By Guest Lecturer Sandy Cares
Hemingway first arrived in Cuba on a cruise ship sailing from Paris to Key West in 1928. The brief stop left such a lasting impression that the writer moved to Havana in 1939 and stayed until 1960. The long-anticipated opening of Cuba to American travelers now offers the opportunity to explore several of Hemingway’s fabled island stomping grounds, several of which I’ve had the chance to explore during the spring aboard Oceania Cruises.
Finca Vigía: An Inspired Estate
Hemingway’s house in Cuba, Finca Vigía, is a short drive from Havana, about nine or ten miles away. Young boys were playing baseball at the entrance of the estate as we arrived, a practice pre-dating Hemingway’s arrival. Seeking playmates for his young sons, Hemingway encouraged the neighborhood boys to continue their sport. He supplied real balls and bats to replace the wooden slats and balled-up rags the boys had been using.
Though access is limited to the sprawling yellow house, we had clear and varied views of the inside through the widely flung open doors and windows. It had a lived-in feel to it, and you can almost hear people’s voices, dogs barking. Newspapers were strewn across the bed. Over 9,000 books and 900 record albums lined ubiquitous bookcases. Walls were festooned with trophy heads from Hemingway’s African safaris. An unlikely square tower dominated one end of the estate, erected on the orders of fourth wife, Mary, who betted the isolation and view would foster inspiration. Hemingway hated it, preferring to write inside the house, standing at a typewriter or using a bookshelf as his desk. During his years in Cuba, Hemingway wrote seven books, including The Old Man and the Sea and Islands in the Sun.
On the edge of the 10-acre property, tombstones for his four beloved American dogs hold sentry before his other great love, Pilar, his fishing boat. Hemingway conceived of The Old Man and the Sea while fishing in Cuban waters and it’s been said he likely modeled Santiago, the old man, after Pilar’s first mate, Gregorio Fuentes, who lived to 104 –an old man of the sea, indeed!
Cojimar: Pilar’s Port
Hemingway docked Pilar at the little port town of Cojimar, a few miles from Havana, near a Spanish fortress that has been commanding the water’s edge since 1645. The local fishermen commissioned a commemorative bust after Hemingway’s death, which is on display nearby. They liked him enough to melt down their own boat propellers for the metal, and the feeling must have been mutual since Hemingway dedicated his 1955 Pulitzer Prize to the fishermen of Cojimar.
Havana: Ambos Mundos Hotel
Back in Havana, the Ambos Mundos Hotel offers another facet of Hemingway’s Cuba. He stayed here in Room 511 before acquiring the Finca Vigía. A display of old black-and-whites takes up one of the lobby walls. A crotchety steel-cage elevator operated by a bellman in a vintage pillbox hat and white gloves sends our party from the lobby to the rooftop bar for a mint-packed mojito and vistas of Havana below, in an ambiance enhanced by yet another lively Cuban band.
A few blocks away, tourists line up to pose next to the bronze sit-by-me statue of Hemingway, sidled up at the bar of his favorite Havana watering hole, the El Floridita.
While most Hemingway devotees are familiar with his forays in Spain, Key West and even northern Michigan, Cuba now offers Americans a fascinating new lens to examine and appreciate the well-traveled life of Ernest Hemingway. I hope to see you in the Caribbean this winter!
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