December 17, 2014

Discover the Allure of Havana - Cuba's Fiery Capitol!

Once described as an old woman with bright eyes, a walk along the narrow, tattered streets of Havana – Cuba’s capitol city – will reveal a place steeped in Spanish, African, American, and indigenous Taíno influences that have created a rich cultural tapestry and fiery energy that will lure you at every turn.

The sultry island of Cuba sits among the crystalline waters of the Caribbean Sea. A stomping ground for pirates and a fortified slave port for the Spaniards, for centuries Havana enjoyed the luxuries of being a beautiful, prosperous and renowned city. 
In its 30s, 40s and 50s heyday, Havana was the legendary playground for America’s rich, famous and notorious jet-setters. Mobsters like Lucky Luciano and famous celebrities the likes of Marlon Brandon and JFK would come to enjoy the Tropicana’s legendary cabaret shows and girls, high stakes gambling, premium cigars and cocktails. This celebration continued well into the night until the day the party stopped when Fidel Castro forever changed the fate of this once thriving capitol.    

Today, years of socialism have turned Havana and the rest of Cuba into a shell of her former glory with most of its grand Spanish Colonial and Beaux Arts buildings in ruins. But life goes on, its energetic streets filled with rumbling old American cars, Che Guevara iconography, laundry on wrought-iron balconies, lively characters and remnants of a celebrated past. Though disheartening to see such magnificence weathering away, this is also part of its charm, and much like Cuban’s themselves, a symbol of beauty and endurance in the face of adversity.  
A stroll into the UNESCO protected district of Old Havana where restored buildings line its cobblestoned streets will provide you with a glimpse of what Havana must have been like in the 1500s and 1600s when it was the Western hemisphere’s most beautiful city.  Sites not to miss in La Hababa Vieja as the Spanish call it, are the Castillo de la Real Fuerza castle, Plaza de Armas, the Artesanía crafts market, Santa Clara Convent, Paseo Martí and the Museum of the Revolution. In Plaza de la Catedral, colourfully dressed, cigar-chomping women fill the square and will happily pose for a picture for a tip. There are also plenty of museums, art galleries and bars.

In the evening, take a walk along the spectacular Malecón boardwalk where waves crash against the seawall and the Bay of Havana is illuminated by the setting sun.
For music and drinks, head over to Ernest Hemingway’s favourite bars - El Floridita and the Bodeguita del Medio – where you can enjoy the best daiquiris and mojitos. Though filled with tourists eager to experience a piece of the literary legend’s beloved Havana, thankfully they don’t lose their appeal as a result. Hemingway found an abundance of inspiration in his adopted Cuba. It was here he wrote some of his most celebrated novels: For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Old Man and the Sea, and A Moveable Feast.

The streets of Havana echo with pulsating Rhumba, Salsa, Afro-Cuban Jazz, and native Son beats. Enjoy a live performance at Café Paris, Bar Monserrate, Café Habana, the Bodequita del Medio, or the Benny Moré Rehearsal Lounge. This infectious music will have you dancing all day long!
Havana is the birthplace of premium cigars and here you will find the world’s best, along with a superb selection of rum. Take a journey back in time by visiting a Cuban cigar factory where they are expertly hand rolled. Then visit one of Havana’s cigar shops where you will be inspired to purchase at least one.

Finding the perfect accommodation in Havana is made easy with the IBEROSTAR Parque Central. Long considered the best hotel in Havana by Trip Advisor fans, this elegant Spanish colonial-style property perfectly echoes the rich beauty that surrounds it and is located in the heart of Havana within walking distance of the city’s greatest attractions.
After a few days of enjoying Havana’s vibrant culture, why not end your holiday by relaxing on one of Cuba’s spectacular beaches. With more than 4000 smaller cays and islets that surround this tropical island the selection is endless. Here are two worth noting.  

Located two hours east of Havana is the award winning, colonial inspired IBEROSTAR Varadero that occupies a privileged location on one of the Caribbean’s most legendary beaches where warm turquoise waters kiss the sugar-sand shore.
Built on Cayo Ensenachos next to two unspoiled beaches amidst lush vegetation is the magnificent IBEROSTAR Ensenachos. This expansive colonial style paradise has two stunning white sand beaches that stretch more than 2.6 km with turquoise-green waters that will take your breath away, Playa Megano and Playa Ensenachos.

A vibrant culture, unspoiled beaches and renowned hospitality have made Cuba a preferred holiday destination. When planning your winter getaway this year, think Cuba!
 
Images are all taken by me and feature Cayo Ensenachos, Havana, the town of Remedios and Varadero Beach.
 
Look for this article in the new issue of Whatever Vaughan Magazine on newsstands now.

December 16, 2014

November 13, 2014

Exploring Cosenza - Calabria's Officially Declared "City of Art"

Calabria’s officially declared “City of Art” is a cultural, historical and artistic hub characterized by mountains, valleys, hills and hundreds of miles of spectacular coast.

Cosenza’s magnificent landscape is incredibly diverse and runs from the Tyrrhenian shores in the west to the Ionian coast in the east, from the Pollino mountain range in the north to the Sila plateau. It is one of the most populated provinces in Italy with 155 municipalities occupying 44% of Calabria, in essence the whole northern and central part of the region.
 
Steeped in history dating back to prehistoric times, Cosenza’s roots can be traced to the Magna Grecia, Romans, Normans, Angevins, Aragonese and Spaniards. This rich history is reflected in local traditions, architecture, culture, and celebrations like Montalto Uffugo's Saracen Festival that unites the past and present. The province is also home to many Albanian communities who still speak the language to this day.

Rising above the confluence of the Busento and Crati rivers, on the seven hills, is the capital city of Cosenza that bears its name. It is one of the most ancient cities in Calabria. According to legend, the Goth king Alaric was buried with all his magnificent treasures in the bed of the Busento River. Here too, in the Duomo (Calabria’s first UNESCO World Heritage Site), is the mausoleum of Isabella of Aragon who died after falling from her horse on the way home from the Eighth Crusade.

Il Duomo, Cosenza - Images from Tutto Citta.
The city’s picturesque old town, known to locals as “Cosenza vecchia,” cascades down to the river Crathis and sits in the shadow of the 13th-century Norman castle. Its historical centre is one of the best preserved in Italy with a labyrinth of streets that wind around beautifully renovated palaces, medieval piazzas and old craft shops. A great place to enjoy views of the city and surrounding mountains is the ancient castle in Piazza Frederico II.

Bilotti Open-Air Museum, Corso Mazzini Cosenza
The modern part of the city lies to the north, beyond the Busento, and is where you will find the famed Corso Mazzini. This charming pedestrian street is lined with beautiful boutiques, cafés and restaurants, and is also the location of the Bilotti Open-Air Museum. Here, you can enjoy a stroll to purchase all your favourite Italian designer goods while gazing at impressive modern art sculptures. Cosenza is known as the “Athens of Italy” because of its rich historical and artistic heritage. The Cosentina Academy, for example, is one of the oldest in Europe and promotes culture, artists and scientists. There are also numerous libraries and theatres, like the traditional Teatro A. Rendano, that host year-long theatrical events. The University of Calabria is also located here.
 
The entire province is a cultural hub and offers an incredible palette for art lovers to explore. In Cosenza, the Brettii Museum and the Museum of the Rimembranze are a must see. It’s also worth visiting the Diocesan Museum of Sacred Art in Rossano and Praia a Mare’s museum of contemporary art. A drive along the Tyrrhenian coast will take you to Diamante, nicknamed the City of Murals; it is one of the country’s most artistically inspiring cities with more than 200 colourful murals that grace the walls of this pretty seaside town. The tradition began in the 1900’s by artists who could not afford canvas and began painting on the town walls. In 2008, project Muralespanso was launched and now attracts international artists who paint new works of art.

Corigilano Calabro, Cosenza - Images from Tutto Citta
The variety of landscapes in Cosenza provides the perfect backdrop for numerous outdoor sports and activities. Its close proximity means you could start your day rafting and canoeing in the massif of Pollino, then wind surf, water ski or swim on the coast, to finally hike and camp in the Sila National Park, all within an hour’s drive. It’s also worth noting that the Sila is one of the last great stretches of European forest still intact and a favourite ski destination in winter months.

All along the Tyrrhenian and Ionian coasts, enchanting seaside villages like Scalea, Diamante, Cetraro, Amantea and Cariati grace the coastline. There are also numerous waterparks and beach resorts equipped with loungers and umbrellas. For the devout, a visit to the coastal town of Paola to visit the Sanctuary of San Francesco di Paola is a must. The sanctuary is situated above the town and is a place of pilgrimage from throughout Southern Italy, especially Calabria, of which St. Francis is the patron saint.
 
Cetraro, Cosenza - Images from Tutto Citta
When it comes to food, the Province of Cosenza has many culinary specialties. There’s tijeddra (pasta and potatoes), lagane e ciciari (thick tagliatelle and chickpeas), fried potatoes and pipareddre (peppers), as well as fried cod, and spaghetti with anchovies and fried breadcrumbs.

In the sweet department, try the cuddrurieddri (salted doughnuts), the turididdri (pastries covered with figs and honey), the scaliddre (sugar-glazed pastries), and the mostaccioli (focaccia bread made with honey or figs, mulled wine, flour and almonds). We recommend accompanying your dessert with a refreshing anise liqueur from the region.

Look for more of my articles on Calabria featured in the Calabria dossier of Panoram Italia Magazine.