The street outside Graeme Greene’s Hotel Sevilla is quiet, but as the dramatic Prado opens up beyond, suddenly the sheer scale of this paradox strikes me: Havana is truly a world city.
Columbus sighted Cuba in 1492 and landed here two years later. The island has been a prize for empires ever since. Spanish, British and American armies all fought for this land.
Cuba’s history and her population embrace that diversity. Cubans of every shade and colour fill the streets.
And whether descended from white Europeans, African slaves or indigenous peoples, they’re all simply Cubans.
By rights, Havana should be the hub of Latin America, entrancing and captivating in her charm, passion and style as nowhere on Earth.
It’s ten past ten on 10.10.10 and I’m running across Westminster Bridge. The sun has just come out onto a perfect autumn day and Sunday mornings don’t come much more memorable than this.
London has hosted a famous marathon every year since Dick Beardsley and Inge Simonsen held hands beneath Big Ben to share the first race victory one rainy day in March 1981. And now this soon-to-be Olympic city of ours has a world-class half marathon as well.
I head back along the bridge and east beside the Thames. There’s a soft breeze blowing leaves along the sunlit road under a clearing October sky. Across a silver slice of river, the London Eye is turning gracefully. The Embankment is my spiritual running home, and I’m very glad to be here.
Over the summer I’ve discovered two more tough ascents in the Surrey Hills.
Both lead through the woods up to Winterfold Heath, deep in the Hurtwood Forest set high above Cranleigh.
The Hurtwood is one of the largest privately owned estates in Surrey.
Mercifully, most of it is accessible on a dense network of footpaths, one of which is an ancient Roman road.
Alderbrook Road (A to B); Barhatch Lane (D to C)
The two ascents are different.
“The past is another country” — The Go Between, LP Hartley (1953)
August days are with us now, the ripe Lincolnshire corn shimmering tall and golden in late summer afternoons.
The stuffy, restrictive heat and bustle of London feels a world away from here.
The landscape has changed little across the years — parched harvest fields and desiccated stately lawns still wait ready for a boy or girl delivering some fateful message to Julie Christie in The Go Between or Keira Knightley in Atonement.
Only the slow progress of the monster machines that gather in the harvest serve to tell the tale of a landscape now worked with many fewer people.
Across long, easy days we cycle over gentle Jurassic hills. Three miles to reach another village, four villages to find a pub. It’s a pleasant way to slow down and find the summer.
The pace of life seems slow, and it’s hard to equate this landscape with a world speed record set three quarters of a century ago and still standing firm today.
It’s late on a summer’s evening and I’m cycling homeward along one of the most beautiful country roads in England.
This morning’s London to Brighton bike ride is well behind me now and I’m rolling towards the sunset on the longest day of the year.
Eighty miles are in my legs by the time I pass the pretty Saxon village of Slinfold, with twenty more ahead to Guildford.
Beyond the church, I slowly climb a steady rise and turn right onto the main A29. One of my favourite cycling stretches, this — perfect blacktop, arrow straight, and for now at least, heading gently downhill towards the river.
This is Stane Street — the Roman road from Chichester to London. Built in the 1st Century AD, it’s more than good enough for me now. I pause to eat and think at the bridge across the Arun. Here, inside the meander of the river, the Romans built a staging post or mansio.
Ditchling Beacon is the high point of the London to Brighton Bike Ride each year, in lots more ways than one.
A whole year of training is finally distilled into one breathless blur of uphill climb.
And no matter how many hills I’ve toiled all winter, it never seems that success on Ditchling is guaranteed — because it’s the toughest ascent I do.
Here’s a map and a profile of the hill, and a comparison with White Down, the steepest climb in the Surrey Hills close to where I live, and the last training test I do before setting off to Brighton each year.
I approved the proclamation which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further:
… In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.
— US President John F. Kennedy: 24th October, 1963
Daybreak, 210 km from Havana.
It’s dawn. The rainforest stands still etched in grey, the air dank and humid with half-forgotten warmth.
The sky is dimly promising a future brightening through blue, already revealing white-topped clouds in the firmament above.
Behind me, the friendly valley calls. The massive limestone mogotes above Viñales rise to frame a monochrome outline of last night’s perfect Cuban sunset. I turn the other way and run towards the sunrise.
The track is damp from unseen rain fallen in the night. The air is heavy, silent, folded thick amongst the trees and scrub lurking close around the path.
The Cuban Revolution started somewhere like this, in the Sierra Maestra above Santiago. The 82 men who sailed from Mexico in December 1956 on the yacht Granma were swiftly cut down to twelve when they landed on Cuba’s swampy southeastern shores.
The survivors, among them a charismatic Argentinian doctor named Che Guevara, fled for the refuge of the mountains where they could regroup and recruit fresh rebels for their cause.