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Close your eyes, think of Cuba and what do you see? Probably shiny 1950s Cadillacs, salsa-ing mulattas, big cigars, mojitos and the crumbling streets of Old Havana.

Cuba, and Havana in particular, has one of the most seductive and instantly recognisable images of any travel destination - a truly unique city oozing, as travel writer Pico Iyer put it, all "the ramshackle glamour of an abandoned stage set".

I love Havana. It beguiles and intrigues like no other city I know. Old Havana boasts more colonial buildings than any other city in the New World and you can spend days happily wandering around, admiring the crumbling historical splendour.

On my first visit, three years ago, I had been to the Old Town, done the cigar factory and bought the Che t-shirt. But there is so much more to Havana - much of it hidden from the tourist - than that. Despite its relative isolation over the past 50 years, it punches way above its weight in all the arts and, is, along with Mexico City and Buenos Aires, one of the three most important cultural centres in Spanish-speaking America.

There is so much going on in the city that the chances are you can catch world-class performances in ballet and music whenever you visit, and some of the major festivals, such as the international film festival or the Biennale will justify a trip in themselves. The only problem for an outsider is finding out what's on. The state-published listings are patchy at best and tend to emphasise tourist cabaret shows such as the spectacular - and expensive - Tropicana. Of course you can always ask the experts at Journey Latin America. A few hours in the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes is a must for anyone visiting Havana - both the building and collection it houses are breathtaking. Today, however, the best Cuban art is created "outside the system".

Indeed, artistic freedom has come a very long way since the grey old days when Fidel summed up the purpose of art in society thus: "within the Revolution, everything; outside the Revolution, nothing." There are a growing number of independent, commercial galleries, and visiting these is one of the best ways to try to understand Cuba's many paradoxes, as well as a great way to meet interesting, informed (and usually English speaking) habaneros. Foreign visitors, particularly Spanish and Americans, have energised the scene and contemporary Cuban art is now internationally hot. There are dozens of studios, plus a few private galleries, mostly in and around the suburb of Vedado, where artists not backed by the state are happy to show you around.

You can visit them independently, or do as I did and take guided tours of artists' studio homes. I was taken to see some of the country's most important artists, including Douglas Perez, Ibrahim Miranda, José Angel Vincench, Aziyade Ruiz Vallejo and the internationally acclaimed Sandra Ramos. Ramos's powerful, political work is emblematic of this generation of young artists, whose outlook has been marked by the "special period", when the country was brought to its knees after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the migration of so many Cubans to Miami that followed. I learned more about modern Cuba from these artists in one day than I did in the rest of my two-week trip.

 

By Gavin McOwen, Guardian Travel Journalist.

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