If Havana had a patron saint, you’d kind of expect it to be Fidel Castro, the man who led it for almost 50 years. But walking its streets, you find that pictures of the “great leader” are mostly absent. The real patron saint of Havana is the man they call Ernesto — Ernest Hemingway.
Especially in the old, port area of the city, you see his name everywhere. That’s because for several years, at the height of his career, Hemingway lived here, spending his days writing and his evenings in the bars drinking mojitos, the drink he made famous.
It’s not hard to find Hemingway in Havana. You see his legend down on the harbour, in a blue nautical building that was once a hot spot for local fishermen. There, on the walls, are newspaper photos of Hemingway taking part in the Hemingway International Billfishing Tournament: deep-sea fishing was one of the attractions that drew him to the country, and the inspiration for his novel The Old Man and the Sea.
Wandering through the heart of the city’s tourist district, you find his favourite bars: near the Cathedral there’s La Bodeguita del Medio, his favourite spot for a downing a few mojitos, and farther up, near Parque Central, is La Floridita, where he drank daiquiris, and where his signature still graces the sign out front.
But if you want to visit Hemingway’s Havana home, the place to go is the Hotel Ambos Mundos (Two Worlds), at the corner of Calle del Obispo and Mercaderes. This was where the writer lived for seven years, from 1932 to 1939, and where he wrote articles for Esquire magazine and began work on For Whom the Bell Tolls.
The first thing you see as you step into the hotel is photos of Hemingway, lining the walls wherever you look. The second is a piano bar with a long, vintage wooden bar where if you sit for a while, you’ll see the veteran bartender pressing mint and sugar into glasses to make mojitos, even at 11 in the morning. (I had photos of the hotel and the bar, but they were lost in a computer meltdown you can read about here.)
But you didn’t come here to drink. The attraction is up on the fifth floor, where Hemingway stayed. You ride in an ancient elevator, the kind with folding metal doors, and emerge in the half-gloom of a utilitarian hotel hallway. And it soon becomes clear that in their own, low-key way, the Cubans consider this a kind of shrine.
The door is at the end of the hall — an unassuming place for such a famous person, though the Cubans have dressed it up a bit with a nice picture and a sign saying “Habitacion Ernest Hemingway, open Monday to Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission 2 CUCs (about $2).”
Knock, and the door is opened by a conservatively dressed woman, the Hemingway room guide, who shows you around the room. It doesn’t take long, but it doesn’t really matter. There, in this modest room, is the world of Hemingway in Havana.
The room isn’t exactly big, but it’s bright and airy. “Hemingway took this room because it has the best view in the hotel,” says the guide. Looking out the window, you see the waterfront city spread out below you, the streets filled now with tourists as well as locals.
The real attraction, though, is to see where Hemingway lived and worked. And there, in the centre of the room, is an old, manual typewriter with a page from A Moveable Feast in its jaws, as if he had just paused to go out for a drink. A pair of round-rimmed glasses completes the picture.
The table, we’re told, can be raised and lowered since Hemingway like to work standing up — the result of an old World War I injury.
Nearby stands his bed, curiously small for a big man — obviously Hemingway lived here alone. And spread across it, books showing him drinking champagne with movie stars, partying with friends in Paris, holding a baby: Hemingway the legend.
After the Ambos Mundos, Hemingway bought a house near Havana, Finca Vigia, and most of his belongings, including his library of 9,000 books, are there. But a few are here, including a model fishing boat reminiscent of his own boat, the Pilar.
On the way out, the guide opens a closet, to show a rack filled with military-looking jackets. “Made by a famous designer in the U.S.,” she says. Vintage Hemingway — the he-man lifestyle, but always an eye to his image.
If you want to see more of Hemingway in Havana, you can go to the outskirts of town to see Finca Vigia, or a few miles out to the village of Cojimar, where he liked to fish.
But for now, it’s enough to go up to the rooftop bar (seen at the top of this post) and have a mojito looking out on old Havana and the fort across the harbour. And imagine what it was like back in the ’30s, when communism and the embargo and the convertible peso had never been heard of. Not a perfect world, for sure, but a time to remember.