Saturday, 4 March 2017

On the trail of Ernest Hemingway - Havana

If America's esteemed novelist, Ernest Hemingway, had created himself as a character in a novel that character would barely seem plausible. Lets face it this larger than life, swash buckling, war correspondent, bull fighting fan, deep sea fisher, big game hunter, heavy drinking, ladies man and Nobel prize winning author all rolled into one almost stretches the imagination too far but, there you have it, the macho man himself.  If he was alive today his exploits would be plastered all over the internet and would fill many column inches in the gossip mags. As it was he became a huge celebrity in his day.   An adored and adoring adopted son of Cuba he is celebrated in Havana probably more than anywhere else and since I was in Havana  an Ernest Hemingway crawl was high on my 'to do' list.

Bodeguita del Medio - 
crowded even in the morning

Tourists leave their mark

Inside La Bodeguita del Medio - as Cuban as you can imagine
Armed with a map my friend, Hilary, and I headed off to La Bodeguita del Medio (the little bar in the middle) famous as one of two bars Hemingway most frequented. It is easy to find, just look for the crowds spilling out onto, and dancing in, the narrow dusty lane in front, day and night.  Famous for its mojitos and cigars the tiny  bar  still manages to squeeze in a live band and is hugely popular with tourists who autograph the walls both inside and out in a kind of  'Kilroy was here' sort of way. I was told locals avoid this bar as it is too touristy. We managed to wiggle our way in to take photos and soak up a little of the lively atmosphere  before moving on to the nearby Hotel Ambos Mundos.
Lobby of Hotel Ambos Mundos
A corner of the lobby dedicated to Hemingway with many photos and framed signature.
Having gained fame in the USA Hemingway found the constant stream of visitors and journalists to his home  in Key West, Florida, an annoying intrusion on his writing time. He fell in love with Cuba on a fishing trip there so moved to Havana and the Hotel Ambos Mundos in 1932. He lived  in the hotel's room 511 for seven years, on and off, the room chosen for its expansive views over the old town and out to sea. It was there that he wrote the first few chapters of For Whom The Bell Tolls.
View from the roof top terrace at Hotel Ambos Mundos
Hotel Ambos Mundos

When we arrived at the hotel we were a little dismayed to see a long queue at the elevator but tagged along anyway. The elevator takes guests to the roof top terrace bar and restaurant and we soon realised that that was where everyone was headed.  We spent a few minutes admiring the view but then made our way to Room 511, now conserved as a museum to Ernest Hemingway with his belongings, furnishing and memorabilia still in place.  It was somewhat of a surprise to find that there was only one other person waiting to see the large, airy corner  room. Having it almost to ourselves was great because this meant a personal tour with the curator and plenty of time to hear about his life in Havana and examine the room's artifacts.

Outside Room 511
Hemingway's bed at the Hotel

His typewriter under cover to protect it.  His desk could be altered to be used either standing or sitting which he felt difficult after several serious back injuries
A cup of coffee in the cool, elegant lobby bedecked with many photos of Hemingway and then we were off to our next and final destination, just along the road, the bar and restaurant, El Floridita,  Hemingway's favourite hang out spot in Havana. We arrived just before mid day so were lucky enough to find a table in a great position for people watching.  What a fantastic place, little changed since Hemingway's day. The elegantly dressed bar staff  mesmerised us as they expertly prepared two dozen daiquiris at a time in order to keep up with demand.  A live band was playing toe tapping, hip swaying, Cuban music and there was a comfortable buzz of happy conversation.  A life sized bronze statue of Hemingway leans against the bar and his bar stool is lovingly protected by scarlet cords. A group of men happily puffed on cigars at the next table, fortunately I love the smell of cigars.  Hemingway's favourite drink was a daiquiri and he is said to have drunk untold quantities at El Floridita.  His were grapefruit flavoured doubles, Hilary and I ordered lime singles  and sat back to enjoy the ambience and the whole experience.  I was absolutely in my happy place and this was the first time in Cuba that I thought to myself  "I am as happy  as it is possible to be"
The bar staff prepare two dozen daiquiris at a time at El Floridita.  Wonderful ambience.
Far left of the photo a woman is embracing Hemingway's statue.

Daiquiris at El Floridita - I'm in my happy place, and, no, it's not because of the drink!
Since I have returned home I have read his Nobel Prize winning The Old Man and the Sea, probably for about the 6th time.  I still find Hemingway's story of a man's struggle against life, nature and the elements and of pure love and determination  as powerful today as it ever was.  Many years ago I read A Farewell to Arms and it has stuck in my mind ever since.  Hemingway's style was sparse, direct and to the point and yet he was still able to convey so much.  He told F Scott Fitzgerald in 1934 " I write one page of masterpiece to 91 pages of shit.  I try to put the shit in the waste paper basket"  He also mentioned to a friend that he rewrote the last page of A Farewell to Arms 39 times because he was "Getting the words right"  Love his work or hate his work, and there are many in both camps, Hemingway was a great and important writer of the 20th century.  I felt privileged to be able to follow his footsteps around Havana.

NOTE:  Hemingway lived for 20 years at Finca la Vigia, 15km out of Havana.  Visitors may explore the grounds but cannot enter the house which is much as he left it.  You are, however, permitted to look through open windows and doors.  We did not get to see this villa.