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A man’s voice crackles over an antiquated loud speaker system as he reads a chapter from a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel, the words filling the vast room where dozens of men and women listen. With heads bowed over long wooden workbenches and with their hands methodically rolling, chopping and tucking, they create Cuba’s most famous product.
I am inside the world famous Partagas factory in Havana and this has been the unchanging scene of cigar making since 1845. For a cigar aficionado like myself, this is ‘the pilgrimage’ for it is here that some of the world’s finest cigars are handcrafted, from the powerfully rich Cohiba Robusto to the magnificent Partagas Double Corona.
Factory tours take around one hour, and cover the various stages of cigar production. Starting in the selection room, where sorters grade the various tobacco leaves and ending in a tiny room where the finished cigars are packed into cedar boxes, which are then pasted with their official green and white seals that confirm authenticity.
But it’s in the rolling rooms, the galeras, the very heart and soul of the cigar making process that I am able to fully appreciate the craftsmanship that has been handed down through generations of cigar rollers. The pungent aroma of rich tobacco leaf mingles with cigar smoke as several rollers enjoy the fruits of their labour while they work. Rolling is a prestigious job, and only the skilled get to roll famous cigar types like the Cohiba Esplendido and Montecristo No.2. Using only a metal knife, a wooden board, a small guillotine and a bit of vegetable gum, most rollers make around 100-150 cigars a day. But I have to say; I’m a little disappointed not to witness any Cuban women rolling them on their thighs.
In the next room, 64-year-old Roberto Gomez’s job is to inspect the gauge size and uniformity of the finished product. The quality control is thorough, and Roberto places to one side any cigars that don’t make the grade. “I’ve been doing this job for 35 years now,” he says taking a deep puff on a Bolivar Belicoso. “Reckon I can tell a good cigar from a bad one.”
If a Partagas factory cigar tour is the pilgrimage, then the Holy Grail is the Havana cigar itself, smoked in any of the city’s time-honoured cafes or bars. Before leaving the factory it’s almost mandatory to visit the shop on the ground floor to select a cigar (or buy a box) and you needn’t go further than the adjoining cigar bar La Casa del Habano to smoke it.
The faces of various celebrities that have enjoyed the combination of a fine cigar with a Cuban cocktail in this dark atmospheric saloon, smile up from their autographed photos in an album on the bar top. This is definitely the place where you wouldn’t be surprised if you bumped into the likes of Jack Nicholson or Arnold Schwarzenegger.
It’s early evening and lighting up one of my favourite cigars, a superbly spicy Montecristo No.2, I hit the streets and stroll past the grandiose Capitolio National inspired by the US Capitol building in Washington and hang a right into the back streets of Old Havana. Despite decades of economic decline, the old magic of Havana shines through like a scratchy, crackling scene from a 1950s Cary Grant movie. It was this very magic that attracted people like authors Ernest Hemingway and Graham Greene, most of Hollywood, the Windsors and the Churchills.
Smoking my cigar, I’m easy prey for the black market street peddlers who zero in. “Hey my friend, where are you from? You want good cigars? I have Montecristos for a good price?” “Sorry, I already have some,” I reply, having bought a genuine box of cigars earlier in the Partagas shop, and conveniently escape through the doors of the historic El Floridita, to imbibe the bar’s legendary cocktail, the daiquiri.
In addition to cigars, Havana has long been famous for it’s cocktails, and while El Floridita didn’t invent the daiquiri, it certainly reinvented it by introducing an electric ice-blender into the equation in the 1920s. Served up by red-jacketed barmen who make a great show with their cocktail shakers, these frosty dreams of rum, lemon juice, sugar, maraschino and crushed ice are just the thing to combat the heat outside.
Ernest Hemingway spent over 20 years living in Cuba and many an hour sipping daiquiris and smoking cigars in this hallowed haunt. Another famous Cuban cocktail is the mojito (rum, lemon juice, sugar, soda, mint leaf and ice cubes, stirred) made famous by the Nobel prize-winning novelist when he penned ‘my daiquiri in the Floridita and my mojito in the Bodeguita‘ on one of the walls of the La Bodeguita del Medio bar. Since Hemingway’s time a visit to this funky bar has become de rigueur, and other notables such as Nat ‘King’ Cole and Fidel Castro have left their autographs on the wall.
The streets of communist Havana are living testimony to tough times. To say that time seems to have stopped ticking somewhere back in the 1950s is to state the obvious. An ancient Oldsmobile rumbles down Calle Obispo, Old Havana’s main thoroughfare, as I head for the La Bodeguita, nearly pinning me against the crumbling walls of a building as it’s hulk practically fills the narrow street. When I arrive, the place is crammed with hoards of tourists all drinking mojitos, so I decide to visit the nearby La Lluvia de Oro bar instead. Besides, the mojitos here are half the price and go down well with the sizzling salsa beat of a live band.
In my hotel room I’m surrounded by the hum of Havana life. I wake every morning to roosters crowing and mothers getting children off to school and fall asleep each evening to the rumble of a dozen different television sets.
The following day I’m back exploring the streets of Old Havana. In addition to walking, another great way to see the sights is to jump in the back of one the cities’ colourful three-wheeled taxi cycles. “How’s your stay in Havana so far,” Gustavo my cigar-puffing driver asks me, as we head off, passing by the popular lunchtime haunt of Café de Paris and the cool neo-deco atmosphere of Café Del Oriente, just two other great venues to pursue the hedonistic delights of sampling various cocktails while savouring on the palate the rich coffee-laden, spicy overtones of a hand-rolled Cuban cigar.
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