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The Cadillacs and Dance Shows are Fun, but real Havana - beyond the Cliches - is More Exciting
Old Havana ... replete with 'the ramshackle glamour of an abandoned stage set', in the words of Pico Iyer

Cuba has one of the coolest, most easily identifiable images of any travel destination: the shiny 1950s Cadillacs, salsa-ing mulattas, the Buena Vista Social Club, and what the travel writer Pico Iyer described as "the ramshackle glamour of an abandoned stage set" are instantly recognisable, even to those who have never been. So successful is the branding that the country even manages to make smoking look cool - with its visits to cigar factories and ubiquitous posters and postcards of Che Guevara puffing on a huge Havana. It is such a seductive combination that even tea-total, non-smoking right-wing tourists invariably leave clutching a bottle of Havana Club, a pack of Monte Cristos and a Che T-shirt.

I love Havana. It beguiles and intrigues like no other city I know, but it is also one of the most difficult places to explore without bumping into a cliché; to go beyond the classic cars, the dancing shows and the mojitos and hang out with the locals.

Old Havana boasts more colonial buildings than any other city in the New World, as well as most of the city's state-run tourist hotels, bars and restaurants. This is where the government wants you to spend your hard currency and where most tourists spend their time. But on my second visit I soon tired of being serenaded by the Buena Vistas. I had been to the Old Town, done the cigar factory and brought the Che T-shirt three years ago, and besides, there is so much more to Havana. Despite its relative isolation over the past 50 years, it punches way above its weight in all the arts and, is, along with Mexico City and Buenos Aires, one of the three most important cultural centres in Spanish-speaking America. The only problem is knowing how to find its gems . . .

I couldn't believe, for example, that no one in Havana and none of the guide books mentioned the magical barrio of Jaimanitas. Here, the renowned Cuban artist José Fuster, a long-time resident, has turned the streets into a canvas, decorating 80 houses in ornate ceramics, mosaics and bold splashes of colour.

Without any financial support from the government or elsewhere he has built dozens of benches, murals and domes, transforming the modest neighbourhood into a dream-like sculpture park.

Over a glass of his finest Cuban rum, Fuster, 61, showed me his plans to extend his life's work. These include an 80-metre mural to link the neighbourhood to the main road and, at the junction, an elaborate concrete archway in the form of a giant heart.


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