Hemingway left footprints all over Cuba
World famous author continues to interest both tourists and readers

While most of the 350,000 Canadians that visit Cuba each year go for the luscious beaches, spectacular landscapes and hot sun, those that leave the familiar enclaves of Varadero, Cayo Coco and Guardalavaca will quickly hear a familiar name: Hemingway.

The world famous writer, adventurer and journalist made Cuba his home for the last two decades of his life, and his footprints litter the deceptively large island. Everywhere you go, from his former Havana haunts, to Pinar del Rio where he hiked, to the majestic Santiago basilica El Cobre, where he made his famous Nobel prize donation to the Cuban people, you'll find traces of the bard.

Hemingway is a big deal in Cuba. Fidel Castro is a fan, and Hemingway's work is required reading in the country's schools where his books are thought to exemplify the socialist idea of the primacy of the collective.

Hemingway gave different reasons for his move to Cuba. These include his difficulty in getting work done amidst his growing crowds of admirers in Key West, his love of the water, and his succumbing to "other charms, more different, from and more difficult to explain than the big fish in September."

But it was high U.S. income taxes that were the decisive factor. Sadly for the Cuban government this hardly makes Hemingway a paragon of socialist virtue. Nevertheless, the writer had a knack for finding the interesting places in the countries that he went to, and Cuba is no exception.

Probably the most important Hemingway site in the country is his San Francisco de Paula mansion, now a museum, which is located about 20 minutes outside Havana.

The white Spanish colonial, called Finca la Vigía, (or lookout house) was built in 1887 on a majestic hilltop overlooking Havana and its harbor. The best way to describe the prominence of this 20-acre estate is to imagine someone owning the best parts of Mount Royal Park, and building a mansion overlooking Montreal.

Hemingway's third wife, author Martha Gellhorn, was particularly enamored with the place, which the couple first rented for $100 a month in 1939, and which the author bought outright the next year for $18,500 with his first royalty check from For Whom the Bell Tolls.

Several features about Finca la Vigía, give it a majestic and charming quality. For one, the house has been maintained in just about the same condition that it was in when Hemingway died, and visitors feel like they are stepping back in time.

The late author left Cuba in late 1958, just as the revolution was getting hot, and before Castro took power. He was thus unable to get many of his possessions off the island during the period the communists were tinkering with the idea of nationalizing private property.

So when Castro struck his compromise deal with Hemingway's widow and fourth wife, Mary Welsh, that would avoid outright expropriation of the property, and have the place turned into a museum, most all of Hemingway's possessions remained.

These possessions are now priceless collector's items. Consequently, due to fears of theft, no one is allowed in the house itself. But the windows are kept open and tourists can peer in and see most of the mansion's innards.

Numerous signs of Hemingway's vast travels and rich life adorn Finca la Vigía including mounted bulls and deer, bear pelts and numerous bullfighting posters and memorabilia. In the corner room on the mansion's front left, (when you are facing the front hall), is the room Hemingway worked in.

You can still see the typewriter Hemingway used, every morning at about 6:00 a.m., working amidst the incessant traffic of famous guests and the home's permanent staff of about a dozen Cubans.

Portions of the 9,000 volumes of Hemingway's library can be also be seen, many of which are filled with his notes. The collection attests to the author's often-underrated passion for reading and his methodical study of the world's great literary masters.

The Finca la Vigía grounds are covered in tropical vegetation, which increasingly obscured the Hemingway's view of Havana. So the author commissioned a three story tower just beside the house, which rose above the trees, where he would occasionally go to correct page proofs.

The swimming pool and the tennis court have alas not been maintained and the residence thus does not fully reflect its grandeur of the time. However his two-engine fishing boat, the Pilar, which Hemingway famously used to hunt for submarines during World War Two, was brought up to the mansion after his death and can now also be seen.

Like so many Hemingway's myths, the "patrolling for U-boats," story has been questioned. It is likely the author cocked up the idea, --which called for the U.S. government outfitting the Pilar with a 50 caliber machine gun, --so he could get his hands on precious fuel, rationed because of the war, to keep up his deep sea fishing. Hemingway was a gun lover, and one could easily imagine him at sea blowing away his machine gun to pass time.

Around the back of Finca la Vigía, you can look into the window of Hemingway's bathroom. There you can see the wall he wrote his weight on each day, in a vain effort to impose discipline into his eating habits.

The surrounding village, and it's relative poverty make Finca la Vigía an even more imposing fixture and give the place a sense of pathos. Particularly of note is the huge water tower on the premises, which guaranteed the late author running water, in a community where most people had none.

About 30 minutes downhill from Finca la Vigía lies the fishing village of Cojimar, where Hemingway docked the Pilar. Hemingway, an avid fisherman and boater, was a constant fixture in the village, which became an obligatory stop for his fans, who flocked there to talk with Grigorio Fuentes the Pilar's ex-captain.

Fuentes who lived to be more than 100 years old, remained alert to his last days and loved to tell stories of their time together. He could be found regularly at La Terraza, a resto-bar - another famous Hemingway haunt,-- which was immortalized when several of the scenes from the movie adaptation of The Old Man and the Sea were filmed there.

Just West of Havana, lies another landmark, the Marina Hemingway, which each year hosts a deep-sea fishing contest, that the author originally sponsored.

It's hard to under-estimate Hemingway's prominence on the island. But one good way of judging his noteriety is to look at the index of any Cuba tour guidebook. You'll find more entries under Hemingway that any other subject except Castro, Gue Guevera, and José Marti, the country's founding father. That's pretty good company.

 

Hemingway's watering holes

Hemingway was known for far more than just his writing. He was also a noted bon vivant and man about town. Cuba is littered with dozens of bars whose employees claim he was a regular customer.

Most have decor that includes busts or framed photographs of "Ernesto" (as his Cuban friends called him) or "Papa," the moniker used by the hoards of American sycophants, who would gather during his drinking bouts to listen to his stories and laugh at his jokes.

While Hemingway clearly got around, some of these bars' claims are of dubious origin. The four watering holes listed below are all either mentioned in Hemingway's literature, correspondence or in accounts of those who drank frequently with the late author.

When Hemingway first moved to Havana from Key West, he installed himself in room 511 of the Hotel Ambos Mundos, where he worked on several of his novels including For Whom the Bells Tolled. Hemingway was a regular at the hotel bar, which was recently restored, and his old room, dreary, yet preserved, is open to the public on weekdays.

Hemingway's two favorite bars and his two favorite drinks were immortalized in graffiti he once wrote: "Mi mojito en La Bodeguita, mi daiquiri en El Floridita." (I drink mojitos in La Bodeguita, and daiquiris in El Floridita). The graffiti has endures today on the bar of La Bedeguita. Both these establishments are beautiful and pricey, but worth the side trip.

The Restaurante Pacifico is located on the top floor of a five-story building, which in the old days used to also house a brothel, and opium den. Today, the place has been cleaned up and Fidel Castro is said to be an occasional visitor.

Havana's streets are poorly labeled, or not labeled at all, so the best way to find these establishments, all located in the touristy "Old Havana," section, is to take a taxi. If you have a little time, the clubs are all well known, and just about any Cuban will be glad to direct you.

 

 

Diekmeyer can be reached at peter@peterdiekmeyer.com

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