Tag Archives: Tour

Julie’s Highlights of Havana

Like most capital cities, Havana has a wide variety of things to see. Andrew has already written about his highlights, here are mine.

Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes

Cuba’s Fine Art Museum is spread across two buildings in Centro Havana, one dedicated to Cuban art and the other to international art. We visited the Cuban building first and I was blown away by the quality and variety of the works on display. The exhibits are arranged chronologically, the first few rooms are dedicated to colonial art with some arresting portraits, landscapes showing the countryside and life in the past with a few maps thrown in for good measure.

Fine Art Museum, HavanaOutside the Cuban building of Havana’s Fine Art Museum, sadly no photographs allowed inside

The rest of that floor (about three-quarters of it) shows how art progressed in Cuba from the late-19th to mid-20th century – this was my favourite part, I especially enjoyed the satirical cartoons of Rafael Blanco and Wilfredo Lam’s paintings which reminded us of Picasso. The second floor exhibits works from the mid-20th century through to the current day, also worthwhile but by that point we were starting to get museum fatigue (and hungry!) so probably didn’t enjoy them as much as we might have done.

El Tercer Mundo by Wilfredo Lam‘El Tercer Mundo’ (The Third World) by Wilfredo Lam [photo credit: Transregional Academies]

Having refueled in a nearby cafe, we spent the afternoon in the international building and found the display of mostly pre-20th century European and Latin American art to be a bit lacklustre after the Cuban works. The stained glass ceiling in the central stairwell was spectacular although we worried about whether it would survive as it was in desperate need of renovation and the building seemed to be crumbling around it. Also in this building was a temporary exhibition by Francis Alÿs, mostly video installations covering the time he spent embedded with the British army in Afghanistan, immigration across the Straits of Gibraltar and his attempt to create a ‘bridge’ of boats stretching from Cuba to Florida.

Outside Museum of Fine Art, HavanaFrancis Alÿs is known for creating trails of paint from art galleries out into the surrounding cities


In search of more art, one day we made the long journey out to Jaimanitas on Havana’s western fringe to visit the home and workshop of José Fuster. Our guidebook suggested we take a taxi but we were sick of haggling prices and still feeling like we were being ripped off, so we took a chance on a local bus. We perhaps should have been a bit better prepared with landmarks around where we were supposed to get off but we managed OK and after a one hour bus journey (total cost MN4 = £0.12) and a 40 minute walk along a shady road we arrived feeling slightly smug.

FusterlandiaWow! I guess we’ve arrived at Fusterlandia, José Fuster’s home and workshop

Fuster has turned not only his home but half of his neighbourhood into something reminiscent of Barcelona’s Park Güell (created by Antoni Gaudí) with lots of organic forms and bright tiles covering every surface. We loved wandering the nearby streets checking out the colourful buildings and decorated walls, there’s even a tile covered unicorn!

Granma tile mosaicA tile mural of the Granma yacht and some of the revolutionaries who sailed in her

When we arrived Fusterlandia itself was closed for lunch but at 2pm we were able to go in and explore. It’s an overwhelming experience with seemingly every available surface covered in tiles, and every time we turned we spotted something new. There are lots of animals, cockerels especially appear very often, as well as hearts, a mermaid and a pavilion in honour of the Cuban Five.

Fusterlandia detailsFusterlandia details (clockwise from top left): giraffes; a heart; the Cuban Five; and cockerels

Hershey train

We love travelling by train but it turned out to not be a straightforward way to get around Cuba – the rail infrastructure is not very good and the schedules are unreliable. In fact the only train that we travelled on was the electric line from Havana to Matanzas, though we got off midway in the small town of Camilo Cienfuegos (aka Hershey). I don’t want anyone to get the wrong idea, this electric line can not be compared to Japan’s shinkansen, or even the East Coast Mainline back in the UK, it’s an old interurban train – basically a very rickety tram!

Hershey trainThe rather dilapidated looking Hershey train at Casablanca station in Havana

The line was built in 1921 by American chocolate tycoon Milton Hershey to link his sugar mill (in the town then known as Hershey) with Havana and Matanzas. Before the Revolution the sugar produced here was shipped to the US to be turned into chocolate, but in 1959 the factory was nationalised (and the town was renamed after a revolutionary hero) and it feels as if there hasn’t been much maintenance to tracks or train since then, although actually the trains were replaced with second-hand Catalonian ones in the 1990s. It’s rusty and dilapidated and bumps and clangs along stopping at dozens of little ‘stations’ (imagine a concrete bus shelter next to the line and you’ll be about right) along the way.

Inside the Hershey trainThe one carriage train was pretty full leaving Havana and even more people got on at the next few stops

The sugar mill ceased production in 2002 and its rusting ruins dominate the sleepy town. We had a bit of a poke about and took some photos being careful not to cross the ‘Danger No Entry’ signs. While there we met an American father and son, Fred and Justin, who’d also travelled in on the train.

Hershey sugar mill ruinsThe huge sugar mill at Hershey is slowly disintegrating although its three chimneys remain intact for now

After taking photos of the mill we still had 3.5 hours to kill before the train back so we headed 1km north of town to the only other ‘attraction’ in the area, the Hershey Gardens, basically a rather overgrown pleasure ground with some woods, a pool for bathing and a couple of restaurants. We ate lunch with Fred and Justin swapping traveller’s tales over papaya juice while we waited for the food, before setting out to investigate the rest of the gardens only to discover that there wasn’t much to explore. The path wound along the river a little way to the pool where several local families were picnicking and cooling off in the water before coming to an end at a fence just a couple of hundred metres into the wood!

Hershey gardensA peaceful section of the river in the Hershey Gardens

Callejon de Hamel

Tucked away off a quiet back street in Centro Havana is the Callejon de Hamel, an alleyway covered in artworks and host, at 12pm every Sunday, to a live rumba session. We thought it might be a show for tourists but there were at least as many locals there and the first band of musicians and dancers performed for an hour and a half! The drumbeat throbbed and everyone was clearly having a great time. Absolutely superb!

Callejon de HamelArtworks cover the surrounding buildings along the Callejon de Hamel

Cigar factory tour

Think of Cuba and one of the first things that’ll spring to mind is cigars, from the iconic images of Fidel Castro with a cigar clamped between his teeth to the roll call of famous brand names – Cohiba, Montecristo, Romeo and Juliet – and so we were keen to visit the Partagas factory in Havana to see how they were made (spoiler: they’re not rolled along the inner thigh of a nubile young woman…)

Partagas cigar labelsMany of the famous cigar brands are made at the Partagas factory in Havana

We thought the tour was a bit overpriced at CUC$10 (£7) each for a 30 minute visit and we were very disappointed that we weren’t able to take photographs of the factory floor, nevertheless our guide Marisela was very knowledgeable and we had a small group so it was easy to get a good look at what was going on and ask questions. First she explained how tobacco plants are grown, and the different types of leaf which are needed to make each cigar (for flavour, strength and burn quality) as well as leaves from shade grown plants which are more flexible, almost stretchy, and used for the binder and wrapper.

Partagas cigar factoryThe interior atrium of the Partagas factory

Next we were taken up to the third floor where we could see the cigars being made. The workers were a mix of men and women across a wide age range and seemed friendly, smiling and winking at us as we peered in from the doorways and Marisela dashed back and forth bringing us samples to look at and smell. It is a highly skilled job and each worker must pass a 9 month training program before they can begin producing sale quality cigars (the practice duds are sent off to a different factory to be chopped up and made into cigarettes). We were interested to hear that salaries are paid in national pesos with a bonus in CUC (dependent on their output) plus 5 cigars per day.

It was fascinating to see how the cigars are rolled and pressed in forms before being bound and wrapped. Different workers each producing just one grade, length and thickness of cigar. I suspect its one of those things that looks very easy when performed by a skilled worker but is extremely difficult to get right, especially as the tightness of the roll is crucial to the finished cigar – quality control have a special machine, developed in Cuba, which measures the airflow through a sample of the production to make sure they will burn well.

Napoleon museum

Havana seems a rather unlikely place for a museum of artefacts relating to Napoleon, but here we are, one of the best laid out museums that we visited in Cuba. The displays include everything from soldier’s uniforms to period furniture to Napoleon’s pocket watch and were amassed by Cuban sugar baron Julio Lobo. Following the Revolution they were seized by the state and set out in a beautiful restored mansion near the university in Vedado.

Napoleon Museum Main HallThe stunning main hall of the Napoleon Museum

The museum was fairly quiet and a good way to spend an hour or so – I don’t think it’s on the itinerary of the bus tours – and the staff were friendly. The lovely lady on the second floor in particular spent a lot of time pointing out the various highlights set up in the bedroom and explaining to us the history of the museum collection.

Busts and statues of NapoleonMore busts and statues of Napoleon than you ever wanted to see, including his death mask in the bottom right

Library, Napoleon MuseumThe top floor includes this magnificent library and a roof terrace with views over the city

Street Art Museum Amsterdam

There are a lot of tourists in Amsterdam and it’s hard to feel like you’re not somewhere that thousands of people have been before (or actually are right now, standing in front of you, with their cameraphones at the ready), but we think we managed it at least once. Amsterdam’s Street Art Museum is in the Nieuw West district at almost the westernmost point of Amsterdam’s tram lines, in any case at the very end of line 13. And that’s where we met up with our guide Anna and the Dutch couple who were also on the tour.

'Dimension' by BtoyThis striking mural was the first that we visited – ‘Dimension’ by Btoy

Anna has an interesting biography, she grew up in the Ukraine under the Soviet Union, left at 18 to live in London before moving onto Amsterdam, Brussels and New York before settling again in Amsterdam nine years ago. A few years later she quit corporate life to found a Street Art Museum…

Van Gogh and Johan Cruyff, by UriginalRight across the street from ‘Dimension’ are a couple of familiar faces, Johan Cruyff and Van Gogh, by Uriginal

If you have a read about on the museum website you’ll find something saying ‘No we don’t have a map. We have tours’. We initially thought, OK fair enough, but in the end, stunning as the art on the walls is, it was Anna’s stories that really brought them to life. Talking essentially non-stop for three hours (and just try to get a word in!) she told us what the paintings mean (to her, to the artist, to the community), about the artists themselves and their often atypical lives, and about the difficulty of bringing the works into being.

'Safety' by AlanizNot all of the walls are bold and bright, take for example the delicately beautiful ‘Safety’ by Alaniz

'Fatherhood' by StinkfishThe paint was only just dry on ‘Fatherhood’ by Stinkfish as it was completed the day before our tour

The most shocking aspect to me was the funding, the typical amount received per wall seemed to be about €2000, seems reasonable I thought, then Anna told us that the lift rental is €800, the paint cost €600, and the artists’ plane tickets were €400 meaning that there is barely any money left over for the artist, never mind for Anna and her tireless efforts at chasing through the bureaucracy. Oh, and while they’re in Amsterdam, the artist stays in Anna’s spare room!

'Destiny' by Skount‘Destiny’ by Skount has a very sad story hidden in its details but you’ll have to join a tour to find out what it is

Having seen Johannes Vermeer’s famous ‘The Milkmaid’ in the Rijksmuseum we loved ‘Glory’ by El Pez and Danny Recall.

Old and new MilkmaidVermeer’s ‘The Milkmaid’ in the Rijksmuseum and the Street Art Museum version showing a cheeky bit of leg and surrounded by colourful parrots!

The timelapse video of the creation of ‘Glory’ is jaw-dropping… (video credit: Anna Stolyarova)

'Altruism' by Spok with 'Fertility' by Skount in the backgroundAnna in front of ‘Altruism’ by Spok with ‘Fertility’ by Skount in the background. These pieces will soon be lost as this housing estate is slated for demolition.

Detail of 'Altruism' by SpokDetail of ‘Altruism’ by Spok. His technical skill is really obvious here, this is all done with spraycans, just look at the depth and range of colour that he’s managed to achieve

'Pain and Relief' by Bastardilla‘Pain and Relief’ by Bastardilla was the museum’s first work

Dutch weather clockWhen a 60 year old professional mural painter approached her to contribute a work to the museum, Anna was keen to see what he would do. This version of a traditional Dutch weather clock took longer to complete than any of the museum’s other walls – notice how meticulously measured all the bricks on the painted telecoms box are!

'Industrialisation' by La IraNote how the two pipes sticking out of the top of the building have been cleverly incorporated into ‘Industrialisation’ by La Ira

Towards the end of the tour was an area with some smaller works, all by different artists and very diverse. I love ‘Let Her Be Free’ with a woman in a headscarf of birds by Iranian duo Icy and Sot, she’s the new lock screen on my iPad (bottom left on the collage below).

Street Art Museum, Amsterdam

The last wall that we visited was ‘Tolerance’ by Alaniz, a nice nod to the multicultural diversity of Nieuw West. Anna sees the community as an essential part of the museum’s work and actively looks to include residents in the process. She explained how before any work begins they go door-to-door to speak to all of the building’s residents and get their approval of the plans, as well as encouraging them to visit during the work and inviting them to a completion party.

'Tolerance' by Alaniz‘Tolerance’ by Alaniz

You can book a tour of the Street Art Museum Amsterdam through the website, we highly recommend it.

9 Day Trip to the Gobi Desert, Mongolia

There are a lot of parts of Mongolia that are not easy to get to independently. To reach these, it’s necessary to join an organised tour which is what we did to visit the Gobi Desert area. Our group of 9 was very international: 2 from the UK (that’s us!), a couple from France, a couple from China, an American woman who has been living in Taiwan for 10 years, a Thai Phd student who is studying in the US, and a Korean man. Additionally, of course, our guide was Mongolian, so this made for some interesting conversations about our various countries and different experiences.

20130728-234434.jpgOur group eating dinner (from left to right): Isaac, Rebecca, Jason, Terry, Khun, Julie, Andrew, Jessica (photo credit: Thomas Gil, the 9th member of the group)

Completing our group were our two drivers and their incredibly robust Russian vans (which Andrew first developed a liking for on Olkhon island). On the first day we made a stop as Ogii tried to track down our host family – rural Mongolians are nomadic and so they’re never exactly where they were the last time you stayed there… As our van pulled up alongside the other, we saw everyone jump back as steam started to pour from the bonnet and a big puddle appeared underneath. Burst radiator? Sounds serious, but Ogii suggested we take a hike up a nearby hill and be back in an hour. Miraculously the drivers had managed to fix it by the time we got back (I suspect gaffer tape must have been involved…) and we were on our way. The vans developed several problems over the course of the trip, but the drivers always managed to have them running in just a short time.

20130728-120214.jpgUs with our guide, Ogii (centre), and two drivers, Erkha (left), and Tsogii (right)

Getting to the Gobi

The 550km drive south from Ulaanbaatar to the Gobi desert took 3 days. The roads outside the main cities in Mongolia are essentially dirt tracks and so the going is pretty slow and, at times, VERY bumpy. The drive gave us a real appreciation for the size and emptiness of the country. We drove for miles without seeing anything other than grassland stretching off into the distance. Then every so often, we would pass a ger, or a herd of horses, sheep and goats, or increasingly as we neared the desert, camels.

20130728-234545.jpgOur two vans on the road

We also made a couple of stops at small National Parks on the way. The first, Baga Gazryn Chuluu, contains the ruins of a monastery destroyed in the purges of the 1930s. It’s situated in a naturally sheltered spot between the rocky hills which is still considered sacred by the local people who have built ovoos (cairns of stones, scarves and sticks with offerings) on the surrounding hilltops.

20130728-125940.jpgBaga Gazryn Chuluu – there are ovoos all over the hilltops

Tsagaan Suvraga is an eerie rock formation in a barren looking moonscape. As we arrived a thunderstorm swept overhead. When we got out of the vans we could still see lightning all around on the horizon and the air was charged with static – naturally several minutes of giving each other electric shocks and taking pictures of ourselves with hair stood on end followed!

20130728-185410.jpgOvoo on the cliff with stormy skies on the horizon

The brightly coloured limestone pillars are made of very soft, sandy rock and the whole area used to be under the sea so many marine fossils have been found here.

20130728-221025.jpgTsagaan Suvraga from above

20130728-185608.jpgWalking through the rock formations of Tsagaan Suvraga

Yolyn Am

This narrow canyon was one of the highlights of the trip for us. This national park was originally established to conserve the wildlife of the region and we spent lots of time trying to snap photos of Pikas – the extremely cute hamster-like rodents which live in burrows along the stream side. The gorge itself is so steep sided that ice survives well into the spring and early summer, although there was none left when we visited in the middle of July.

20130728-205619.jpgUs at the valley entrance

20130728-205711.jpgSo cute!

20130728-205730.jpgAndrew in the narrow gorge

Khongoryn Els

Most of the Gobi Desert is sparse, dry grassland and doesn’t actually look like desert as you might imagine it. Khongoryn Els is the exception. Here some of the sand dunes reach 300m high. We were able to trek on camels to the dunes, meaning that we’ve now ridden the two-humped Bactrian camel as well as the one-humped Dromedary camels (in Morocco) – so a full set!

Grassland stretching off to the horizon

20130728-215447.jpgRiding camels

20130728-220113.jpgSpectacular moon rise over sand dunes on our first evening

Ogii offered us the chance to buy a goat from the ger camp and have it barbecued in the traditional Mongolian way for dinner on the second night. We were very keen and clubbed together with another group, paying just 10,000MNT (£4.60) each. Part of the experience was the opportunity to see the owner slaughter and butcher the goat. Not everyone wanted to, but we thought that if we were going to eat it, then we should know how it got to the plate. It was much less gory than we expected but the butchery was not as skilled as we’re used to in the UK.

20130728-215813.jpgOur goat, before and after…


Bayanzag, or the ‘Flaming Cliffs’ are famous as the site where many of Mongolia’s dinosaur fossils have been found. The day started off rainy but by the time we reached the cliffs the rain had stopped but the wind was still very strong – no safety barriers meant we had to watch our step! This day was also memorable as we were lucky enough to see wild ibex while we were on the road. We had some free time in the afternoon so Ogii taught us to play some traditional Mongolian games with sheep ankle bones.

20130728-222340.jpgBayanzag cliffs

20130728-222853.jpgTarbosaurus fossil on display back in Ulaanbaatar

20130728-230152.jpgPlaying games with sheep ankle bones (clockwise from left): Ogii explaining the different animals represented by how the bone lies (top to bottom that’ll be horse, sheep, camel, goat), “Horse Racing” essentially a game of chance, Andrew throwing the chain in a game needing a bit more skill

Back to UB

On day 8 we covered a lot of miles to make our way back to Ulaanbaatar. This was hard for us passengers, bouncing up and down in the back of the hot van, but it must have taken a lot of concentration for the drivers as they needed to be on constant alert for bumps and holes in the ‘road’. We managed to stave off the boredom of driving by learning a little Chinese – Isaac and Rebecca are incredibly patient teachers and we’ve got a few phrases under our belt even if our pronunciation might be a bit comical, erm suspect!

Although the first thing that everyone wanted to do was have a shower when we got back, I think that all were agreed that it was a fantastic trip with great new friends.