The rainbow-hued streets of sizzling Havana are the stuff of legend; frequently gracing the celebrated pages of Greene and Hemingway. The city seems poignantly untouchable now; as if it belongs to an impossibly glamorous, long-lost era, when glitzy film stars and millionaires would flock to the city to gamble, drink, and give in to their vices. But - having refused to succumb to the political and cultural pressures of the rapidly evolving outside world - Cuba remains a dazzling time capsule, a living reminder of more alluring times. And there's nowhere better to be seduced by Cuba than its capital Havana; where heat, dance, and high passion continue to rule.
After plenty of Cuba-based reading, from Ernest Hemingway's "The Old Man and the Sea" to the more contemporary Dirty Havana Trilogy by Juan Pedro Gutierrez, it was time to actually go see the legendary city for myself. With Havana approaching its 500th birthday - set to take place in 2019 - and the city rapidly changing, from the launch of new hotels to the refurbishment of the old town, now seemed like the perfect time to visit. It was obvious why the colourful Cuban capital had captured the imagination of legendary authors, and yet there were many surprises along the way too. Here are my Havana highlights:
Havana's spectacular cultural diversity
It's unimaginable now, but Havana started life as a gargantuan coastal forest that provided a natural barrier against enemy nations and pirates who would seek to attack its shores. Indeed, the island's foliage was said to be so luscious that it was possible to get from one side to the other without ever entering direct sunlight. So how did the lively, urban Havana we see today - an undeniable melting pot of cultures - emerge from the tangles of a thick forest?
The Spanish colonised Cuba at the end of the 15th century, and used wood from the forest to build imposing warships, including the world-renowned vessel the "Nuestra Senora de la Santisima Trinidad". This is perhaps the most notorious invasion of Cuba, but centuries of immigration and colonisation mean people from France, England, Ireland, China, the Americas, and various African nations, have settled here over the years. Intoxicating hallmarks of this mixed culture can be found around every corner, frozen in time, from flamboyant flamenco performances to African dance parades, and even the unexpectedly named O'Reilly Street in Old Havana.
Bold depictions of Cuban revolutionary hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara and luminous graffiti tags are splashed over the walls of Old Havana. Wandering the streets, the ambience is languid and slow; cats lounge on painted doorsteps and underneath the classic cars, men sit around domino tables swigging rum, cigars resting in their mouths. Colourful shutters flung open reveal families gathered around TV sets in tiled rooms, while artists hunch over canvasses on the curb, topless in the heat. Every so often, a basket is lowered from one of the wrought-iron balconies overhead - an easy way to pass goods to friends and neighbours. You get the sense the streets are a vital part of the homes of "Habaneros": domestic life here happens both indoors and out.
A large renovation is currently sweeping the old town: many of these ancient homes are crumbling, and while some tourists may consider this picturesque, it's dangerous for inhabitants. Approaching the already refurbished section of the town, the paint gets brighter, the buildings less tumbledown, and people sit outside bars and restaurants sipping mojitos and tucking into Cuban cuisine in the sunshine.
Every so often the streets of Old Havana open up to reveal a magnificent plaza. The four main squares - Plaza de Armas, Plaza Vieja, Plaza de San Francisco de Asis and Plaza de la Catedral - are each spectacular in their own way, lined with exquisite churches and historical monuments. Sit in a cafe and survey the scene: due to the city's mixed heritage each building is unique, with the charming architecture ranging from Spanish Colonial to Baroque, Neoclassical or Art Deco.
Revolutionary history and Che Guevara
No matter where you go in Cuba, you'll discover hallmarks of the Cuban Revolution - from the Communist way of life to the street art that worships national heroes Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. Cuba's Communist movement took place from 1953-1959, so many of Havana's current inhabitants lived through this monumental shift. While much of the Revolutionary history is found in Santa Clara, and other parts of Cuba, there's still a lot to explore in Havana itself.
Head to the vast Revolution Square to lay eyes on the government buildings, which are decorated by striking portraits of the revolutionaries. Fidel Castro and Ernesto "Che" Guevara once toiled in these buildings - yet that is difficult to imagine, particularly regarding Che, who we're more used to seeing in images of guerilla warfare or on t-shirts, military beret planted firmly atop his head.
The 72,000 square-metre square is also home to the 109-metre-tall Jose Marti Memorial - which pays homage to the Cuban patriot - and the National Theatre. Furthermore, many famous public figures - from Castro to Pope John Paul II - have made speeches to the people of Cuba from this very location.
The Museum of the Revolution is housed in the "Presidential Palace" from the pre-communist era, containing insightful exhibits surrounding the Cuban Revolution and post-revolutionary life in Cuba. You can also catch a ferry to visit Che Guevara's La Cabana HQ, which includes an office containing a number of artefacts from his fascinating life.
The legend of Churchill and his cigars
It's no secret that Britain's iconic wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill loved Cuban cigars. After discovering them on a trip to Cuba in his early twenties, the politician was rarely seen without one, and his housekeepers would commonly complain he left a trail of ash behind him as he walked. There's even a story - famous among Habaneros - that he argued with a bellboy over a box of cigars during a stay at the Havana's iconic Nacional de Cuba Hotel.
So synonymous did his image become with cigars, that one of Cuba's most iconic brands - "Romeo y Julieta" - named a cigar after him. You can buy one of these - or one of the other Habanos brands - by visiting one of the many wood-panelled rum and cigar shops in Old Havana. Here you'll find trays of thick cigars, prices ranging from around 7 CUCs into the hundreds for a truly exquisite smoke.
John Lennon Park
One of the more unexpected highlights of a tour of Havana is John Lennon Park. The Beatles never visited Cuba, and indeed Cubans were banned from listening to the music of the "Fab Four" in the wake of the Revolution. However, after learning of Lennon's anti-Vietnam stance and subsequent harassment by the US government, Castro decided Lennon shared common values with the people of Cuba, and unveiled a statue of the musician in 2000. At the time, Castro said:
"I share his dreams completely. I too am a dreamer who has seen his dreams turn into reality."
Visit the statue of Lennon - who is reclining peacefully on a bench - in this tranquil park, and meet the "keeper of the glasses": the individual charged with placing the Beatle's iconic circular spectacles on the statue whenever visitors walk by. After the first unveiling, Lennon's glasses were stolen a number of times, before it was decided to appoint someone to the unique role.
Drink like Hemingway
Ernest Hemingway's passion for Cuba has been well-documented over the years. The American author made Cuba his home for around 20 years, and Cubans refer to him as "Papa" to this day. Hemingway was famously a fan of a tipple, so why not take his advice and take your mojitos in "La Bodeguita del Medio" and your daiquiris in "El Floridita"? Both of these legendary watering holes are still open today.
In La Bodeguita del Medio, located on a side street in Old Havana, you'll enjoy live music and a seriously vibrant atmosphere. Sip your mojito and gaze upon the messages that thousands of previous patrons have scrawled on the deep blue walls - or add your own. Cosy up to the man himself in El Floridita - a historic fish restaurant and bar not too far from La Bodeguita - where you'll find a bronze statue, bust, and a number of photographs of the writer.
If your appetite for Hemingway is yet to be sated, you can visit his famed hotel room, 511, at Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he lived for seven years in the 1930s. Enter the salmon pink building to see the room presented as the author might have left it, where he began his world-renowned novel "For Whom the Bell Tolls".
It's impossible to talk about Havana without mentioning perhaps its most enduring icons - the eye-catching classic cars that run to this day. There are around 60,000 classic American cars on Cuba's roads - although just 200 of them are convertibles. These colourful vehicles were brought to the island by the wealthy Americans who frequently holidayed there, and left behind once US citizens were prevented from entering Cuba.
The Cubans who now own these cars go to great pains to ensure they're sparkling clean and in working order: after all, these unique motors are impossible to replace, and a serious moneymaker for the Cubans that own them. In fact, some vehicles are entirely one-of-a-kind in Cuba. This makes Havana heaven on earth for classic car fans - and even if you're not, the thrill of bouncing around in the back of a hot pink Buick or Chevrolet as the wind blows through your hair makes for an unforgettable experience.
Will I return to Havana?
Absolutely. During my stay I saw many of the attractions the city has to offer, drank many, many mojitos, and had the time of my life exploring the colourful labyrinth of Old Havana. But it was the thrilling feeling of existing in this truly unique city, surrounded by history, colour, and so much life, that will undoubtedly draw me back there.