Valle de Vinales

Valle de Vinales

So the outbound journey was thirteen hours as opposed to the less claustrophobia inducing nine hour return.  I’d booked rather late and the extra four hours didnt really make it the non stop flight advertised.  But when we stopped at Holguin (a place I would later read beautifully described by Renaldo Arenas in his biography Before Night Falls) and a few people disbanded and the fuel fumes permeated the cabin it was a relief to be told we could get off.  I headed for the small charming bar with windows overlooking the sleepy runway.  Here, as everywhere else, change and exchange rates need to be checked carefully.  My mental arithmetic was seemingly not too blunted by the journey and my challenge was met with polite apology and more Convertible Pesos in my hand.  Its nothing personal, its the norm I’m told and my first transactions on Cuban soil did nothing to dispel this.

Vinales cart

From England I had arranged an expensive 90 euro taxi ride to Vinales rather than take a ride to Havana just to rummage around in a suitcase, scatter things around, sleep for one night, pick up the scattered things and set off again in the morning.  I had read that the views in Valle de Vinales were spectacular and wanted to wake up to them.  It took two hours and I hurtled along the almost empty motorway answering Jorge’s barrage of questions in broken Spanish until exhausted I gave up and and decided to continue improving my Spanish after some sleep.  Once off the main road, poor Jorge, probably two hours away from home had trouble finding the hotel.  I helped him decide at ambiguously sign-posted junctions and kept a list in my head of all the times I had read that Cuba was a very safe country, especially when he stopped the car a couple of times to turn around and try to understand my disappearing Spanish.  I kept quiet.  Finally I checked into the Hotel Los Jazmines and was taken down a path leading away from the main building and down some steps with little terraced bungalows to my left and the warm pitch black night to my right.  The darkness was alive with the chorus of a trillion insects.  I realised that I had almost forgotten the smell of fresh air.

Valle de Vinales

 

Carrots and Claret

I am a vegetarian who loves to travel.  I love the thrill of experiencing new places and cultures and of being in awe of breathtaking scenery.  I love discovering the buzz of new cities.  Dining alfresco on balmy evenings, sipping delicious local wines and trying new cuisines can be the jewel in the crown of a perfect day.  But being vegetarian dinner can sometimes be tricky and at other times downright exasperating!  Although I abstain from meat I am definitely on the epicurean rather than the wheat grass glugging end of the spectrum, particularly whilst on holiday. And as I also sometimes both hang out with carnivores and drink wine, hunting down wine free health food cafes before they close for the evening is never usually an option.  I find other peoples’ tips and recommendations about where and what to eat in various heavily carnivorous countries very helpful and would like to share some of mine.
Las Ramblas

Cuba

I recently visited Cuba for the first time and loved it!  This is definitely a place I would like to visit again.  Having said that finding delicious meat free dinners was a challenge at times.

But my first little episodes of exasperation began before I even set foot on that beautiful island curtesy of the Cuban national airline Cubana.  As my flight from Gatwick wasnt until 12.40 I had brunch at the ever bland but the best of a bad South Terminal bunch that is Cafe Rouge.  I trod the much trod but ever hopeful baggage-free semi-euphoric exotic location expectant route of looking at the Vs on the food outlet menus around the big bright wide holding/shopping hangar.  I knew already that I could have a good glass or two of red with my brunch, this is Gatwick not Karnataka after all.  But after a credit card bashing instant buy of an entry level DSLR (this was imperative as I hadnt been able to locate my Coolpix on a last minute trawl of the clutter of my flat) …I ended up with the soggy circle of pastry on mixed mushrooms on the almost nice ‘Feuillete de Champignons’ £5.95.  Comfort food, almost nice but to be more comforting it needed a side of French Fries £2.95 and a salad £3.50. Boring boring boring!  But more than boring I suppose, scandalous almost as this had to be paid for after all.  I’ve noticed a penchant in French (and pseudo French) restaurants for using unsalted butter.  To my not quite Francophile palette unsalted butter just tastes like unsalted grease.  Also scandalous for a French or pseudo French or has given itself a French name chain the ‘Baguette’ for which the unsalted grease was an accompaniment and for which they charge £2.25 is a little cheap basket of stiff airy inconsequential cardboard.

To add insult to injury all the staff were fawning over two uber serious speaking and miserable looking suited types who seemed to be trying every dish on the menu, on closer inspection I discovered they actually were trying every dish on the menu bite by bite and then after serious discussion they were writing things down.  These people it transpired worked for the company and were taste testing or would have been if anything had had a taste.  With these two to be sucked up to service was slow.   The salad was anaemic, the fries were flaccid, the wine was fine. I havent even got to the diabolical interpretation of vegetarianism I encountered on the plane yet.  Its a good job I didnt have a sandwich on the train.

I am not one of those people who wave away airline food when its brought to me especially as I am one of those people who everyone stares at to see what they’ve got because the vegetarian meals are invariably served first.  So less than four hours after my expensive Cafe Rouge stodge I removed the foil lid of the small adequate almost tasty portion of pasta in tomato sauce, another anaemic salad and the obligatory cup of chilled melon.  I wasnt hungry so didnt envy my neighbours chocolatey cake.  I have noticed a definite pattern in the delivery of lacto ovo vegetarian meals.  There may be cheese in the main part of the meal but its not usually given with crackers afterwards as it is with the non vegetarian meals.  Anything sweet and sticky is replaced by icy melon cubes and the pat of butter is replaced by white margarine (this would make sense of course for a vegan meal but there was cheese on the pasta).  I drank the wine that was served with dinner and as I was to be find out was only to be served with dinner and was not for sale.  At one stage there seemed to be a man at the back of the plane selling plastic cups of rum (or maybe this was a hypoglycemic hallucination) but he was gone by the time I decided it was time for another drink.  The flight was thirteen hours as there was a stop for dropping off passengers and refueling at Holguin.

No more refreshments were served for what seemed like eight hours and by then I was really hungry again.  The next offering was preceded by the welcome flourish of activity of the crew, this state of anticipation was cut short for me when a steward with a deadpan expression place a banana in a plastic tray in front of me.  I asked him what was in the sandwiches that were now being handed out.  They looked like cheese.  They were cheese.  ‘These are not for vegetarian, this is for vegetarian’ he scolded me holding up my banana.  ‘But I would like a sandwich as they are cheese’.  I was seated near the galley and a stewardess started to read the ingredients label on the sandwich.  ‘There is cheese.  You eat cheese?  Anyway you cannot have, you order vegetarian’  Now I was subject to suspicious looks, the fake vegetarian.  ‘There was cheese on the pasta you brought me’ I told them, my nerves now jangling in famished irritation.  Eventually after everyone had been given a sandwich one was placed in front of me, luckily there was one left for the awkward vegetarian.

Coming soon!

Beautiful Valle de Vinales and amazing Havana, books, films, recipes and more!