Thursday, May 16, 2013

Recess at Hotel Raquel

Nick Dettorre,
reporting from Havana

On a warm afternoon, late in the week, our tour bus dropped us off near the Plaza de San Francisco, one of the oldest in Old Havana. The neighborhood was undergoing a major renovation, part of a joint effort between the  Gaspar Melhor de Jobellanos Workshop School, which specializes in restoring old buildings, and the City Historian Office, who determines which buildings are next in line.

The plaza had a lot to offer. On display at one museum were several guns owned by Fidel Castro and Che Guevera. The curator explained that some were used in the revolution, a reminder that social change too often walks hand-in-hand with violence.

There were a variety of shops, including one that sold hand painted fans, which could be personalized with the name of a friend or family member, making them the perfect gift.
Kids play soccer in the street throughout Havana. These boys
enjoy a game near the Plaza de San Franscisco. The capitol
buildings looms in the background.

Paintings lined the sidewalks as art studios extended into the streets. Artists taking a break from their craft welcomed tourists to sift through racks of their work, hoping to make a sale while they smoked a cigarette.

This was the Havana we couldn't see from our air-conditioned tour bus. My wife Tori and I, along with two faculty members, decided we'd walk the mile (or so) back to our hotel.

The building on the left is
Hotel Raquel.
We weaved through torn-up cobblestone streets where trenches had been dug to conceal new pipes for plumbing and fiberoptic cables (presumably for high-speed internet or phone service) as well as several other bundles of wire.

Amidst the construction happening all around, a tall (three story) art Nouveau inspired building at the intersection of Amargura and San Ignacio caught the attention of the faculty members.

"It's a hotel," an unfamiliar female voice said. "Would you like to come inside and see?"
The stained-glass skylight of the Hotel Raquel.

While we had only walked about a quarter of a mile, we decided as a group to take a short break.

The road worked blocked off the hotel's main entrance, so we went through a door around the corner. Once inside, one couldn't help but feel like we'd stumbled into one of Havana's best kept secrets.

The interior of Hotel Raquel was striking. Polished marble lined the floor and tall stone columns stood from floor to ceiling. And what a ceiling it was. Stretching from one end of the hotel to the other (which I estimated to be about 300' in length) - the most magnificent stained glass installation I've ever seen.

The hotel lobby is filled with Jewish
While the ceiling was the hotels artistic centerpiece, the hotel is known for its collection of Jewish artifacts. Next to the reception desk sits a stone engraved with the Star of David. The second floor is decorated by a statue of Judith and paintings of other Jewish relics. Outside of some guest-rooms hang mezuzahs, which serve as reminders to Jews of God's presence and their duty to fulfill God's commandments.

After a quick tour of the lobby and second floor, we were taken up to the hotels roof. In the distance, an unobstructed panorama of the city. Below, a birds-eye view of the streets we'd just walked. The constant hum of the streets was no longer audible.
View of the street outside
Hotel Raquel.

Our hostess asked if we would like to rest up here for a moment. Without much resistance, we agreed. We ordered drinks - three mojitos and a mango juice - and settled in to comfortable chairs under the shade of a large cabana.

Without realizing it, we spent nearly two hours discussing our stay in Havana, relationships, and making plans for future travels. It was after a large dark cloud began to block the sun that we decided it was time to leave.

Additional images from the roof of Hotel Raquel:
Looking towards Plaza de San Francisco.
Smoke billows from an oil refinery in
the distance.

A young boy sits alone on a roof
near the Plaza de San Francisco.
View from the rooftop.

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