Cruise diaries: Cienfuegos, Cuba

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Sunrise as we approach Cienfuegos.

Whenever most Canadians think about Cuba, they think, sun, sand and all-inclusive resorts. Throw in a day trip to Havana, and you’ve got a winter get-away. However, that’s not how we travel these days. So, that recent trip to Cuba that we inadvertently discovered ourselves on found us touring the historical cities of this Caribbean island. You last found us dashing to the excursion desk on the Silver Spirit as the ship left Santiago de Cuba, so that we could cancel any and all future group tours. After spending the day with the Cuban guide and a bus load of Americans who seemed to have an odd relationship with one another, we did not relish a repeat performance. Cienfuegos would be on our own.

After spending the next day in Georgetown, Grand Cayman (an unprepossessing port call if ever there was one these days), we sailed into Cienfuegos with the sunrise.

 

After a leisurely breakfast in the dining room, and knowing that the bulk of the passengers had already gone ashore, we made our way to the tender and stepped ashore in Cienfuegos.

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Of course, this being Cuba, we had to go through immigration for the second (but not last) time. A ship’s crew member ashore pointed us up a street just outside the “port area” and so we walked.

It wasn’t long before we realized that this was the road less traveled – by tourists or anyone other than locals. The streets were lined with crumbling buildings that held the shadow of a former glory with their Spanish architecture. But these days, they are sad collections of what appeared to be residences.

We were lightly accosted by a local “taxi” driver who assured us he could take us to the town square. We protested that we prefer to walk (which we do), but he kept returning on the off chance that we had changed out minds. This happened at least five times through the morning. Who could blame him, though? There was no doubt he could have used the fare.

We finally emerged into the historic town square, after having missed the turn affording us a bit longer walk through the not-for-tourists area!

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Located some 250 km from Havana, Cienfuegos has a population of 150,000 and has a town centre that is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its collection of neoclassical buildings comprises six buildings from 1819–50, 327 buildings from 1851–1900, and 1188 buildings from the 20th century.

After cruising the town square, we walked through a variety of city streets teaming with locals. Where were the tourists? Nowhere to be seen.

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As we walked along, an older man who appeared to be North American, stopped us and said, “do you speak English?” We thought that he was going to ask for directions.

“Yes,” we said, “we’re from Toronto.”

“Oh, I thought you might,” he said. Of course, we didn’t look local.

In any case, he proceeded to tell us that he’s from just outside Toronto, and he spends the winters in Cienfuegos. What he wanted to tell us, though, was that we shouldn’t miss a chance to step inside the new Melia hotel that had just opened a block or so ahead. He told us it had a terrific view.

We took his advice and visited the hotel. What’s interesting is how different it is from the rest of the town as we had experienced it. New and shiny, the hotel is clearly trying t attract tourists for winter holidays.

We then made our way back to the ship, just in time to enjoy a drink on the deck! Next stop: Havana!

The Architectural Travel Experience: Art Deco in Miami Beach

art deco drawingLater on this month here in Toronto we’ll spend a wonderful spring weekend touring architectural gems in this city. For the past seventeen years our city has been celebrating its edifices with Doors Open Toronto. This is an extraordinary opportunity for locals and tourists alike to see inside the walls of buildings that are not normally open to the public, or that they usually just walk by obliviously. This year there are 130 open, and we will be visiting the Bloor Street United church (because we never go inside churches in Canada except for weddings and funerals), Billy Bishop Airport on Toronto Island (because we always fly out of Pearson International), the Campbell House Museum, Osgoode Hall, and the Arts and Letters Club or Toronto (because we walk by them all the time and have wondered about it), the Canadian Music Centre to name a couple. These buildings tell a city story, just like the stories told by the architecture in places we visit around the world.

For example, Barcelona (one of our very favourite cities in the whole world) provides one of the richest architectural travel experiences that should be on everyone’s travel bucket list in our view. How can you visit a city like Barcelona without marvelling at at least a few of famed architect Gaudi’s extraordinarily creative edifices? And who can visit Chicago without experiencing it Chicago School architectural marvels, or Paris without the Louvre? Or Miami Beach without the Art Deco?

So we did spend a week in Miami Beach this year enjoying the architecture which transports you (if you let it) back in time into the 1920’s, 30’s and early 40’s to a style the exuded glamour and pleasure. And where could the hedonistic aesthetic be more pronounced than in a place like Miami Beach? So as we did our walking tour of Miami Beach architecture, we imagined what it might have been life to stay on the beach in those art deco styled hotels in the 1930’s.

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The Blue Moon Hotel where we stayed in Miami Beach fit right into the Art Deco aesthetic.

 

The art deco district is located in the South Beach neighbourhood that has also been referred to as the American Riviera. (If you’ll pardon us, we believe that there is only one Riviera and it is in the south of France – there is no Mayan Riviera either!)

This area of Miami Beach is purported to contain the largest collection of 1920’s and 1930’s architecture in the world. There is no doubt about it that these low-rise buildings evoke a sense of history – a time when life was simpler and pleasure ruled the daily activities (as it still does today in this touristy area!).

We began our own walking tour at the Art Deco Welcome Center located at 10th Street and Ocean Drive where in the gift shop we bought a map guide to the important buildings. This is invaluable since it provides not only the location of the buildings but some of their history as well. Knowing each building’s exact provenance adds an important dimension to the enjoyment of the tour.

The art deco aesthetic is one that we particularly enjoy with its porthole windows, glass block and shiny surfaces, stepped roof lines, zig-zags, chevrons, sunbursts – these elements are what makes the buildings different than what is generally designed these days. And it tells a Miami Beach story – one you shouldn’t miss!

Rome: A City for (Walking) Lovers

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Take a beautiful, relaxing walk through the Borghese Gardens.

Rome has long been known as “The Eternal City” allegedly because the ancient Romans believed that wars may rage, tempests might descend, disasters could occur, but Rome would endure all – and it has to be said that looking at the city’s endurance throughout the millennia, they may just have been prescient. Rome, though, is also know as a city for lovers – in our view for walking lovers. If you want to come to love the eternal city, get yourself a pair of (fashionable) walking shoes and come with us.

 

We have visited Rome on three separate occasions at this point. The first visit found us on a group tour with a guide where we spent most of our real walking time in Vatican City and the rest of it viewing the city largely from the windows of a bus, with a walk around the Coliseum thrown in. By the time that visit was over we were certain of one thing: we had a distinct feeling of “been there, done that” about the Vatican which was now forever crossed off our bucket list, and we had no feel for a city whose streets we had not walked.

Our second visit to the city required a bit more planning since we wanted to take a private tour. We had only one day since we had arrived in Civitavecchia on a cruise ship. [As an aside: if you like to cruise, it’s a great way to get a brief feel for a city so that you can return to spend more time – and you need to note that the port of Rome which isn’t in Rome at all is an hour-and-a-half drive from the city itself.]

We booked a driver to pick us up at the port and whisk us into Rome where we picked up the guide. This driver-plus-guide is the only sensible way to do a private tour in Rome since there is nowhere to park at most of the places you’ll want to visit, and you don’t want to waste time. The driver could stop anywhere – and we do mean anywhere – drop us off and return with the click of a cell phone button. Our knowledgeable guide showed us the inside and outside of the Pantheon, many churches, the Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps etc. We loved every minute of it and yet we still didn’t have a feel for the city.

Then we went back on our own with three full days to conduct our own self-guided walking tour. We checked in to the Grand Palace Hotel, a beautiful, atmospheric property close to the Borghese Gardens and planned our attack.

We would set out in a different direction on each of the three days we would walk the city. We began at the Borghese Gardens because of their proximity and spent the first day exploring around that part of the city. The next day we set out to do Ancient Rome. We revisited the Coliseum, and this time actually went inside. When we arrived though, the line for ticket-buying was too long for us to waste time so we went off to the other ticket spot to gain entrance into Ancient Rome. Much to our delight, it was a two-for ticket so we then had our ticket in hand to go directly into the Coliseum when we returned. We recommend that or buy your ticket in advance.

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It was a fantastic day to walk the hills of Ancient Rome and feel the ghosts of the past.

Ancient Rome is a must-see to get any feel for what this great city was in the days of the Roman Empire. Make no mistake, it is a Roman ruin that has not been restored, but that is its beauty. The walls are real, the cobble-stone streets are real, the tiles are real, the arches are real – none of it is the well-intentioned rebuilding that is based on some scholar’s research. We took our time and walked. Then it was into the Coliseum. Again, the ruin is in its ruinous state and it’s magnificent. To see the labyrinth of halls and cubicles that formed the underground of the “main stage” fires the imagination as we pictured the gladiators fighting one another as well as wild animals and condemned men. Just blot out the sights and sounds of the milling tourists and the sensation grips you.

 

Of course we also spent a day walking the streets of modern Rome, browsing and window-shopping at the likes of Dior and Chanel. We dined in a number of lovely trattorias and savored a new wine each evening.

Is three days enough? If you plan your walking tour well and are prepared to walk seven to ten kilometres a day, you’ll likely end up as we did – with a real sense of the ancient and the modern of the city of (walking) lover

If you have a few minutes, we’ve captured the highlights in this video…