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Travel Guide to Cuba: Trinidad

We're back in Cuba today for our final stop in beautiful, vibrant Trinidad. I reckon Trinidad has it all: this former Spanish colonial town in the Sanctus Spiritus region pulsates with energy, music and colour. Its neo-Baroque buildings are gorgeous and crumbling, like a living open-air museum, and everywhere you go there's a cool spot to drink rum and take in the architecture or sunset, often soundtracked by live jazz. And when town life gets a bit much, there's an excellent beach nearby to take a break. What more could you possibly want?

We hopped on a Viazul bus from Viñales which took us directly to Trinidad. To be honest, it was a bit  of a dodgy ride from the outset: the driver, having forgotten to fuel up, had to make a quick detour to the petrol station, pulling all the blinds down and exhorting us to hide in the back of the bus so that the officials wouldn't notice that the unfuelled bus was already full of tourists. It could have been much, much worse though - on the same journey, we came across a fatal crash between a bus similar to ours and a car, both of which had skidded into a ditch on the side of the motorway. And on the bright side (arguably) the bus driver played 90s prank videos all the way to Trinidad.

We stayed in La Boca, a little seaside village just outside of Trinidad, so opted to take cabs costing 5-10 CUC into the city every day. Of course, if you're staying in Trinidad, it's probably easiest to just walk everywhere, though you'll want to take a taxi to the beach - more on that later.

Taberna la Canchánchara (Calle Real del Jigue 90), for the eponymous canchánchara cocktail, a honeyed pot of rum, lemon and water. Best sipped (or drained) to the strains of Cuban jazz played by four funky elderly gentlemen with their pants slung high. This joint is touristy but lots of fun. There was a monsoon raging when we visited this place, with rain waterfalling on to the tables in the courtyard and blowing in through the door. We huddled around the tables and bought postcards and impressively cheap bottles of Havana Club wrapped in cigarette paper while we waited out the storm. 

For those looking for another good drink spot, you're really spoiled for choice here. There are bars dotted throughout the city, one of the most famous being Casa de la Musicá at the top of the steps off the main square. You have to pay to sit inside, but it's just as cool to grab a cheaper mojito at one of the bars around the bottom of the steps, take a seat on the pavement and listen for free from there. 

In terms of the standard of food, Trinidad is roughly on a par with Viñales - by our reckoning, not as good as Havana. In fact, our favourite restaurant (and one we ate in three times) was in La Boca, a small beach town outside of Trinidad. I couldn't tell you the name if I tried as I'm not sure it had one - it was basically somebody's porch - but it was cheap, the food was fairly good and the mojitos flowed plentifully. Oh, and they had a huge St Bernard for us to play with. There were never any other customers, leaving us with a quiet space to plot our adventures. On a practical note, it's also worth visiting if you're staying in La Boca as the casas are pretty basic and don't have anywhere to charge your devices, while this restaurant has UK-friendly plug sockets. 

Here's a couple of things to avoid.

Number one, pizzas on the beach. I got quite excited when I saw food trucks on the front of Playa La Boca selling drinks and pizza, all in local prices. Now the 'pizza', costing 1CUC, was easily one of the worst things I've ever eaten - and I grew up faced with the horror of durian and petai, which I'd prefer to eat any day. A pre-frozen disc of tasteless white cheese (the same as the topping on my salad in Viñales) and tomato sauce congealed on a powdery yellow base which disintegrated in my hand. One bite was more than enough for me, with a strong flavour of what I imagine a mouthful of soil might taste like. 

Number two, restaurant touts. One night in Trinidad all the restaurants were ridiculously packed, with jacked-up prices much worse than anything we'd seen in Viñales or Havana. The place we wanted to go to, Taberna La Botija, seemed to have good reviews and affordable prices - but as a result, was too full for us to get a table. A tout at a nearby restaurant promised a dinner deal that was revoked while we were eating, resulting in a wildly expensive bill that we had no choice but to contest (having already had money stolen in Havana, we couldn't afford to get scammed a second time). I know it's difficult to avoid touts if everywhere else in town is full - maybe it's worth heading further afield from the main streets to find a table at a cheaper, better place.

Pack a bag with a towel, a book and sunscreen and hit the beach.

The local beach on the doorstep of our Airbnb was Playa La Boca, a beach frequented mainly by locals. Here you'll get a good view of the hills and a sense of the 'real' Cuba, for better or worse. It's definitely rough around here. The beach is made of shingles rather than sand and you'll see locals throwing all sorts into the sea or directly on to the ground: babies' nappies, fish scales and the fish skeletons themselves. It's also pretty packed, so on our first morning we opted to go further down the coast to sit on the rocks instead, which were pretty sharp and dangerous. Hence why we had a few bemused locals coming up to us to ask why we weren't at the much nicer beach...

Playa Ancon, which blew La Boca out of the water and has been praised as the best beach on Cuba's southern coast. This little paradise boasts clean swathes of silvery white sand stretching along for miles and was peaceful and pretty devoid of tourists at the time of year we visited (August), with an unbroken horizon great for bird-watching and storm-spotting. 

This shot comes to you in black and white to hide the epic sunburn sustained by one of our number after lying in full midday sun on Playa la Boca...

Fronting the beach are some gigantic 1950s hotels (that look like they've fallen out of the 1970s) - they're not very attractive, but they have bathrooms and table tennis tables. And giant chess.

Get yourself a piece of greased lightnin' and take a ride in a classic car. 

I found the taxis here were mainly the kind of cars that make you think of Cuba. They make for a really cool ride (though the insides are pretty much ripped out) without the accompanying price tag that you'd get in Havana. 

Go with the flow. Wander around the city marvelling at the boldly painted buildings,  pick up a drink or two in the main square while watching the jazz bands playing on the steps. We were doing just this one night, chatting to fellow travellers at a bar when there was a blackout across the entire city. While it was strange and a little scary to be stumbling around town in the darkness, with the only lights available emanating from phone screens and the dimly starlit sky, we kept our wits about us and it was actually pretty cool (until we got back to La Boca and realised the blackout extended across the countryside too, and the air conditioning was out!) 

Spot symbols of the Cuban revolution daubed on the walls. A little bit of research after coming home told me that this painted flag signals fealty to Castro's revolutionary 26th of July movement, the organisation that overthrew dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, and that it continues to be featured on Cuba's military uniform today.

There are so many memories of beautiful, tempestuous Trinidad that I treasure. Reclining on the sand on  Playa Ancon with my friends, idly glancing up from my Stefan Zweig to see lightning forks illuminating the horizon. Screaming as a gigantic (seriously, the size of a dinner plate) black butterfly hurtled around our heads in the bedroom. Toasting to our trip on the final night with mojitos on the porch of our favourite paladar. How after the epic rainstorm the rivulets of water were funnelled away down the cobbled streets, the leaden grey veil of rain sweeping away to reveal spun-sugar skies, the cool rain-soaked air gradually giving way to oppressive heat. It was a great place to finish our travels before one final night in Havana (where, of course, we had a second meal at the stellar El Chanchullero). I came back to London a couple of kilos lighter, my skin a few shades darker and carrying a suitcase heavy with rum. 

So that wraps up my Cuba trip! Thank you for reading this far - I hope you've learned a bit about Trinidad, especially if you're planning your own adventure to this magical island that hails from another century.

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One Year at Honey & Co

I'm a sucker for Levantine cuisine. I know my sumac from my dukkah thanks to my Yotam Ottolenghi devotee parents and boyfriend, plus religious reading of Yotam's weekly Guardian column. I'm also a big fan of the great man's delis and Nopi, and last year branched out to try Berber & Q, whose cauliflower was easily one of the best things I ingested in 2016. When choosing where to surprise B on our anniversary last month, Honey & Co was the first and only place I had in mind. 

Honey & Co is a teeny joint run by husband and wife team Itamar and Sarit. It's blessedly tucked away from the tumult of Euston Road, shielded by one street and its distinctive blue and white awnings. Its diminutive size and incredible popularity mean that it's pretty hard to secure a table here - booking is essential. There are a couple of walk-in spots by the window but be warned, you may have to wait a couple of hours if you swing by around dinner time. But whether you plan ahead or take your chances on the night, you should do whatever it takes to get a table here.

Eating at Honey & Co is like dropping in at a good friend's place for a chat and maybe some tea and cake, who then benevolently rustles you up a sublime home-cooked dinner. The décor is simple and clean, with one wall dominated by preserves and granolas, looking for all the world like you've accidentally wandered into a well-stocked pantry. Also, as I've mentioned, this place is small. There's only ten covers, so the restaurant isn't chaotically loud and a meal here feels undisturbed and intimate. This is the kind of place that you can comfortably rock up to with just a book for company, as several diners around us did. Also, the waitresses are frankly the type of people I want to be friends with - one girl, all smiles, kindly explained Purim and the symbolism of the very cute hamantaschen on the counter for me. I've only picked up such a relaxed, homely vibe at one other place - Le Zie in Lecce. That restaurant has a very special place in my heart, so even before I'd eaten a bite here I was in a good mood.

And the bites here are astonishingly delicious. B and I were drawn in by the promises of the set menu: a magical array of mezze that threatened to tip over the edge of our little table, followed by our choice of main. A slightly pricier set menu includes dessert, but still full from an early anniversary breakfast at Duck & Waffle, we opted for the non-dessert menu. Of course we still shared a pudding - we'd be remiss if we didn't here...

Among our cornucopia of mezze were the usual suspects: falafel, hummus, pickles and kalamata olives plus some more exciting plates such as a quince salad, tahini dipping sauce sprinkled with sumac, marinated aubergines, and much more. For me, the highlights were:

An incredibly creamy, smooth hummus begging to be mopped up with the three varieties of bread that came to the table (to be replenished on request). My favourite was the flatbread, though the spongy milk bread also made for a good conduit for the accompanying dish of grassy green olive oil.

This savoury-sweet poached quince salad with curd cheese, lamb's lettuce and honeyed hazelnuts. I've never had quince other than in the cheese companion context, but was delighted with this salad, which was sweet, light and incredibly moreish with a subtle chilli kick. You can order it as a small plate on the main menu, something I'll probably do on my next visit. I think this is a perfect spring dish and can imagine trying to replicate it for a dinner party in the garden.

Warm mushrooms with thinly sliced preserved lemon. These had a lovely meaty texture and sang out with umami. I've never had the patience (or organisation) to preserve lemons in the past, but after tasting these I reckon I'll have to make them a summer project.

Bouikos, little Balkan cheesy pastries, which came to the table warm and were guzzled straight away.

And so on to the mains. This is where I was really reminded of Nopi (which I wrote about here) - and no wonder, as Sarit, former pastry chef at Ottolenghi, was also executive head chef at Nopi. B, who was addicted to lentils in all their forms when I met him, opted for this hearty lentil stew with burnt aubergine, tahini, zehoug, scorched egg yolk and sfinj bread, the perfect vessel for mopping up the last of the wintry March weather.

My choice was this roasted mauve aubergine with a barbecued tahini crust, jeweled rice salad and lime. The tahini was fudgy and lent the dish an unexpected heaviness, offset by the wealth of juicy pomegranate seeds spilling across the plate like a recently unearthed trove of red rubies. It's this kind of beautiful dish that I'm sure tempted Persephone to nibble on the pomegranate seeds in the Underworld. Speaking of temptation and restraint, you may have noticed that this is an entirely vegetarian meal. B and I have been trying to cut down on our meat and fish intake over the last few months, and although we definitely won't say no to meat on special occasions, we've been making an effort to eat less of it at home - and haven't been missing it that much. Anyway, this aubergine was so filling that regretfully I couldn't finish it (though admittedly I didn't feel as guilty as I might leaving scraps of chicken or pork behind). It was a good thing that I reserved a bit of tummy space, as I'd been advised by our waitress to save myself for dessert...

The much-hyped 'cheesecake': a honeyed mound of creamy kadafi cheese sprinkled with baby basil, blueberries and roasted almonds perched atop a bird's nest of baklava-like vermicelli. We ate this with two spoons (sharing is caring, after all). I really can't do justice to this with words alone - all I can say is that it's totally worth feeling like you need to go and lie down to digest, all the while gently moaning and convinced you won't eat for days.

Honey & Co was everything I hoped it would be, and the best place for B and I to have a quietly spectacular feast for our anniversary. I hope I get to return on multiple occasions to see what else Itamar and Sarit have to offer. I want to try that fêted babka, and pay a visit to Honey & Smoke! Until next time, I'll be spending my days dreaming about the cheesecake.

25a Warren Street
London W1T 5LZ

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Travel Guide to Cuba: Viñales

Welcome to Viñales, the prehistoric land that time forgot. This stunningly preserved national park is  easily one of the most incredible places I've ever visited. It's a town with a split personality: here, you can enjoy a moment of peace while contemplating a tranquil sunrise from the pinnacle of a mogote, or witness a lively impromptu horse race, competitors boisterously kicking up the dust in the valleys below. I think Viñales is just as quintessentially Cuban as the uproarious streets of Havana or the colourful city of Trinidad, and a must visit for that reason. I hope you enjoy my guide to this beautiful place!

If you're coming from Havana, you can either take a shared car or do what we did and hop on the bus. Travelling by Viazul cost us 15 CUC (about £12) and took 3-4 hours to reach Viñales. Bear in mind that you'll almost definitely have to book your bus in advance and it's worth going straight to the tourist office when you get to Havana to check the departure times and locations, which vary wildly - we caught the bus from the Hotel Plaza at 8 AM after booking a couple of days in advance. The bus itself is spacious and air-conditioned, and stops off at what must be the coolest service station I've ever been to, where you can refresh yourself with a fresh mango or guava juice (or a mojito or cuba libre, if you fancy it) and watch little fat piglets running around like crazy in the nearby fields. After this break, you'll pile back into the bus and press your nose against the windows when you see the characteristic mogotes (hills) rising from the outrageously lush green landscape in the distance.

The little town attached to the park is easily walkable, and the park itself is a hiker's dream. But if you're looking to speed things up, cycling is a good option. All three of us spent our undergrad days at Cambridge so we've got a bit of a natural affinity for cycling everywhere. Anyway. We hired bicycles from our casa (can't remember exactly how much they cost - perhaps 10-15 CUC). They came in very useful for a spin around town, and for getting to lunch up an incredibly steep hill riddled with hairpin bends (see the 'Curvas Peligrosas' sign above...yeah. We saw that after our cycle, and apparently, brush with death). If you're not a bike person, perhaps horses might be more your thing. More on that later...

We stayed in a casa particular by the name of Casa Marlene (Calle Rafael Trejo 102), a little pink house off one of the main streets.  Marlene and her family made us feel very at home, ushering us through their house into a little air-conditioned annex at the back with its own ensuite, and setting us up with a horseriding guide and bicycles. She even washed our socks for us one morning after a particularly muddy hike. What a woman! She also made us some very sweet fruit-based breakfasts. 

If you've read my Havana post, you'll know that by my reckoning, the food in Cuba is not universally brilliant. This was sadly the case in Viñales, too - we had some very strange meals, with one place offering 'pasta' - a generous description for the congealed, wildly overcooked, tasteless carbohydrate tubes that was served - and salads, which were horribly overpriced and made up of tinned meat, watery cucumbers and tomatoes, inexplicably topped with grated cheese. I think we got suckered in because we were incredibly hungry and most of the other recommended dinner places were either too full to accommodate us or dubiously expensive. 

That said, we did have some good experiences too. On getting off the bus from Havana, we had our first lunch at a nameless little whitewashed restaurant populated solely by locals eyeing us doubtfully, where we were brought a menu scribbled by hand and had some good meat. I would also recommend the following:

La Casa Verde (near Hotel Los Jazmines 50, Viñales 22400) is a great spot for a paladar-based lunch. It's a bit out of the way - we ended up cycling to it as it's at the top of a hill, but you can easily hail a cab from the town to get there. This has to win some sort of award for the most scenic place I ate in in Cuba - there's nothing like cowering under a gazebo with your black beans and rice as lightning crackles on the horizon of the valley below and sheets of rain sweep towards you. The food was quite salty here, but plentiful (they don't seem to get many guests) and the drinks incredibly refreshing after a sweaty cycle from the town. 

For drinks and tapas, hit up 3J Bar de Tapas (Calle Salvador Cisneros 45), where you can get more iced daiquiris (bright green, if you like), with patatas bravas and mini empanadas on the side. My tipple of choice? Well. I like piña coladas (and getting caught in the rain, at La Casa Verde, apparently...) And at 3J you have free reign over the rum content of your PC. Quite literally - I was handed a bottle of Havana Club to go crazy with. This proved to be dangerous.

Go horseriding! Although I'm not a great rider, I love horses, so this was actually one of the activities I was most looking forward to when we were planning our trip. And it did not disappoint. Our casa hostess fixed us up with a local guy called Frank. Wandering through the 'real' parts of Viñales to get to his house was really interesting. We saw where the locals actually live, the paths are mainly still muddy and little kids swing themselves up on to horses, which you'll find placidly grazing in playgrounds. Anyway. Frank is a great person: he took us on a trail around the beautiful valleys and mogotes of Viñales that lasted a good four or five hours. Also, he gave us all Cuban names (hola, me llamo Tania). We started the tour by trotting from his village to a tobacco plantation. 

Viñales is apparently renowned for its tobacco, and on the plantation we had a personal tutorial in how to roll Cuban cigars using honey. None of us were really interested in the cigars themselves (although we all bravely tried them, when in Cuba after all...) - we were really after a drink after all that riding in the blisteringly hot sun. We slaked our thirst with incredibly strong mojitos (and the horses slaked theirs with big troughs of water and fruit). Refreshed, we had the above photo taken of us which I'm sure I'll treasure when I'm old and grey - love these girls so much - and coincidentally, at the same time I received the one and only text that managed to get through to my phone over the duration of the trip, a message from my B. 

Me every morning.

Our next stop was the cave at the base of the verdant mogote in the background behind Roxy. Here we let our horses take a break and a graze, and descended fearfully into the cave, where we strolled around and tried not to disturb the bats.

'Say, guys...ever seen The Descent?'

We stopped off at a coffee plantation for a super-fast tutorial on how coffee is harvested and produced. I tried my best to listen for coffee addict B but got distracted by multiple pups, both of whom I wanted to take home with me.

And then the sun began to go down, and I realised why Viñales is so incredibly popular with tourists. It's simply one of the most beautiful places in the world. Riding on a gentle horse in complete silence through a grassy meadow, with the sunset a blazing conflagration overhead will forever be engraved into my memory as one of the most peaceful, spiritual things I've ever done. I achieved a sort of nirvana at this point, and couldn't stop smiling as we rode back to town by the pink light of the candyfloss clouds. 

As the sun sets, it must come up again, and seeing the sunrise is a must in Viñales. 

We enlisted the help of Villa los Reyes to take us to a sweet spot for sunrise-viewing. With the help of a guide and powerful torches, we picked our way through the fields past sleepy horses and scrambled up a steep hill in the pre-dawn darkness until we reached a plateau. A couple living in a tiny hut (along with a feline friend, below) lent us tarps and chairs, which we laid on  the dewy grass to watch the sunrise. They also sold us glasses of mango juice for breakfast, freshly squeezed from the green mangoes pendulous and burgeoning in the trees over our heads. We had to drink them at top speed without putting them down, or risk tiny ants crawling all over the glass and our hands, trying to cash in on the sweetness. 

Gradually, the sky and air lightened and warmed, dawn mists rising from the valley floor. It was so Jurassic Park, I half expected a brachiosaurus to swing into view.

Another truly life-changing experience, a million miles away from my usual early morning routine crammed in among ashen-faced commuters on the Tube to law school. 

Walking back down as the sun climbed higher in the sky was pretty amazing. I couldn't believe we'd traipsed up the hill, steep and impenetrable as it was. And it was already incredibly warm at only 7 AM. 

I found a crop of mimosa pudica, a shy plant which furls its leaves away secretively when you stroke them.

Turkeys feeling lucky it's not Christmas.

A few more glorious birds.

And that's it for Viñales! I've so loved writing this post - I have such good memories of this place. For anyone planning a trip to Cuba: if you do nothing else, make sure you factor in enough time to see the sunrise (and, if you have time, a horse riding trip). We almost decided to spend more time in Havana and Trinidad, thinking we'd do Viñales as a day trip, but I am so glad that we stayed longer. Viñales is definitely one of the most incredible places I've ever visited, and I really hope that the Cubans continue to preserve the nature reserve so that future generations can come and visit the land before time.

In the next post we'll be jumping on the bus to beautiful, beachy Trinidad, in the centre of the island. 

Or you can hightail it back to Havana!

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