Following the trail of Ernest Hemingway in Cuba

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That Roly, owner of the casa particular where I’m staying in Old Havana, speaks only three words of English could be problematic. My Spanish is mucho bad and my husband’s no better.

And yet, we get along just fine. Perhaps it is because two of the three words Roly knows are daiquiri and mojito—and, really, aren’t those Spanish? Which makes Roly’s only English word okay.

Each evening, when we return to the casa, grimy and thirsty after a day spent exploring the crumbling richness of Havana, Roly greets us. “Daiquiri?” he asks. “Mojito?”

“Okay!” we answer with enthusiasm, and Roly, who for 39 years was a bartender at El Floridita, one of the world’s great bars made famous by one of its most dedicated patrons, American novelist Ernest Hemingway, starts pulling liquor bottles out of the cupboard.

I’ve long been fascinated with Hemingway, and part of the reason we’ve come to Havana is to visit his old stomping grounds. That we’re staying in a Cuban-style bed-and- breakfast with a delicious connection to one of Hemingway’s favourite watering holes is pure luck. Although luck may not have that much to do with it: every time you turn a corner in Havana, you bump into Hemingway’s ghost.

Hemingway lived in Cuba for 20-plus years, and it seems every bar he frequented, every hotel room he stayed in, every pier to which he tied his sportfishing boat Pilar is hallowed ground for Cuban people and the scores of tourists (me among them) who make the pilgrimage to the sites.

Predictably, my first stop on Hemingway’s trail is El Floridita. Although the watery daiquiris don’t measure up to Roly’s homemade cocktails (and, at three times the price, are a tourist rip-off), a visit to this sophisticated-feeling establishment is a must.

Photos from before 1959 (the year Fidel Castro took power and the U.S. embargo descended) capture celebrities such as Gary Cooper, Spencer Tracy, Marlene Dietrich, Ezra Pound, Our Man in Havana novelist Graham Greene, and, of course, Hemingway having a roaring good time here. In fact, Hemingway will never leave, thanks to a life-sized bronze statue of the Nobel laureate that leans on the long, dark mahogany central bar.

Watery daiquiris are replaced with watery mojitos at another favourite Hemingway haunt, La Bodeguita del Medio. With live music, big windows open to the street, and a décor best described as cluttered Cuban, this neighbourhood hangout is much livelier than El Floridita. Its sky-blue walls are covered with graffiti, including this pithy comment by Errol Flynn: “A great place to get drunk”.

We squeeze into the packed bar, order the obligatory mojitos, and spy another famous piece of graffiti, attributed to Hemingway: “Mi Mojito en La Bodeguita, Mi Daiquiri en El Floridita.”.

Having successfully followed that advice, the next morning we head for Finca Vigía, Hemingway’s former home, about 30 minutes outside Old Havana.

Hemingway bought the house in 1940 when his first royalty cheque from For Whom the Bell Tolls arrived, and lived here for 20 years. In 1961, after his suicide, Hemingway’s fourth wife, Mary Welsh, was forced to hand over the house to the Castro government.

The one-storey Spanish colonial building and lush gardens are now on view to the public as Museo Hemingway. Visitors are not permitted to step into the home but, rather, walk around the outside looking through large open windows and doors.

Despite feeling like a peeping Tom, I’m moved by what I see. A favourite armchair. A Royal typewriter. Liquor bottles. His writing desk cluttered with papers and shotgun shell casings. A leopard skin draped across a bench. So many trophy heads of animals I lose count. Books, books, and more books. The bathroom wall on which Hemingway noted his daily weight. His bed covered in a blue chenille bedspread, a beige cotton cap on the pillow.

Outside is a robin’s-egg blue swimming pool where Hollywood actress Ava Gardner famously swam naked. Hemingway’s boat Pilar sits in a wooden pavilion on the former tennis court. (Later we’ll drive to the fishing village of Cojimar, where Pilar was once moored. After Hemingway died, local fishermen donated brass fittings from their boats to be melted down to create a bust of the man.)

Back in Old Havana, we ride the cage elevator in the Hotel Ambos Mundos to the fifth floor and Room 511, where Hemingway stayed on and off through the 1930s.

After the richness of Finca Vigía, this room, now a museum, feels sparse. Although my mind registers some artifacts—desk with requisite typewriter, black mahogany bed with orange bedspread—it’s the view, over rooftops and the old cathedral to the harbour, sea, and Casablanca peninsula, that impresses.

In a 1933 Esquire article, Hemingway shared this intimate detail about the room: “If you sleep with your feet toward the east…the sun, coming up over the Casablanca side and into your open window, will shine on your face and wake you no matter where you were the night before.”

The sun is setting as we step into the casa on our last night. Roly is revving the blender while his wife, Irma, shows a French couple the photos we saw on our first night. Here’s a younger Roly dressed in his natty El Floridita red jacket with white lapels and red tie festooned with pins. Here’s Roly behind the bar, pouring a daiquiri. Here’s Roly standing beside a beaming Jack Nicholson.

And here’s present-day Roly handing us our daiquiris. “Okay?” he asks as we savour our first sips.

ACCESS: For information on Cuba, visit gocuba.ca/. Or, better, buy Moon Handbooks’ Cuba. An air-conditioned room with private bathroom and breakfast for two at Casa Irma y Roly (Compostela No. 117) is 40 CUC per night (about $40); email roly@neneka.co.ca/.

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