Wandering the streets of Havana Vieja is like a photographer’s wet dream. I walked from the historic Hotel Nacional with its crystal chandeliers, ornate furnishings, and pictures of stars who had visited from the 1920s to today. I walked through the crumbling sections, with the locals playing football, baseball, or dominoes in the street, and finally to the touristic “Havana vieja,” refurbished, reconstructed, and fit for outside eyes.
Like a post-apocalyptic Cartagena, vines and decay are well on their way to reclaiming parts of the city . Stunning art deco buildings are crumbling in disrepair. Bullet holes in buildings stand as ghostly reminders to the class war that ended Batista’s era of opulence. It would be tragic, but for the vibrant Cubans living in the ruins. The juxtaposition of the glorious architecture and the inhabitants, each one a story in him or herself is incredible. It is like walking back in time.
Cars from the ‘40s, and ‘50s line the streets. I had heard of this phenomena, but I thought it would be one or two, but no. Every second car is a beautiful vintage automobile. The engines have been replaced by Russian diesel motors, but the shape that they are in is fabulous.
One of my favorite corners had a building that said it all. The skeletal remains of a building with the street sign “Havana” still hanging on the corner. A Canadian cruiser I know lamented the art deco buildings falling into ruin. No amount of reconstruction could help these buildings. Not when the rebar skeletons of the buildings had rusted and collapsed.
According to him what they needed to do was just to tear the buildings down and rebuild them from the inside out. Brushing up the exteriors wouldn’t prevent the building from collapsing in a year or two. When I peered inside some of the buildings I was shocked. Many of the buildings with passable exteriors were destroyed inside. But with Havana a UNESCO world heritage site it was illegal to tear the buildings down.
In the potholed streets surrounded by dilapidated grandeur, fruit sellers pedal their wares, children play games, and day to day life continues. But one story up, buildings appear in better repair. The people leaning out over their balconies and interacting with one another from on high fascinated me. The colorful clothes hung out to dry and their residents washing windows, chatting, or gazing out at their surroundings piques the curiosity.
I am overjoyed that I got to see Havana when I did. Before it was flooded with American tourists. Before it was remodeled into something else entirely.
This French toast is a delightful twist on the normal style. More than that you can just throw it in the oven and then everyone’s breakfast is ready at the same time.
To me rum always gives French toast a little something extra and, of course, some of the best rum in the world comes from Cuba.
My absolute favorite rum is a Cuban brand called Legendario. The sweet nectar is certainly meant to be sipped in small quantities than mixed or (god forbid) used for cooking. Okay, it’s more of a liqueur than a rum. Even though I didn’t actually use this delicious drink in cooking I thought a picture of the bottle was necessary when writing about Cuba.
Cutter Cuban French Toast
Makes 6 portions
- 1 ½ c butter
- 1 ½ c sugar
- 2 T molasses
- 2 t cinnamon
- 1 t nutmeg
- 1 French baguette, sliced in about ½” slices
- 1 T vanilla
- 8 eggs
- ½ c milk
- ½ c rum
- 2 T sugar
- Preheat oven to 350° F 170° C
- Combine butter, 1 ½ c sugar, molasses, 1 t cinnamon, and nutmeg in saucepan
- Cook over med-low heat stirring occasionally until sugar dissolves and mixture is uniform
- In a small bowl whisk together vanilla, eggs, milk, rum, and remaining t cinnamon
- Arrange bread in greased baking pan in two layers (a lasagna pan is ideal)
- Pour egg mixture over bread
- Bake ½ hour or until center has risen slightly
Remember to take all of it out of the pan immediately. When the sugars cool they will harden and stick!