When I was in my mid-teens, I discovered the stories of Ernest Hemingway. And while I recognize that his reputation – as a writer and as a man – has declined in recent years, no one can deny the influence he had on American literature.
That influence was particularly profound on teenage boys of my generation. I was affected both by those stories and by Hemingway’s subsequent novels. “The Sun Also Rises” helped me imagine what it would be like to run with the bulls in Pamplona. I felt the grief over lost love in “A Farewell to Arms.” I experienced the mixed emotions involved with self-sacrifice in “For Whom the Bell Tolls.”
So, I was unapologetically enthused to visit Finca La Vigía, the Ernest Hemingway House & Museum that sits just outside of Havana, Cuba.
The chance to do so came when my wife and I visited Cuba in December 2018. We were part of a Road Scholar tour, which afforded us the opportunity to spend a week traveling through the country, stopping at museums, listening to talks presented by Cuban intellectuals and watching cultural performances.
Many tour companies offer travel packages that will take you all over the world. What we liked about Road Scholar was its emphasis on education. We not only had a tour leader (named Marissa) who made sure everything ran smoothly, but she was accompanied by a Cuban guide with 16 years of experience (named Jose Luis) who was good at answering pretty much any question we might pose.
And believe me, our group of 22 people – a mix of college professors and experienced international travelers – was good at asking questions.
We flew into the city of Santa Clara, where we spent our first night. Our initial stop the next day was the Mausoleo del Che Guevera, in which – in a refrigerated room – rest the remains of the Argentine-born compatriot of Fidel Castro. Those remains of Guevera, who was shot in Bolivia in 1967, had been identified and returned to Cuba in 1997.
This wouldn’t be the last time we’d be presented with an official view of Cuba’s troubled history, a view that would be countered by others later on. It would, though, be the first time I would hear Jose Luis respond to our questions about life in the country with the phrase, “It’s complicated” – something we would only gradually come to understand.
(As impressed as I was by the monument, my thoughts drifted elsewhere. I scratched this passage in my notebook: “Seen at least three classic Chevys so far, ’56 and ’57.” I was referring, of course, to the classic cars that you famously tend to see all over the country, but especially in Havana.)
The next day in Santa Clara gave us a good idea of what the week would bring. We toured an open-air farmers market, then rode in a horse-drawn cab to a recreation center where a group of elderly Cubans gave us a lesson in what was said to be the traditional Cuban national dance – el danzon.
We then listened to a lecture on fans (those you hold in your hand), learned about the game “quimbumbia,” toured the city’s main plaza where we were lectured about the fighting that took place between the then-Cuban government and the forces of Castro. We could even see signs of the fighting on the scarred sides of the old Hilton hotel.
In the afternoon, bags in tow, we bused to the nearby city of Cienfuegos, a cruise-ship stop because of its setting on a large bay (Bahia de Cienfuegos) that is connected to the open sea by a narrow strait. There, after dropping off our bags at the Hotel Unión, we walked to the city’s main plaza where a statue to the great writer Jose Martí stands.
Afterward, we bused to a spot close to the bay where we listened to a concert put on by the Cienfuegos City Chamber Orchestra. The octet of young players performed a short set of five Cuban classical tunes, and though I’m by no means an expert, the individual musicians clearly were extremely talented.
At this point, let me skip ahead several days to our trip to the Hemingway House (I’ll return to more of the Cuba trip in future blog posts) Our visit took place on a day trip from Havana. Hemingway, who loved Cuba, began renting the property in 1939, bought it a year later and owned it for the next two decades when in failing health he left Cuba for good (he committed suicide in 1961).
Accounts vary about what happened after his death. But the upshot was that the Cuban government seized the property, making a deal with Hemingway’s widow, Mary Welsh Hemingway, that allowed her to take away some paintings, books and a satchel of manuscripts from the vault of a Havana bank.
We walked around the property, which was built in 1886 by the architect Miguel Pascual y Baguer and sits just eight miles from the center of Havana. Following a much-needed renovation, the house was opened in 2007 as a tourist attraction. It’s set up to look as it did when Hemingway lived there: table set for dinner, beds neatly made, multiple shelves brimming with books.
Two areas of the property are particularly special. One is Hemingway’s boat, Pilar, which sits in an enclosure behind the main building. The other is a tower office, which both commands a great view of the surrounding area (including Havana) and is where Hemingway was supposed to have worked.
It was during his time in Finca La Vigia that Hemingway wrote much of “For Whom the Bell Tolls” and the novella “The Old Man and the Sea” (though one account has it that he actually preferred to write in the house below).
I don’t believe in spirits. But while looking into that room, it was easy for me to imagine the man sitting there, pounding away at his typewriter. It felt just like a kind of – forgive me here – clean, well-lighted place.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you. You can take the boy out of Hemingway, but …