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Havana hotel is steeped in history

The Vatican press corps and other journalists, along with members of the papal entourage, are staying in the famed Hotel Nacional in Havana, a beautiful, massive place oozing with Old World atmosphere and a colorful past that includes links to U.S. organized crime figures like Meyer Lansky.

Everyone from Winston Churchill to Robert Redford to Buster Keaton to Johnny Weissmuller have stayed here. It opened in 1930 and was owned by Cuba and run by American companies.

In the 1940s and 50s it served as a kind of headquarters for various U.S. mafia figures during the dictatorship of Fulgencio Batista.

Lansky and other mob leaders met here in 1946 to plot how to expand their gambling activities, a history exhibit at the hotel says. For a time the mob operated a gambling parlor in the hotel. The exhibit includes an actual roulette table that was used.

It all came crashing to an end when Fidel Castro and his revolution triumphed in 1959. The revolutionaries took control of the Nacional and other mob-infiltrated hotels like the nearby Vegas-style Capri. Another famed one, the Havana Hilton, now is called the Havana Libre -- Havana Free.

The Nacional's lobby is filled with books about Cuban Revolution hero Ernesto "Che" Guevara, and photos of Castro meeting with notables at the hotel such as Redford.

The logistics required to run a papal trip can be mind-boggling.

There are massive crowds, tight security and a worldwide press corps watching every move.

Before they get on the pope's plane at the start of the trip, the 77 members of the Vatican press corps are handed a fat pamphlet that journalists have dubbed "the Bible."

Actually, there are two of them -- one is a 56-page minute-by-minute description of the pope's and the press corps' schedule and the other is a listing of which events each member can cover.

The day typically starts around 5 a.m. or sometimes even 4:15 a.m. That is when journalists can go to the hotel room of the pope's media organizer and pick up copies of the pope's homilies and talks for the day. The window to do so is 10 minutes -- after that you are out of luck until later in the day.

The schedule also details everything from what time is breakfast, to what time buses leave to take journalists to pope events, to what time the pope's spokesman will hold a news conference.

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