Cruise ships, commercial flights and tour operators are all taking curious Americans to Cuba.
At 8 p.m. Tuesday, it’s WTTW-Ch. 11’s turn. That’s when the PBS affiliate debuts “Weekend in Havana,” an hourlong exploration of this long-forbidden island.
The special is co-written and hosted by Geoffrey Baer, a familiar face on WTTW. He’s starred in more than 20 specials on Chicago history and architecture and makes frequent appearances on “Chicago Tonight” via his “Ask Geoffrey” segments.
With the help of a local architect, flamenco dancer and Grammy-nominated jazz pianist Roberto Fonseca, Baer takes viewers on a warts-and-all tour of the capital city and beyond. He drops by Hemingway haunts, tools around town in a coconut-shaped taxi, ventures into a private home to sit in on a Santeria religious ritual and gets a rare glimpse at renovations inside Cuba’s Capitol building, an edifice modeled after ours in Washington, D.C.
Baer spent “eight sweltering days” last August in Cuba scouting locations alongside his boss, WTTW chief television content officer and co-producer Dan Soles, whose parents fled Cuba the day after the couple wed in 1961. Filming for the special, part of PBS’ “Summer of Adventure” lineup, took place over 16 days in November and December.
Baer’s travel journal entries, plus photos, videos, recipes, and other bells and whistles can be found at wttw.com/weekendinhavana, where the show will be available for streaming.
We decided to “Ask Geoffrey” some questions about the upcoming special and his experiences in Cuba. The following is an edited transcript of that email Q&A:
Q. Why Cuba?
A. After President Barack Obama re-established diplomatic relations with Cuba and eased certain restrictions on travel and trade, there was an explosion of interest in visiting the island. People wanted to see a place many thought of as “frozen in time,” which had been off-limits to most Americans for half a century. Seemed like the perfect time to take American audiences there and do a deep dive beyond the stereotypes to see the real Cuba.
Q. The Obama administration made it easier for Americans to travel to Cuba. President Trump has walked back some of those initiatives. How did that impact your show?
A. We didn’t change a thing. Our show deals very little with present-day geopolitics. It focuses almost entirely on exploring Cuban culture and history through the eyes of people who live there. By the way, the new restrictions have not yet taken effect for the most part, and even after they do, there will likely still be ways for Americans to visit.
Q. Despite all of the research you did leading up to your trip, what are a few things that surprised you once you were there?
A. I’ve been telling people it’s everything I expected and, at the same time, nothing I expected.
Of course, the '50s-era American cars are everywhere, and yes, the city is crumbling. After our plane landed, we taxied to the gate past an Angola Airlines jet, and there were several hulks of abandoned jetliners in the grass that had been slowly stripped for parts. On our taxi ride from the airport, we passed donkey carts and hitchhikers (public transportation is minimal, and many people can’t afford it).
But Cuba is anything but frozen in time! We visited an ultra-hip art gallery/nightclub in a restored cooking-oil factory that could have been in SoHo or any stylish world capital. It was filled with chic-looking kids and edgy art, and the line to get in was down the block.
There’s also an amazing food scene there in the now-legal private restaurants called paladares. The juxtapositions are amazing.
The coolest paladar I visited (La Guarida) is on the roof of a ruined palace built in the early 20th century for one family. After the revolution, 40 families lived there. Several still do. You climb up through six floors of semi-ruins and arrive at an ultra-hip restaurant with stunning views across the city and of the waterfront in the distance.
Q. Architecture is a subject you’ve dealt with in a lot of your U.S.-based shows. What struck you about the architecture in Cuba?
A. It’s like a living museum of architecture. The buildings are literally a way of reading the island’s history.
There are Spanish forts and cathedrals dating back as far as the 1500s, built only a few decades after Christopher Columbus’ arrival on the island in 1492. And in the Old City, Spanish colonial architecture is everywhere in various states of decay and restoration.
Buildings from the so-called republican era (1902-1959) after Cuba achieved independence from Spain are fairly bursting with the giddy prosperity of the time. Under heavy-handed American patronage, the neo-classical, art deco and midcentury modernist buildings reflect the exuberance of an island that was America’s playground, with mob-run hotels and casinos, cabarets and more than a hint of forbidden pleasure.
And then there are the brutalist concrete blockhouses of the Soviet era. The most chilling is the looming Soviet (now Russian) embassy. It looks like a high-rise watchtower topped by a bizarre ornamental structure that made me wonder if it was built to conceal top-secret radio antennas and other surveillance devices.
The other amazing architectural story there is the dogged determination to restore as much of the Old City as possible. There are schools devoted to training young apprentices in lost arts of building construction and design. Much has been accomplished, but far more is still to be done. One wonders if there will ever be enough money to do it all (or even most of it).
Q. What tips or advice do you have for people going to Cuba?
A. Meet the people! They are incredibly warm, and many are interested in meeting and talking to Americans. They have a deep pride in their Cuban heritage and have an amazing resilience, sense of humor and resourcefulness that has seen them through much adversity.
Be sure to visit the Malecon, Cuba’s Lake Shore Drive, at sunset. The whole city comes out to stroll and entertain each other.