Barely two hours after breakfast, my second, eye-wateringly strong mojito starts to generate an agreeable inner glow. I’m not one for mid-morning drinking, but Cuba seems to be working its liberating magic. There’s just something in the salt-tinged Havana air that makes you want to let your hair down, whatever the time of day.
And what better place to indulge in a spot of rum-fuelled hedonism than Havana’s Bacardi Buidling bar. Dark and secluded, with lashings of leather, gold leaf and frosted glass, it invites patrons to shed their inhibitions and get down to the local vibe. I make a note to return after sundown.
Yalicel Gabeira, tourist guide and art aficionado, is luckily on hand to arrest my descent into total insobriety. Passionate, patient and supremely knowledgeable, she has kindly offered to show me Havana’s preeminent examples of Art Deco architecture. Kicking off our tour with an alcoholic bang, we’re now sitting on the second floor of the finest Art Deco building in the whole of the Cuban capital.
As Havana’s iconic architectural landmarks go, it’s hard to look beyond the magnificent 12-storey Bacardi Building. Perched on the edge of Habana Vieja (Old Havana), with a ziggurat-like exterior clad in thousands of coloured tiles, the building’s cake-like bell tower dominates the surrounding skyline. Designed by local architects in the late 1920s, it was the headquarters of the Bacardi business until the Cuban Revolution, three decades later.
“This bar was the Bacardi family’s private venue,” explains Yalicel, as we stand up to leave. “Most of Havana’s A-list crowd used to gather here.”
Today, Havana boasts one of the world’s most significant (yet frequently overlooked) treasure troves of Art Deco architecture. The influence of this decorative trend — which reached its heyday in the late 1920s and 1930s — had a wide-reaching effect on the Caribbean island. Cuban architects assimilated its features in a wide range of buildings across Havana, frequently using tropical elements such as palms, pineapples and African iconography.
Passing through the Bacardi Building’s ornate lobby — all marble, golden light shades and myriad Art Deco motifs — I emerge, mole-like, into bright Havana sunshine. Yalicel hails an approaching taxi colectivo, which turns out to be a stretch Lada already filled with a gaggle of Habaneros. We squeeze onto the back seat, the driver crunches the gears, and our customised Russian ride plunges back into the honking traffic.
Our next stop is the National Museum of Decorative Arts. This Havana institution is housed in a fabulous mansion, built in the 1920s as the family home of Cuban sugar baron Jose Gomez-Mena Vila. The sumptuous bathroom — with Italian marble tiles and light fixtures designed in Paris by Marius-Ernest Sabino — is the embodiment of Art Deco opulence.
But while the bathroom is indeed a grand sight, I’m really here to see Gustavo Lopez, the museum’s deputy director. He also happens to be director of Habana Deco, a non-profit group established in 2009 to promote and protect Cuba’s Art Deco heritage.
“For many years, people neglected Cuba’s Art Deco buildings,” says Gustavo. “But things are thankfully changing now. I love Art Deco architecture because it’s filled with joie de vivre. It fits in perfectly with the Cuban way of life.”
Later that day, as I wind down to the first mojito of another balmy Havana evening, I find myself agreeing with the Habana Deco director. To that heady mix of sunshine and salsa, cigars and classic cars, add the whimsical, carefree lines of Cuba’s Art Deco buildings. I’m glad they’re finally receiving the attention they deserve.