As I head to work on any given summer afternoon in Havana, I walk on the pavement that leads to the Instituto Cubano de Radio y Televisión (ICRT - Cuban Radio and Television Institute) on 23rd and M streets. While doing so, I pass by Coppelia and sure enough, there it is, its never-ending line; a human cordon bordering nearly the whole length of the block. This time it looks more picturesque than ever because of the colouring provided by umbrellas, raincoats and all sorts of home-made innovations against the bothersome drizzle.
Although this vision is part of my ordinary daily walking routine, I can’t avoid the emergence of a recurring thought: How can so many people devote several hours of their day queuing, just to eat ice cream?
For Cubans, Coppelia is not just the name of a famous classical ballet from the 18th century; it’s also the name that identifies the largest and most popular ice cream parlour in Havana and in all of Cuba. In fact, I’m quite sure it’s the largest building in the world that's exclusively devoted to selling nothing but ice cream. Its gigantic proportions occupy an entire block, and not a small one. Built in 1966 to create a unique and revolutionary space in which to enjoy the most varied combination of ice cream flavours, it soon became an icon of national pride and boundless enjoyment for the masses.
Christened as the Ice Cream’s Cathedral, is not only a place to pleasure one’s palate. It’s also a symbol of the city and of its spirit. So much so, that when the term “Coppelia” is mentioned to any Cuban, his mind doesn’t picture a grand theatre, or a light-footed ballerina. Instead; he will conjure up the image of the grand building standing amidst a leafy park at the heart of Vedado with long lines of people queuing up for what could possibly be the world’s cheapest ice cream scoops.
At less than 5 cents (CUC) a scoop (by that I mean that each scoop is roughly charged at 1 CUP or Moneda Nacional) which in Sterling pounds is ridiculous to even attempt to convert (it’s less than 3 pence!) you can see how the ice cream lure is proportionate to the low average Cuban salary and the prospect of a cooling and creamy sweet treat. If you didn’t know it yet, us Cubans are famous for having a very sweet tooth!
You might be wondering about the reason for giving such an artistic and even romantic name to a place that worships sweet creamy things and a hearty appetite. Well, apparently, legend has it that Coppelia was the favourite ballet production of Cuban revolutionary hero, Celia Sanchez, who at first was in charge of the building of the ice cream parlour. I would also venture to say that Coppelia is actually, quite a romantic site. Going out for an ice cream in Coppelia, remains a ritual for the habaneros (people born and/or currently living in Havana), for the family, for a group of friends or even for lovebirds regardless of their age; youngsters, adults or the elderly. If habaneros were asked to raise their hand if they had never had a date in Coppelia, very few would do so. I count myself among those who wouldn’t, especially during my joyous time in university.
Once upon a time Coppelia …
At the beginning, the secret to Coppelia’s popularity lay in its ice cream, as much as for the excellent quality of it as for the exorbitant variety of flavours. A mouth-watering delicious creamy product, initially available in as many as 26 flavours (to pay tribute to the attack on the Moncada Barracks on 26th July, a day of national celebration and remembrance), served in a variety of cleverly named combinations. A feast for your eyes and your taste buds with ice cream that used to be as scrumptious as any Häagen-Dazs. But that’s what those who were able to enjoy Coppelia’s golden years say.
Upon the arrival of the 1990s and the great economic crisis they brought to Cuba, all that was left from Coppelia for the Cubans was its name and its legend. It was precisely by that time that I arrived to Havana, and I was only able to taste the Varadero brand of ice cream; a substitute product of much lesser quality, watery and randomly crystallised. That was never the case with the exquisite Coppelia ice cream or so I’ve been told. Nevertheless to me; as a college student, the Varadero brand became a blessing for my dissatisfied appetite and poor pockets, and furthermore; I won’t deny it, it was fun to kill time queuing, especially when we went as a group of friends.
Nowadays, very little of this story has changed. For example; the last time I went to Coppelia, there was only one ice cream flavour; vanilla, and of course, of the Varadero brand.
Is Coppelia worth a visit if the ice cream is not what it used to be?
Nowadays I visit Coppelia, only if Martin; my son, is very, but very insistent about it. For him visiting Coppelia, is more than just a chance to eat ice cream; especially, if we invite his best friends Diego and Leonardo along. It’s above all a promise to have fun, a visit to a smaller city within the city. I dare say it’s practically an excursion and this is one of the charms that keeps Coppelia alive. It’s all about its unique architecture and the beauty of its location. Some people say its rather futuristic design resembles a spider or any other giant insect. It extends over a whole block between 23rd, 21st and K streets, in the central Vedado neighbourhood, right on the opposite corner of where the Habana Libre Hotel sits. Its ground and upper floor halls interconnect through labyrinthine paths. Oh; and one of its greatest assets is the fact that it stands in the midst of luxuriant vegetation, thus eating ice cream there is doubly refreshing. And even though you’re in the bustling centre of the city, the bustling disappears for a while.
Coppelia offers an undoubtedly peculiar service style which is actually too familiar for my liking, given the fact that according to the place’s rules, you can; or, in fact, you must, share your table with other customers, in the event that you and your party do not occupy all of it. This, honestly; is something that has always bothered me about Coppelia. But there are people who find it rather charming and you can understand the need for making the most efficient use of the space given that people queue outside for hours, so it’s quite the Samaritan thing to do. This familiarity frequently enables you to strike up a conversation with one or several strangers while devouring your ice cream. Thus, Coppelia is also a place to socialise and meet other people, and for tourists; it offers the possibility to talk to the Cuban common folk.
Your next logical pondering would be…but do you really think that a few scoops of not-so-great quality ice cream can really make up for standing in a slow-moving queue for up to two hours under Cuba’s relentless scorching sun? My short answer would be yes; most foreigners and visitors from the Western hemisphere are obsessed with time, it’s not so in Cuba, we don’t rush for anything, it’s not in our culture, and to be honest most of the time there’s no need for us to rush, things move at the pace they do here and since we can’t do much about it we simply smile and make the most of it. Plus, if you really want to immerse in the local culture, then there’s really no better excuse - as you move along in the queue (bear in mind sometimes you can be in line for up to two hours) you can attempt to strike up conversations with locals or you can delight in people-watching. Do it closely, attentively and perhaps learn a thing or two about this city and its variety of citizens. You’ll pick up things that you might not if walking past, rushing around between tourist site and landmark attraction. Coppelia is the perfect place to take a step back and observe typical, real and raw Cuban life with the prospect of a cooling treat at the end!
Coppelia’s other ties with art
Coppelia’s ties with art do not end with its name. The most famous scene of the well-known film “Fresa y Chocolate” (“Strawberry and Chocolate”); a Cuban cinematography icon, was shot there. Furthermore, a new hall named Las Cuatro Joyas (The Four Jewels), opened in 2013, forty-nine years after its founding. The new hall is a tribute to four iconic ballerinas of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (Cuban National Ballet); Loipa Araujo, Aurora Bosh and the late Josefina Méndez and Mirta Plá, all of whom were disciples of the Prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso. In this hall, you can admire an outstanding photography exhibit that shows some of the Ballet Nacional de Cuba’s greatest moments. Quite fitting to the ice cream parlour’s name, wouldn’t you agree?
Where to find Coppelia ice cream?
Now reading this, you might think that the genuine Coppelia ice cream has been wiped from the surface of the earth just like the dinosaurs were; but this isn’t exactly the case. Right there, within the complex, you can buy original excellent quality Coppelia ice cream in CUC (Cuban Convertible) currency. Its price may not seem dear to you as a tourist but it is out of the reach of most Cubans so that also explains the long lines. Thanks to the franchise initiative, you may also find this local brand of ice cream in cafeterias and restaurants which include it in their menus, again in CUC currency or its equivalent in CUP (Cuban Pesos). You’ll never find it at the extremely low prices of the Coppelia ice cream parlour and thus not many Cubans get to enjoy the real Coppelia ice cream nowadays. The price for the ice cream once made in “Cuba’s Ice Cream Cathedral”, is no longer at the reach of the average Cuban or habanero.
Coppelia’s unique warmth
It’s clear that I have my reservations regarding Coppelia but I won’t deny that it’s been the best way to measure Havana’s temperature, and I don’t mean just the climate which as everyone knows is hot and humid. But if you prick up your ears, you’ll find that the place becomes a thermometre indicative of our moods; of the issues that worry us Cubans, of what people comment about, or of anything that’s local news. Although Coppelia ice cream hasn’t reigned in its own cathedral for many decades, there is one thing that I can assure you; and that is, that you and your family will be able to learn how we Cubans endure our eternal summer, while experiencing the greatest human warmth among ice cream balls.