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La Habana Vieja and the Hotel Nacional – Havana, Cuba, Greater Antilles

The Capital’s Historic Quarter and Its Most Glamorous, Nostalgic Hotel

Anchored by the gracious Plaza de la Catedral, Havana’s 2-square-mile Old Quarter is one of the most envied in the Americas, a partially renovated architectural ensemble of monuments, fortresses, cobblestone streets, and grandiose, ostentatious town- houses that once belonged to an affluent bourgeoisie.

Close to 150 buildings dating from the 16th and 17th centuries have been handsomely preserved while others have been left to crumble. It’s one of the many con­flicting impressions made by this once magnificent capital, still the largest city in the Caribbean. Paradoxically, the very revolution responsible for the island’s decades-long withdrawal has helped keep the city’s finest architecture intact by banning private investments and real estate speculation—there’s not an incongruous modem structure to be found among the arcades and palm-shaded courtyards of the old Spanish core.

Foreseeing a great future in tourism, this niche of the city has been tidied up and is once again a mirror of the colonial Havana that was the richest city in the Caribbean, when the treasures of the New World flooded through on their way to the royal courts of Spain. Even its dilapidated comers have a charmed feel about them, a sun washed melancholy that mixes with a sense of peeling and decaying glory.

If Havana seems stuck in the past, nowhere is it felt more glamorously or nostal­gically than at the Hotel Nacional, located in the Vedado district, west of the Old Quarter, and overlooking the Malecon, Havana’s great 4-mile waterfront drive.

Featuring eclectic Art Deco architecture, this landmark was spruced up not long ago to recapture the glory of its 1930s youth, restoring the opulent beauty of its Moorish arches and hand-painted tiles. In 1950s Havana, mobster Meyer Lansky operated one of Cuba’s most glamorous casi­nos here; his Vegas cronies lounged at the palm-shaded pool, playing penny-ante poker.

Today they’ve been replaced by VIP guests, the foreign press corps, boycott-bust­ing American tycoons pretending not to be doing business, and cigar-smoking, rum-sipping Europeans on their way to one of the island’s coastal resorts.

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