Ernest Hemingway's Cuba: Raise a daiquiri to the old man and the island

 

So to Cuba then, at LAST, 45 years after I first got into Hemingway in Uganda after a teacher gave me his copy of For Whom the Bell Tolls. I was a melancholic teenager drawn to stories of extreme courage and stubborn idealism and weepy endings. My family life was wretched and crying over fiction provided relief. The author was in East Africa twice, in the Thirties and Fifties, when my uncle supplied him with guns. Mr Hemingway, said Uncle, had overcome near-death accidents and illnesses and was unafraid. Unafraid. I wanted to be unafraid, too. In the year he killed himself (1961), I read all his books. Some twice.

It was obvious why Hemingway was excited by the wilds of East Africa. But for me, Cuba – his home for 20 years – felt more exhilarating, far away, a land of danger and dance, dazzle and death. Magazine articles described island fishermen (including Hemingway) who caught huge marlins and sharks, cock fights, the edgy culture, high passion – love and hate, brutality and tenderness – and political rebellions led by compelling anti-imperialists with lots of dark hair. Che T-shirts were worn by Lefties across Africa as the Cold War spread through the continent. I had the T-shirt and the politics and, at long last, the trip. Though Soviet Communism crashed (deservedly), as we planned the visit, what struck me was how long the plucky island had stood up to the overbearing USA and its petulant sanctions.

These were imposed in 1960, the year Hemingway and Castro met and immediately bonded. Hemingway's then wife, Martha Gellhorn, also American, was there too, a matchless foreign correspondent who has inspired many female journalists. Awesome was their riposte to Pax Americana and its demanding patriotism.

After disappearing from public view for some years, Castro was seen again in 2010, but looking older and weaker. We had to get there before the old rogue died and his Cuba vanished, and before my own dancing limbs seized up completely.

You can understand why Havana pulled Hemingway – the pulsating physicality, the taut and hungry bodies, hard drinkers, women and girls striking and sassy in the cheapest of clothes, soulful, intense music that liberates the spirit from the underworld of hopelessness, old and dedicatedly maintained Chevrolets, men with fecund moustaches they touch erotically, and so much else. In spite of the very real hardships, the inequalities between travellers and inhabitants, and their state-controlled lives, Cuban citizens have natural-born pride.

We stayed in Habana Vieja (Old Havana) at the first hotel ever built in Cuba, the Inglaterra, which opened in 1875 and aged elegantly – its rasping showers and un-modernised rooms were lovely but basic, so we felt no waves of touristy guilt as we stepped out each day. A short walk from there is the coral-coloured, charming Hotel Ambos Mundos, built in the Thirties, where, in the small room 511, Hemingway started writing For Whom The Bell Tolls, on a typewriter that's still there. We drank a mojito to the man, downstairs in a bar with a small poolful of terrapins. Next to us, a group of Canadian hotel guests moaned about the Ambos Mundos. No spa! No chocs on pillows!

Outside, an old Cuban man walked up – thin, wiry and with a face etched on by life and time. He was an office caretaker and said he had seen Hemingway many times on that street: "He wanted to be Latino man. But Americans are too much like cowboys. He was a cowboy. He didn't understand women. If you don't like women you can't be a Cuban man". Even if he was feeding us whoppers, we were happy to suspend disbelief and it was good to hear the voice of an intelligent sceptic. Hemingway was like other muscular writers, self-obsessed, difficult and faithless.

In the evocative Museo de la Revolucion we saw tanks, weapons, letters, records of brave women fighters who fought with their male comrades against a decadent and cruel elite, Latino stories of suffering and fight-back through the 20th century. Our daughter was mesmerised and came back with a Che T-shirt. That's my girl.



We went to the Floridita bar, one of Hemingway's drinking holes. Yep, lots of pics of the guy, who drank there with Spencer Tracy, Jean-Paul Sartre, Ava Gardner and Errol Flynn. What times those must have been. On a stool at the counter was a life-sized statue of the writer by the admired Cuban artist Jose Villa Soberon. After downing several of the bar's famous daiquiris, the still statue would easily become your new best friend.

We got to Bodeguita del Medio, another bar frequented by the writer, and then turned away. It looked too much like a theme-park ride. Hemingway tourism sometimes felt crass and abject. Cubans don't need him as much as they feel they do: he was lucky to be in Cuba, not the other way round. If he indeed went to all the bars in Havana which boast of his hands on their glasses, he would not have written a word and would have died of daiquiri poisoning for sure.

But faith was restored in the integrity of the author and Cuba when we went – all too briefly – to Finca Vigia, the house where Gellhorn lived with Hemingway, a marriage as volatile and stormy as the island weather can be. For Whom the Bell Tolls was finished here and The Old Man and the Sea too, which won the Nobel prize.

Hemingway's Cuba cannot last. It is politically and culturally fragile in the fast and furious world of globalisation. The Guantanamo camp is a reminder of US power and ruthlessness. That's what makes the island so irresistible and why we simply had to go before it all falls and McDonald's sweeps in. And why we may go again this year.

Cuba: bikes, beaches & hip bars

* Havana's newest hotel, the Victoria, opens this spring. Designed by Conran & Partners, it is set in an Art Deco villa and has 31 rooms decorated with Cuban blues and minimalist palm motifs, plus what looks set to be Havana's hippest pool bar; esenciahotelsandresorts.com.

* Head to Vinales, a UNESCO Natural Monument about 200km west of Havana, for iconic-rounded limestone hills (mogotes), a huge network of cathedral-like caves and a pretty colonial farming village backed by rolling green fields of tobacco. Included in the 'Highlights of Cuba' tour from travelsphere.co.uk.

* Take a tour on two wheels. This seven-night trip from Captivating Cuba (0800 171215; travelzest.com) takes in Pinar del Rio and the tobacco fields of the west, the Ancon Valley, where Fidel Castro held secret reunions during the Cuban Revolution and Las Terazzas, an eco-settlement founded in the 1960s, before biking back to Havana.

* Visit Baracoa, a jewel-like colonial town on Cuba's east-coast tip. The island's first Spanish settlement is isolated from the rest of the country by the Cuchillas del Toa, a fringe of thick jungle with an extraordinary level of endemic species; see wandotravel.com.

* Escape to Playa Ancon, a gorgeous 4km stretch of white sand located just outside Trinidad. Tailor-made tours from Audley Travel (01993 838 685; audleytravel.com).

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