“Welcome to Havana” these same words greeted me in every public place in the Cuban capital. Although sometimes it often involved a request for a hand out, offer to pose for a photo or taxi ride, it also sometimes appeared sincere. I wonder what “Papa Hemmingway” would think of it now.
This is the affectionate name by which the great literary adventurer Ernest Hemmingway is still known by Cubans. Hemmingway was fascinated by culture of the Spanish speaking world. Travelling extensively throughout Spain as a war correspondent during the Spanish Civil War, he is usually associated with bullfighting.
This is due to his earlier fascination with the sport while he had been living in Paris, visiting Pamplona regularly and becoming an admirer of matadors and their duels with the bulls. His article ‘The Dangerous Summer’ was the result of his last visit in 1959 to cover the contests of two of the most famous matadors.
He first visited Cuba in the late 1930s after the Spanish Civil War keeping a room at the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana. He was obviously taken by the country as he would return in 1940 with his new wife Martha Gellhorn to buy a home here. Martha, a fellow correspondent had been his travelling companion during the Spanish Civil War.
“private war against German U-boats”
They purchased a small estate from the proceeds of ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’ which they named “Finca Vigia” “Lookout Farm”. They lived there for two decades until Hemmingway was forced to choose between his adopted home and his birth one during ‘The Cold War’. This is possibly the most settled this restless spirit ever was, though he did not cease travelling.
He owned a small fishing vessel called Pilar which he had persuaded the Cuban government during World War II to help him refit as he initally planned to use in a private war against German U-boats.
It is because of such stories, his love of bullfighting, marlin fishing and fondness for picking fistfights that Hemmingway is portrayed as a larger than life character. The hard drinking, cigar smoking, adventurer would have made a good character in one of his own novels. Awarded a Bronze Star for bravery in the war, plane crashes and car accidents punctuated his adventures; hospitalisation was a way of life.
In 1945 he had split with Martha but was soon remarrying; Mary Welsh whom he had met in London. Returning to Cuba, he wrote ‘The Old Man and the Sea’ about a fisherman called Santiago, who caught a giant Marlin which was then eaten by sharks. It is his most famous work, possibly his finest for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. He later won a Nobel Prize for literature which it is suspected he secretly coveted but at the time merely claimed the money would come in handy.
“mi mojito en la bodeguita, mi daiquiri en el floridita” – Hemmingway
One of his most regular haunts was La Floridita in Old Havana where the bartender Constante created the frozen daiquiri. It quickly became a Hemmingway favourite which he immortalised in ‘Islands in the Stream’.
Modern day Havana is a beautiful derelict, many of the buildings are rundown, some on the verge of collapse and yet this is part of the charm, the appeal. There is an on-going restoration project but even so almost every street in the old city has several run-down buildings.
It is still possible to walk along the pedestrian precinct Calle Obispo to La Floridita where the presence of Hemmingway is omnipresent. Since 2003 a bronzed life-sized statue has leant on the bar, he doesn’t drink so much now but the tourists that pose for photographs with him don’t seem to mind.
Unsurprisingly a bar famed for inventing the daiquiri and with the motto “la cuna del daiquiri” (the cradle of the daiquiri) has an extensive choice of Hemmingway’s favourite tipple. Cocktails are more expensive than most other bars but they can also be purchased in combination with a cigar. These are quite good value making them popular and the air is heavy with cigar smoke even during the day. I tried the coffee daiquiri, it was excellent and for about an hour I enjoyed my Hemmingway moment.
The city is also famous for classic cars known as cacharros, they are everywhere. There are Buicks, Chevrolets, and Plymouths, in blue, red, mauve and yellow, convertibles or pickups chugging through the city pumping out exhaust fumes. New cars are almost impossible to obtain, certainly for the general population and even the cacharros are extremely expensive to buy. Most are in a similar state to the derelict buildings but a few, those used for city tours are in immaculate condition.
Performers can be found in every public place, musicians playing brass trombones or trumpets, guitar players, drummers and even some playing the double bass. Bands perform for those enjoying coffee in the famous Café El Escorial or something stronger in the many bars; there are even dancing artists on stilts.
Characters with huge cigars or flower ladies in brightly coloured dresses, these often have over-sized cigars too, posing for pictures with tourists. Many have graced the front covers or centre pages of well-known travel publications.
Lookout Farm, Hemmingway’s home is now a museum, providing a little insight into the life of the great man. Even now, many of his fans make a pilgrimage, one of the many places on a world-wide Hemmingway tour. It is also possible to do a walking tour around the city, yet more reasons his fans visit his adopted home.
The Malecón is the seawall which was built in 1901 to protect the city from the power of the ocean. Now it is one of the main attractions, an esplanade which leads from the new to old city. It has a split personality, providing a pleasant daytime walk and meeting place for friends or lovers which can be seen all along its length. Families or children swim in the old foundations of the now missing fortifications like their own personal swimming pools.
At night friends group together sharing bottles of Havana Club, enjoying each other’s company, laughing and dancing to music they brought with them, in true Hemmingway spirit. Working girls move through the crowds looking for the pale skin of a tourist who maybe interested in paying for their services.
The city still has a vibrant nightlife, from seedy bars to sophisticated nightclubs where the cool and the beautiful come to be seen. Model attractive women in short, sexy figure hugging dresses pose, waiting to attract the owner of a male eye who will be prepared to ensure they never have an empty glass.
Hemmingway may not be totally comfortable with the some of the social injustice and uneven taxation that is now prevalent in Cuba but I believe he would still feel at home. Havana has many tourists and the entourage of touts, performers and models which they attract. However for the moment it still remains a culture sufficiently different from our own to be interesting. The selfish side of me hopes it remains so indefinitely.