VANESSA ARRINGTON | Associated Press
Hundreds of cigar lovers, including British actor Jeremy Irons, wrapped up an international cigar festival with an extravagant gala dinner featuring flamenco dancing and sleek acrobatic performances.
Elaborate humidors signed by President Fidel Castro were auctioned off for $700,000 at the Friday night event, where cigar merchants and aficionados from Europe, Asia, the Middle East and North America puffed away for hours on the island’s famed stogies before returning home.
The annual festival brought together nearly 1,000 cigar connoisseurs from more than 50 countries this year. Participants visited tobacco plantations and factories and attended cocktail parties.
Irons, an Oscar winner known for roles in movies such as “Lolita,” “The French Lieutenant’s Woman,” and “Stealing Beauty,” was on his first trip to Cuba. He arrived in the capital Thursday night, and was immediately taken to a club where he danced until the pre-dawn hours. He planned to leave the island Saturday.
“Cuba is great. It has personality,” Irons told The Associated Press. “And it has great mojitos, great daiquiris, great food.”
In remarks made on stage, Irons paid tribute to cigars, prompting hearty laughter when he cited a conversation he had earlier in the day with a female lunch companion.
“She said smoking cigarettes is like having sex,” he said. “But smoking a cigar is like making love.”
The evening’s events, at a pavilion in Havana’s Expocuba complex, began with four performers climbing red sashes hanging from rafters and executing impressive acrobatics, high above the heads of audience members.
Easygoing instrumental music followed. Then a group of Cuban percussionists quickened the pace. Grammy Award-winning jazz pianist Chucho Valdes was up next, performing solos as well as accompanying singer Mayra Caridad Valdes, his sister.
The evening’s highlight was Spanish flamenco dancer Joaquin Cortes, who gave a spirited performance alongside a traditional music ensemble. Wearing a black suit and bright white shoes and tie, the performer brought the crowd to its feet with his rapid footwork and flamboyant, sensual style.
Meanwhile, guests feasted on a salmon and scallops appetizer, mushroom toast, beef medallions with a honey and ginger sauce, and a creamy caramel-flan dessert. Cigars were passed out as frequently as wine glasses were filled throughout the night.
Castro did not attend the event, though his sons Parliament Speaker Ricardo Alarcon and Vice President Carlos Lage were there.
The night culminated with the auction of six humidors, each handmade by Cuban artists and signed by Castro.
The hot item of the night was the Cohiba Humidor, crafted in gold, silver, bronze, mahogany, cedar and Carrara marble by sculptor Raul Valladares. It fetched $330,000.
“For me, Cuban cigars are part of my heart,” said Valladares, whose father and grandmother worked in factories where the island’s famed tobacco is hand-rolled into cigars. “They’re the most elite product that we have on the world market.”
Cigars are one of Cuba’s most important exports, worth about $300 million annually.
All proceeds from the auction were to be donated to Cuba’s public health system.
This year’s festival, the seventh of its kind, came as the island’s communist government cracked down on smoking in closed public places. Acknowledging tobacco’s health risks, authorities banned smoking in theaters, schools and other public places this month.
Despite the new law, permission to smoke was obtained for all festival venues.