.
Today, La B del M is crowded and touristy, and the mojitos are nothing to write home about, but it was a must-do nevertheless.
That evening we had reservations at Habanera in Miramar, a short drive from Centro.
Before the Cuban Revolution, Miramar was home to some of Havana's wealthiest residents. After the revolution, however, Castro seized many of the mansions -- along with the owners' belongings and even their bank accounts -- in the name of "fairness." Today, Miramar plays host to many Cuban government officials, foreign embassies, and banks.
Habanera is housed in one of Miramar's prettier mansions, this one dating back to 1930.
We had to forego the spacious outdoor patio due to a quick pop-up shower, but dining indoors among the fabulous artwork and period furnishings suited us just fine.
We began the meal wth a couple of simply-prepared appetizers -- a green salad with serrano ham and parmesan and a fresh fish ceviche -- along with a rum Old Fashioned for Angel, and a fun Cuban cocktail for me.
For the main course, I chose the curried shrimp in coconut sauce, while Angel went with the chicken with chimichurri sauce.
Both dishes came with the politically incorrect, but very tasty, moros y cristianos -- black beans (the Moors) and white rice (the Christians).
It had been a long day of sensory overload, and we were dead on our feet by the time dinner wrapped up late in the night. And so we headed back to Casa Densil to get a good night's sleep for the mojitos, music, and mayhem that awaited us in the days ahead.