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Hemingway's Havana

Travel |

A travel tip from Margaret Coupe

Ernest Hemingway loved writing, women, bull-fighting, hunting-shooting-and-fishing, alcohol, risk-taking – and Cuba. He first visited the island in the 1930s to escape the scrum of celebrity at his home in Key West and to enjoy the fishing in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. He stayed in Room 511 of the Ambos Mundos hotel, which is now a little museum, where you can see his fishing rods, his typewriter and his African spears. The surfaces are covered with photographs of beautiful women: he had four wives and five other relationships, according to the guide. Sitting on the hotel terrace, stirring the shrubbery of mint in my first mojito, I looked across at the shabby splendour of the buildings of Old Havana. No wonder Hemingway loved it here.

As well as the view, the writer loved the hotel’s proximity to his two favourite bars: La Bodeguita del Medio and El Floridita. At the latter, his statue is placed at the end of the bar, behind which is inscribed: ‘Home of the Daiquiri’. Apparently, Hemingway downed 28 of these in one drinking session.

The highlight of my Cuban trip was a visit to the Finca Vigia, which Hemingway purchased in the 1950s. This 1890s villa is open, airy and light and there are stunning views of Havana and the ocean. At first, I was disappointed to learn that you cannot go inside; you just look in through open windows. But then I felt I was having a privileged peek into Hemingway’s world. Bull-fighting posters and animal heads adorn the walls. Shelves groan under the weight of the 9,000 books in the house. Surfaces are cluttered with bottles and a half-empty glass makes you think he may just pop back. His typewriter is on a shelf; he typed standing up because of all the injuries sustained in wars, air crashes and boxing matches.

On the bathroom wall Hemingway kept records of his weight, and next to the toilet is a pickled reptile which had the audacity to attack one of his dogs. In the garden, beside his beloved boat, the Pilar, is a cemetery for his four dogs. What came across to me was his lust for life; all the more tragic when we know that the last thing he hunted and shot was himself. It was 1961; he was 62.

Margaret Coupe

This story was from May 2016 issue. Subscribe Now