Il Divino Restaurante

I had a window seat for the short (1-hour) charter flight between Miami and Havana, which afforded me great views of the turquoise water and vast green farmland as we came in over Cuba.

Cuba Aerial
Aerial shot over Cuba

Even after we'd touched down and were heading into Havana, it was much greener than I'd imagined. All farmland, really, or brush growing on either side of the road, on which you'd periodically pass cows, goats, and chickens.

Cows along the road

People gather and walk freely on the shoulder of the road, and cars - not people - have the right of way. You see all manner of transportation - the ubiquitous classic cars, plus bikes, horses, horse-drawn carriages, and tractors...

Cars and Horses
Sharing the road

...and lots of socialist propaganda on billboards and buildings, featuring Che Guevara, Fidel and Raul Castro, and former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez

Che Guevara
Revolutionary hero Che Guevara
Fidel y Chavez
Castro and Chavez: BFFs

Our first stop was Il Divino, a beautiful paladar (more on these private restaurants in a later post) that uses ingredients from its own garden.

Il Divino
Il Divino Restaurante

They welcomed us with rum drinks and we sat in wooden glide chairs under a thatched roof, open air bar with beautiful tiled floors and tables while a traditional Cuban band performed.


Havana Club Rum
The famous Havana Club Rum

Out back are rows of carefully tended vegetables and greens, towering Cuban pear trees with clusters of magenta flowers and ruby pears, banana plants, avocado bushes, and a handful of hammocks strung between the trees.

Il Divino's organic garden
Cuban pear
Beautiful Cuban pears
An orchid
A hammock in the Il Divino garden, over fallen flower petals from the Cuban pear tree
Another hammock (and a crazy tree) in the Il Divino garden

There were also carved wooden parrots in the trees, and lanterns strung about - beer bottles with their bottoms removed and light bulbs inside.

We enjoyed a delicious lunch on the terrace - my selection included salad, fried chick peas (excellent), lasagna (in a white sauce with meat, diced onion, and an egg inside!), and home made pineapple ice cream with a cortadito (Cuban espresso).

Dining Room
The terrace at Il Divino


Cortadito (Cuban espresso)

A black cat meandered through the property, too, crying out for a bite of food. 

Feed me!

This place was fantastic; what a great start to our trip!

The Chef at Il Divino, bidding us adieu

Viva la Revolución

Smithsonian Journeys sent along a lot of pre-trip information to provide cultural context and set expectations for our travel to Cuba. The highlights:

  • Cuba is still very much a Communist country
  • There is significant poverty there
  • Use caution with the water, not because it is contaminated but because it contains different bacteria that may upset our stomachs 
  • Bring cash only, as US credit and bank cards are not accepted (still true as of this writing, although expected to change in the near term); even if the bank cards worked, ATMs run out of cash fairly regularly. I actually converted my US dollars to Canadian before arriving in Cuba, since they charge a 10% fee to exchange US currency thanks to the embargo.
  • Be prepared to keep the aforementioned travel journal, documenting your experiences and reactions to the people-to-people exchange

They also provided an extensive reading list including a mix of fiction, memoir, travelogues, history and art books. Two that I read before the trip:

Telex from cubaTelex from Cuba by Rachel Kushner, a historical fiction piece that follows the lives of American executives living and working in the town of Preston, named after Andrew W. Preston, a co-founder of the United Fruit Company (the present-day Chiquita Corporation) and centered around the sugar cane processing center located there. 

It highlights the sharp social disparities between the white collar Americans and working class Cubans which ultimately drove Fidel Castro and his rebels to overthrow the US backed Fulgencio Batista regime in hopes of establishing greater equality. Famous figures from history including Batista, Raul & Fidel Castro, Che Guevara, and even Ernest Hemingway figure prominently in the story, along with a host of rich characters that really give you a sense of the social and economic dynamics of the time.

An excerpt:

"This town, Castro said, was the location of his own childhood dreams, this very place where they  were gathered. Off-limits, and American, it was the site where his imagination had been ignited, and roamed. Freely, he said, but in the freedom of dreams. The town of Preston was make-believe in its distance from his life just a few kilometers away, in Birán, make-believe in its luminosity, its impossibility. But real in its control, its ownership of everything and everyone. 'Off limits and American,' he repeated, 'But of course...we Cubans were invited to cut the cane.'"

Following the Cuban Revolution in 1958, United Fruit withdrew and the Cuban government renamed the town "Guatemala" to symbolize solidarity with its Caribbean neighbor.

Cuba diariesCuba Diaries: An American Housewife in Havana by Isadora Tattlin, the American wife of a European energy consultant posted to Havana in the 1990's. She documented her experience there, but disguised the identity of herself and those around her, since criticism of the government or its leaders was punishable by imprisonment of up to 30 years (still generally the case, from what I can gather).  Her story is fascinating, if sad, as she describes the conditions under which most Cubans were living: lacking the most basic necessities like soap and toilet paper. Traveling with her through various towns outside Havana, you learn what it was really like to live in post-revolutionary Cuba, amidst splendor and squalor.

Based on my experiences last week, I think her words still hold true. Restoration is happening, but very slowly. There are some Colonial buildings that have been lovingly refurbished, right next to others that are literally crumbling. And while I didn't witness any begging in Havana, we did have people asking for soap in Cienfuegos. And women in the markets of Trinidad were anxious to barter - their hand-crafted goods in exchange for lipstick or other cosmetics. Toilet paper is particularly hard to come most rest rooms there is an attendant collecting 25 cents for a few squares of paper (best advised to bring your own!). But more on material goods in a later post. For now, it may be helpful to provide a very brief overview of the history that led to this state of affairs:

Spaniards took over the island of Cuba soon after Columbus discovered it in 1492. There was a very small native population of Siboney Indians living there at the time which was subsequently enslaved and forced to work for the Spanish colonialists, along with many more slaves brought over from Africa throughout the 1500s. The United States got involved when the Cubans wanted to throw off Colonial rule in the 1800s, but really had their eye on annexation. There was a seemingly revolving door of Cuban leaders during this time, while the US continued to invest in Cuban businesses and infrastructure. In 1901, the US signed a perpetual lease for the property at Guantánamo, to be used as a coal refueling station and naval base. The dictator Fulgencio Batista came on the scene later, with a populist vision inspired by FDR's New Deal. He was friendly with the US and favorable to their business interests in Cuba (which included a large casino/mob presence by the 1940s), and the US ultimately backed Batista when he overthrew the Cuban government - further fueling Castro's anger toward his neighbors to the north. In fact, I read that for years after 1959 the US paid Cuba $4K for its annual lease of Guantánamo, and Castro refused to cash the check. A whole string of important events happened post 1959 - The Bay of Pigs, the US trade embargo, and more (some of which I'll touch on in later posts), including Cuba's increasing reliance on the Soviet Union as an economic partner. With the fall of the Soviet Union in the 80s, Cuba suffered a serious economic blow that paved the way to its current state.

We had a panel discussion in Miami the night before our flight to Havana, to shed additional light on the current state of cultural affairs. The speakers:

  • Franklin Knight, a History professor at Johns Hopkins University and the Cuba expert that would be traveling with us on the trip
  • Dr Lillian Manzor, a Modern Languages professor at University of Miami College of Arts & Sciences, born in Cuba but left as a child when her parents fled in the 60s
  • Alexander Correa, a 1st generation Cuban-American whose parents came to the States during Lyndon Johnson's Freedom Flights, which brought 300K refugees from Cuba to Miami from 1965-1973. It led to the creation of Little Havana in Miami.

The group talked about how Cuba is transitioning from Communist to Socialist. Admittedly, I didn't really know the difference until now (summarized here from a longer explanation on

Communism vs socialism
It became clear that Cuba is an island of contradictions: egalitarian in its rhetoric but very much divided between the "haves" and the "have-nots." It's 500 years old, but still searching for its voice. It's a very young country - 60% of Cubans were born after the Revolution - and there's only one official paper (Granma), but its citizens are pretty well informed: they can hear about two thousand different American and Canadian radio stations, access the Internet, and bring back TVs from Miami (as well as "El Paquete" - a weekly USB drive loaded up with American shows like Friends and How I Met Your Mother, as well as all the US commercials that come along with them, that is very popular among university students).

You'll see this dichotomy in upcoming posts.

Gran Teatro Nacional de la Habana
Gran Teatro Nacional de la Habana
A building in ruins along the Malecon, Havana



Descubra Cuba

I am back from a wonderful, educational, inspirational, eye-opening trip to Cuba and have so many stories to share. But first, the back story:

When investigating vacation options in the Fall of 2013, I had settled on a Smithsonian Journeys tour to Cuba. The island was somewhat shrouded in mystery [to me, having been born after the Cuban Revolution and subject to a US trade embargo for as long as I've been around], but seemed fascinating specifically because of that history. My only frame of reference: History classes from many, many years ago; Desi Arnaz/Ricky Ricardo; the Elian Gonzalez affair of the early 90's; and the TV drama Magic City more recently.

The Smithsonian Journeys trip was particularly appealing to me as it was designed to engage travelers in Smithsonian's mission: "the increase and diffusion of knowledge." Plus, payment for the tour supports Smithsonian's 19 museums (all free to the public), the National Zoo, and its 9 research centers.

But then Lulu's health went into rapid decline, and I had to forgo the trip.

Fast forward one year, and travel to Cuba became a hot topic, thanks to President Obama's efforts to improve relations between our countries. When I tried to book the same January trip I was eying the year before, it was sold out. And the March one was, too. But I put my name on a wait list, and was thrilled to learn that someone else had dropped out. I was going to Cuba!

Despite recent advancements, travel to Cuba is still highly regulated for all U.S. residents, and travelers must qualify for one of 12 designated categories of travel granted by the Treasury Department's Office of Foreign Assets Control. Smithsonian is able to operate under a "people-to-people" license which stipulates that travel requires a full-time schedule of meaningful interaction with Cubans that cannot include free time or recreation.

In addition, individual travelers are required to keep a journal of interactions with Cubans and to provide written accounts of these interactions for up to five years after his/her return to the U.S.

Commercial flights between the US and Cuba are still prohibited; tours such as these are via charter like the World Atlantic flight I took, below. But authorized travelers are now permitted to bring back to the U.S. up to $400 worth of goods (with alcohol and tobacco products limited to $100 of the $400). Under the previous regulations, this was not permitted. There is still no limit on the amount of artwork or informational materials you can purchase and bring back into the U.S. 

World Atlantic

So I embarked on the one-week Discover Cuba: It's People and Culture tour, designed to enhance both countries' mutual understanding and promote educational exchange between our societies. This wasn't about the Cuban government, or its politics, but rather its people. The 11 million living on an island about the size of Pennsylvania, only 90 miles from the U.S. but worlds away culturally.

We traveled to three cities on our trip - Havana, Cienfuegos, and Trinidad - which I'll shed some light on in subsequent posts. 


And if you're planning your own trip to Cuba, I highly recommend the DK Eyewitness Travel Guide to Cuba, which is chock full of history, points of interest, street maps and other survival tips for navigating the "Pearl of the Antilles."

Villa Necchi Campiglio

I'm gearing up for my next trip across the pond, and needed to add one more post from my last trip: a visit to Villa Necchi Campiglio at Via Mozart 14 in the heart of Milan.


This was the last stop on our Smithsonian Made In Italy tour,  providing us with an insider's view of the style, design and life of an upper middle class Lombardy family in the early 20th century.

The home belonged to the sisters Necchi - Gigina (1901-2001) and Nedda (1900-1993) - and Gigina's husband Angelo Campiglio (1891-1984), members of a famous Italian manufacturing family known for its eponymous line of cast iron and enameled sewing machines.


Constructed between 1932 and 1935 by the Milanese architect Piero Portaluppi, the home is set back from the street and surrounded by a large garden with a swimming pool and tennis court.


It has an Art Deco design, in contrast with the more traditionally ornate homes in the neighborhood, and was modern in both in its style as well as its amenities (e.g., an elevator, dumbwaiter, telephones and intercoms, and the area's first heated swimming pool).


The sisters, who died without leaving any heirs, bequeathed the property to the Italian government for use as a museum.

Stone from Lombardy Italian marble graces the exterior, along with a sundial:



A walnut root and marble stairway dominates the main entrance:


Briar root (walnut) and brass/silver/zinc pocket doors designed to withstand a bomb connect the library, smoking room, and sun porch, and salon.



Most of the rooms remain as they did when the Necchi family and their servants lived there, featuring beautiful architecture, decorative arts, furnishings and collections of the period. Claudia Gian Ferrari’s collection of early 20th century art and Alighiero de’ Micheli’s collection of 18th century paintings and decorative arts were added in more recent years.



The dining room features 16th and 17th century tapestries from Brussels:


As was custom at the time, servants quarters and the kitchen and laundry rooms were located in the basement, with food brought up by hand or via the dumbwaiter. The upper floor is comprised of the sisters' apartments - a large bedroom, bath,  dressing room, and sitting area for Gigina and Angelo, plus a slightly smaller (single-bed) version of the same for the unmarried Nedda.



They shared a long corridor of custom closets designed to house their extensive collection of hats, frocks, and shoes.


Also on this floor is a tiny corner apartment for the dressing maid (yes, the woman who pressed, mended, laid out and helped them don their clothing every day).

The home, its contents, and history are simply amazing and worth a visit if you are in Milan. If you can't make it there, the next best thing is to watch the movie I Am Love, directed by Luca Guadagnino's and starring Tilda Swinton.  After an exhaustive search for a set location that best represented his vision for the period piece, he landed on Villa Necchi Campiglio, commenting:

“It shows the obsession with perfection and details that the Milanese bourgeoisie have. Old money always comes with great charm. Their real success is making others believe that money doesn’t exist — and luxury, as most people perceive it, doesn’t really exist in this house. It’s very severe, and feels almost unmovable, like a piece of rock.”

And it is that obsession with perfection and details that made this the perfect place to wrap up a week steeped in Italian design. Bellissimo!


The Tortona district is a creative enclave southwest of Milan's city center. It's full of old warehouse buildings dating back to World War I (sounds familiar) that for years housed industrial giants like GE and Nestle. Today, the factories have been refurbished into a lively neighborhood of restaurants, showrooms, and artists studios (the Nestle building was converted to Giorgio Armani's headquarters), thanks to an early move by a couple of fashion insiders back in 1983.

At that time, Italian Vogue art director Flavio Lucchini and photographer Fabrizio Ferri created Superstudio Group to fill a void that they saw in the fashion, communication and creative fields. Not only would their company offer physical space for artists, photographers, and performers to show their wares, but it would also provide all of the related support services - staging, lighting, casting, hosting, production, security, catering, etc. - that might be needed. And they chose Tortona for the location of their business (a move that many of their peers thought was questionable at the time).


Today, Superstudio is comprised 13,000 square meters of large, flexible warehouse space that can be used for events, exhibitions, fashion shows, photo shoots, advertising/television/cinema shoots, parties, and dance performances. 


The historic Superstudio 13 in via Forcella 13 is comprised of 13 photo studios with different characteristics (e.g., dimensions, lighting, backdrop) which over the years have hosted some of the world's top fashion and music photographers, videographers, directors, models, and performers.


Vogue fashion shoots, Fashion Week runway shows, and Salone Internazionale del Mobile events are all in a day's work for the Superstudio team. Countless celebrities, models, and artists have worked in the space:


In fact, they had just broken down an exhibit by photographer David LaChapelle, who unveiled his "Land Scape" show here the night before I visited.


Which left lots of empty space for us to have fun in.


To see a behind-the-scenes video of what a fashion shoot inside Superstudio 13 is really like, click through to WhoWhatWear, which has a video of the M Missoni Fall fashion shoot that was done there last Spring.

Fondazione Arnaldo Pomodoro

Arnaldo Pomodoro is an Italian sculptor known for his "Sphere within Sphere" series that graces locations around the world, including the Vatican Museum, Trinity College in Dublin, UN Headquarters, the Guggenheim in NYC, and the Columbus Museum, among others. 

I had taken this picture of one of his huge, bronze sculptures in front of the Banca Popolare di Milano building, not realizing that I'd visit his studio the very next day!


Yes, this is yet another artist we learned about on my recent Made in Italy art and design tour through Smithsonian Journeys (I cannot say enough good things about this tour...we saw and did so much! As evidenced by the fact that I'm still blogging about it two months later...)

On the second-to-last day of the trip, we visited the Arnaldo Pomodoro Foundation at Vigevano 9, an exhibit space originally set up to document and archive his own work, but now also showcases the works of others.


The installation on view the day we visited was made especially for the space by artist Loris Cecchini. Part of it, called "Module and Model," was made up of hundreds of small steel modules assembled into large 3-dimensional sculptures on the wall and floor. 


The other part, called "Wallvave Vibrations," consisted of sculptural carvings in the walls themselves. I neglected to take a photo of those so I've included one here, taken by Carlos Tettamanzi and appearing on the Foundation website; in it, you can see nearly the full installation (note the carvings on the back and right walls):

Wallvave Vibrations
Photo by Carlos Tettamanzi

Interestingly, the pieces have a nature-inspired feel to them, despite the austere colors and materials. And despite it's small size, the Foundation offers a great little gallery for viewing contemporary sculpture by international artists.

Antonio Marras + Daniela Zedda

Browsing through a recent issue of InStyle Magazine today, I was overjoyed to see a reference to  Antonio Marras (even though his wild animal runway look was deemed over the top for anyone but a street-style star).

Antonia marras

Last month when I visited Milan, I had the chance to visit Antonio's concept store, Circolomarras - and meet the Sardinian-born womenswear designer himself - in the heart of Zona Tortona, on via Cola di Rienzo, 8.


His studio/concept store is absolutely gorgeous, and one of the most memborable visits of the trip. In true Milan fashion, it sits back off the street, through a gate and a secret-garden of sorts.


Inside an old factory workshop with vaulted, unfinished ceilings and walls is a stunning collection of Antonio's designs, mixed in with antique furnishings, books, and gobs of fresh flowers. 


It's a warm, inviting space, which is how Antonio likes to live and work:

I have always liked, as a child, the idea of ​​having a space that was not my room or my house, an enlarged and private space, confidential, to stay with friends and unleash our energies. Back then it was the garage, the attic, a small barn in the countryside. As an adult, a huge space, a loft, a multipurpose space, a place not exclusively tied to exposition and sale. A comfortable place, private and open, welcoming, “hospitable” in the sense that this word had in ancient Greece, in Sardinia, in the Mediterranean area, where the stranger, the guest, was sacred and it was considered a crime to violate the laws of hospitality.

- Antonio Marras


Perhaps the most stunning aspect of the space is a collection of dresses hanging from the rafters, their hems tented out over bicycle wheels, and outfitted with lightbulbs to create an enormous, ethereal chandelier:


All of Antonio's clothes are made by hand in his home/studio/workshop back in Sardinia, and can be found at retailers like Saks and Shopstyle. From 2003-2011 he served as artistic director at LVMH's Kenzo fashion house, and over the years he became known for his hallmark "ligazzio rubio" (or, “red thread”).


There was a buzz of energy in the space when we were there, as Antonio's team was feverishly assembling racks of clothing for Fashion Week.


Back outside through the lush garden, we toured an adjacent exhibit by portrait photographer Daniela Zedda. Her collection "Aldilàdelmare" contains eighty-eight pictures of Sardinians (she is from there as well) who have left the island to find new opportunities. Her portrait of Antonio Marras is prominently featured at the entrance to the exhibit:Image

Inside is a cavernous, unfinished studio space where the art is the focal point.


Her portraits are amazing. I was particularly taken with this one of editorial consultant Colomba Rossi in front of street art by Kenny Random at Torre della Specola, Padova.


Here it is nearly 8 weeks later and I still haven't shared all of the sites and stories from Milan! But seeing reference to the people and places I encountered there gives me a little burst of creative energy. Good way to start the week.


Navigli District

Everyday life has gotten in the way of me finishing my Milan travelogue...but there are a handful of things I still want to share with you! Here's one of them...

After lunch and shopping at 10 Corso Como, we strolled around the Navigli District; meaning "ships" in Italian, the Navigli was once a network of waterways and trade routes, designed in part by Leonardo da Vinci, and now home to restaurants, boutiques, and artist studios.


Oringinally five canals, the oldest built in 1179, they connected the city with the rivers and lakes in the Lombardian region and were used for irrigation and transport  - both people and goods - to and from areas as far as the Alps and beyond. In fact, the marble used for the construction of the Duomo was transported via these waterways from the Lago Maggiore near the Alps.


Traffic on the canals dwindled once road transportation took off, and some were filled in during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Only three canals survive today: the Naviglio della Martesana in the north-east and the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese in the south-west of the city.

This area was until recently an impoverished, working-class neighborhood and is still a bit "edgy."


But in recent years, the houses along the canals were renovated, and many are now home to artist studios, restaurants and bars.


Along the Naviglio Grande, you'll also find the Vicolo dei Lavandai, where women used to wash their laundry with water from the canal. There were children playing here on the day we visited:


The Navigli is a fun, energetic part of town. I've had a long-time fascination with Leonardo da Vinci, and it is amazing to see a system of damns and sluices that he designed so many years ago. Like much of Milan, the neighborhood is an eclectic mix of ancient and modern.


10 Corso Como

Before I had even arrived in Milan, I had read about 10 Corso Como and was dying to go there. Located near Porta Nuova at the address from which it takes its name, it's a stylish art gallery, bookshop, fashion store, cafe, terrace, and boutique hotel all rolled into one.


It's founder, Carla Sozzani, spent the early part of her career working as an editor for various Italian fashion magazines (including Vogue Italia, where her sister Franca is currently Editor in Chief) and American Vogue. Over the years, she worked with famous photographers including Herb Ritts, Bruce Webber, Robert Mapplethorpe, Juergen Teller, and William Wegman, publishing several books and photography catalogs along the way.

But it was in 1990 that Sozzani used her years of editorial experience to create a "living magazine" in a former mechanic's workshop at 10 Corso Como. Beginning with the Galleria Carla Sozzani, the concept space eventually evolved into a multi-level shopping and dining complex selling art, fashion, music, contemporary design objects and more. 


The indoor/outdoor cafe on the ground floor is in a quiet courtyard surrounded by plants and flowers:



We sat outside and enjoyed a decadent lunch in between browsing the various floors.


Also on the ground floor is a large retail space featuring an assortment of apparel, jewelry, and accessories from high-end designers:


Heading upstairs, there is a bookstore with an extensive collection of fashion, design, art, photography, travel, and food titles:




Turntables for the DJ:


And 3 hotel suites overlooking the courtyard, each with it's own private entrance and all furnished in homage to mid-20th and 21st century designers so that visitors can live the 10 Corso Como experience.

The top floor houses the original Galleria Carla Sozzani art gallery, which was exhibiting the winners of the 2014 World Press Photos contest, including this haunting image of blind Indian albino boys by Brent Stirton.

Last, but not least, there is a beautiful rooftop terrace, full of brightly tiled furniture, metal and stone sculptures, lush plants, and great views.



I just love everything about 10 Corso Como; it's a must-visit spot if you are ever in Milan.