“The clouds were building up now for the trade wind and he looked ahead and saw a flight of wild ducks etching themselves against the sky over the water, then blurring, then etching again and he knew no man was ever alone on the sea.” – Ernest Hemingway, “The Old Man and the Sea”
Of all the places Ernest Hemingway is associated with, Cuba was perhaps his favorite.
He first visited the country in 1928, and would often travel there to write, and to indulge in pleasures as simple as his prose — fishing, drinking, and socializing.
Our trip to Cuba last year gave us a glimpse into the Havana life of America’s literary legend, and one of Cuba’s favorite adopted sons.
In his younger years, “Papa” Hemingway (a name he supposedly gave himself in his late twenties) would frequently take up residence in Havana’s Hotel Ambos Mundos, which still preserves his room — 511 — as a mini-museum. From there, he could not only write above — but still connected to — the fray, but also monitor conditions in the harbor for his favorite pastime — marlin fishing.
Within stumbling distance of the Hotel is one of Hemingway’s watering holes, the Floridita. There you can still order a “Papa Doble” — the strong, dry daiquiri he helped invent — and pose with a life-sized figurine of the man himself, forever preserved as a bronzed barfly at his favorite seat at the historic bar.
While we opted out of the tourist temptations of El Floridita, we did spent a morning at Hemingway’s home in Eastern Havana, and strolled through Cojimar, the village he fished from and which would inspire his prize-winning novella, “The Old Man and the Sea.”
Our morning was capped off with one of our best meals of the trip — honey mojitos, a lovingly-prepared and presented lunch, and Cuban coffee — at the nearby Paladar El Ajiaco, where we were made to feel as special as Havana’s most illustrious adopted citizen.
A VISIT TO HEMINGWAY’S LOOKOUT FARM
“It is silly not to hope, he thought.” – The Old Man and the Sea
Hemingway lived for most of the last 20 years of his life at Finca Vigia — “Lookout Farm” — with two wives, several beloved cats and dogs, and of which he felt…
“I work as well there in those cool early mornings as I ever have worked anywhere in the world.”
And he did some of his best writing at the “Farm” — in addition to “The Old Man and the Sea,” here he completed “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and penned “Through the River and Among the Trees,” numerous articles (notably the Life Magazine chronicle on bullfighting, “The Dangerous Summer”), and the posthumously-published “Islands in the Stream” and “A Moveable Feast.”
The house, originally built in 1887 for the Dupont family, is nestled among 10-plus acres of breeze-swept tropical trees and flowers in the village of San Francisco de Paula, 10 miles east of Havana.
Hemingway purchased the property in 1940, at the strong suggestion of his third wife, journalist Martha Gellhorn (Havana hotel life was apparently incompatible with marital stability).
Thanks to a pioneering collaboration between the Cuban government and the U.S.-based non-profit, the Finca Vigia Foundation, Hemingway’s long-time home has been preserved very much as he left it, and is now one of Cuba’s most popular museums.
To preserve the property and its artifacts (a number of which have gone missing in past years), you can’t actually enter the home, but its mullioned French doorways are flung open to provide a time-capsule view of Hemingway’s life there.
From under shady, vine-laced terraces, you can imagine tne rum-enhanced gatherings in the lounge, covet the massive collection of artifacts, books (original) and art (mostly replaced by reproductions) throughout the home — including the bath — and deal with your unambiguous feelings about the many animal head trophies on display.
Close to the house is a three-story tower built in 1944 for Hemingway by his fourth (and last) wife, Mary, as a writer’s sanctuary. The first floor was for the dogs, the second for the cats, and the main animal of the house was on top (though ultimately, Hemingway preferred to write in his study in the main house).
Part of the allure of the property was its acreage, and Hemingway took full advantage of the lush grounds, adding a swimming pool in 1947 and a tennis court in 1949.
Now, the pool is dry (despite Hemingway’s insistence that it never be drained, after Ava Gardner supposedly swam in it naked).
And the tennis court? It now houses a pavilion with Hemingway’s beloved fishing boat, the Pilar (which shares its name with the heroine in “For Whom the Bell Tolls”). Between the dry pool and dry-docked cruiser rests the graves of four of Hemingway’s favorite dogs (one of which shares its name with yours truly).
Hemingway called Finca Vigia home from 1939 to post-Revolution 1960, when the U.S. government strongly encouraged him to return to America. The 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion and subsequent U.S. embargo ended any further possibility of his returning. Hemingway ended his own life in July of the same year.
Mary Hemingway was permitted to return to the house to retrieve a small amount of personal effects, including original artworks, books and letters, many of which are now housed in the JFK Presidential Library and Museum in Boston. By mutual agreement with the Castro government, the house and its remaining contents were “bequeathed” as a museum to her late husband.
A tour guide I met at Hemingway’s house in Key West, who was very moved by the author’s life and legacy, said to me that it was important to remember Hemingway for “…the way he lived, not the way he died,” — something that’s truly made possible with a visit to the Museo Hemingway at Finca Vigia.
After our tour of the home and grounds, as we waited at the entrance for our bus to retrieve us, we cooled down in the growing mid-morning heat with a couple of “Cocktail Viejas” — thirst-quenching tropical drinks made with dark, sugary 7 year-old Havana Club rum, the fresh-squeezed juices of lime and pineapple and freshly-pressed cane juice. Papa would have approved.
THE OLD MAN AND THE SEA
A stroll through Cojimar
“Besides, he thought, everything kills everything else in some way. Fishing kills me exactly as it keeps me alive.” – The Old Man and the Sea
Our immodestly-sized bus wound us down the valley road to the fishing village of CojImar, to the harbor where the Pilar was once moored, and from which Hemingway launched many a marlin-fishing adventure.
And while Cojimar is the setting for Hemingway’s “The Old Man and the Sea,” it’s said that the waters here are now mostly fished-out. (Although, perhaps the lack of boats here is due to other factors, as that seemed to be the case all along the northern coast).
The small harbor is dominated by the Cojimar Fortress, built in 1645 as the easternmost defense of Havana, and still used as a Coast Guard garrison.
Cojimar is empty and quiet in a way that at first suggests tranquility, but like much of the rest of Cuba, reveals itself as poverty and deprivation.
On the bus that morning, our guide Frank had opened up about his experience, and that of his parents, as some in our group were musing about the vintage American cars that dominate Cuba’s roads.
Frank made clear what most of us already understood: Cubans do not love these rickety, old American cars, strapped together with recycled parts and desperation. “It reminds them of their life,” he said. But a new, modern car is out of the question for all but a few of the “most-favored” citizens. (His “car” is a bicycle that cost him $900.)
Cubans of his parents’ generation — the youth of the Revolution — have lost their dreams, their ambitions, Frank said. For them, the promise of the Revolution fell short of its propaganda. For him, the truth was revealed as soon as he entered compulsory military service and witnessed the disparity of treatment between the generals and the soldiers.
While the hopes of one generation of Cubans may have been ripped away — as surely as the sharks killed the old fisherman Santiago’s dreams, as they finished off the last of his prize marlin — perhaps members of the newest generation will have an opportunity to shape their own future.
A MOVEABLE FEAST
Lunch at Paladar El Ajiaco
“The old man drank his coffee slowly. It was all he would have all day and he knew that he should take it. For a long time now eating had bored him and he never carried a lunch.” – The Old Man and the Sea
As I experienced it, the relative poverty faced by most Cubans still never managed to dim their pride — especially when it came to meals served in the privately-owned restaurants, the paladars.
For our post-Hemingway lunch, rather than the expected Hemingway haunt in Cojimar — the restaurant La Terrazza — our hosts opted to take us to El Ajiaco — a well-regarded local paladar.
Frank promised us a beautiful lunch, which would be a highlight of our trip. From first mojito to pumpkin flan, we were not disappointed.
Most large group meals begin with a large group pour of some variety of rum cocktail. In this case, we were treated to another of Hemingway’s favorites — the mojito, but with a twist — just like in any great novel.
These were made with dark rum instead of light, and earthy Cuban honey in place of sugar. I’ll be trying this one at home, with my (still-unopened) bottle of Havana Club 7.
The wait staff laid our tables with stylish coordination, bringing waves of courses — hot rolls, fish croquettes, vegetable empanadas, squash soup with corn, yuca and ham, grilled snapper and Ropa Vieja.
After the meal, we relaxed under the shady thatched roof (the restaurant being essentially a covered porch), examining the hundreds of guest signatures on a stone wall, as dessert was served and pitchers of Cuban coffee were brewed.
Cafe Cubano is a thick, espresso-style shot that nicely folds itself over the meal in your stomach, and jolts you out of your inevitable food coma.
Traditionally brewed with the sugar in it, ours was served to us with honey and brown sugar on the side, which we used to sweeten to taste.
As we sipped our coffees, and nibbled cubes of plain and pumpkin flan, the owner brought out the cooks, bartender and waitstaff, introducing each and describing their contribution to our meal — to great applause from our group.
Ernest Hemingway fell in love not just with Cuba’s fish-rich waters and tropical breezes, he loved the Cuban people as much as they loved him.
Spending a day in his footsteps and here, with our graciously presented, memorable meal, I began to understand why.
“The setting of the sun is a difficult time for all fish.”
― Ernest Hemingway,
Resources and further reading:
Hemingway’s Cuba, Cuba’s Hemingway (Smithsonian Magazine, by Valerie Hemingway)
Hemingway In Cuba (The Atlantic, by Robert Manning)
Hemingway’s Havana Retreat, (Wall Street Journal, by Finn-Olaf Jones)
Remembering Papa (Cigar Aficionado, by Neil A. Grauer)