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The International Writers Magazine: CUBA

On the Hemingway Trail
• Habeeb Salloum
Some years ago, on a trip to Havana, Hemingway's granddaughter Mariel is reported to have said: “Cuba has three icons - Che and Fidel and my grandfather." Without question her words rings true.   A good part of Hemingway's history saturates Havana.  In this city he is everywhere.


During one of my trips to Cuba, while following Hemingway’s Trail, I stopped a young man in Havana too ask him directions to the hotel Ambos Mundos, made famous by Hemingway.  During our conversation he surprised me by remarking, “You know that Hemingway was a great Cuban!”  I looked at him in amazement.  Yet I should not have been surprised.  This famous American novelist has become an idol to Cubans – both old and young.
Earnest Hemingway who made Havana his main home from the early 1930s often frequented numerous bars and restaurants that have today become almost holy places for Cubans as well as countless tourists.   It is as if this noted novelist by his actions and writings, to the Cubans made his name everlasting. 

Our first stop on the Hemingway trail was in Old Havana at the Bodeguita del Medio Bar/Restaurant, located midway on a small street near the Plaza de Catedral.  I could barely look through the window as I made my way through dozens of tourists trying to enter one of Hemingway’s watering spots. 

It was here that Hemingway made the drink mojito famous.  Thousands of tourists visit the Bodeguita every year just to remember the novelist and try to decipher the innumerable writings of famous people who have inscribed their names from top to bottom on the bar walls.  At the back there is an overpriced restaurant where one can savour traditional Cuban cuisine.  Yet despite the price, his name imbues so much magic that the restaurant is always full.

Floridita From the Bodeguita, we walked for about 15 minutes to Hemingway’s favourite eating-place, El Floridita Bar/Restaurant, located on the edge of Central Park.  Here, he spent much time sipping on daiquiris – some assert that this drink is his invention.  Today, a steady stream of tourists drifts in and out to soak up atmosphere and down the not-so-cheap daiquiris.  For those who follow Hemingway’s trail in Havana, it should be a must, after the tour is over, to return to this restaurant defusing the novelist’s aura and enjoy a gourmet meal while listening to delightful live Cuban music.

A 10-minute walk from El Floridita, we came to the edge of Plaza de Armas where the fully renovated Ambos Mundo Hotel stands.  It is a charming abode where Hemingway used to stay before he bought Finca la Vigia, his permanent home in Havana.  It is said that if a visitor stays in this hotel he/she will surely dream of the characters in Hemingway’s novels.

In his favourite very small room number 511, Hemingway was inspired to write his famous novel, For Whom the Bells Toll.  With the money he made from this novel, he bought Finca la Vigia.  The room has been turned into a museum where some dozen items are exhibited.  For a two-dollar fee visitors can view the Room 511, preserved ‘just as it was’ when he stayed there in the 1930s – even the bed he slept in still looks like it is newly made.  Yet, despite the steep fee for so little, when I visited the museum there was a line up of visitors, mostly Canadians, waiting to enter.

Leaving Old Havana behind. We drove to Finca la Vigia, meaning 'Lookout House, located on the outskirts of the city - Hemingway’s home from 1939 to 1950.  Here he entertained famous people and where he fought and loved a number of the many women in his life.  It was donated by his fourth wife Mary to the country that he loved and it has become a tourist shrine, called the Earnest Hemingway Museum.  In the last part of the 20th century Hemingway's old wooden country home fell into disrepair and the foundations began to crumble.  Some years ago a group of American preservationists were given permission by the US government to restore the building.  Today it has been totally renovated - returned it to its original state as when that renowned writer called it home. 
Finca The Finca is famous for its high tower-like structure with a fine view of Havana, built by his forth wife Mary as a writing den that he never used; his dry swimming pool; the graves of four of his cats that he loved; and his renovated fishing boat, El Pilar.  As we left past workmen working on the grounds one of our group remarked, “They have enhanced Hemingway’s Cuban aura.  Truly they have adopted him as an idol.”

Still wrapped up in the aura of one of mankind’s great literary figures, we made our way to Cojimar, a fishing port on the edge of Havana where Hemingway often went on fishing trips on El Pilar, and where he was inspired to write his famed novel, The Old Man and The Sea.  It won him the Noble Prize for literature and was made by Hollywood into a movie, starring Spencer Tracy.
For me, it was sheer pleasure to walk the streets where Hemingway once trod then head to the Bar/Restaurant, La Terraza - now a fisherman-turned-tourist hangout and no longer a fishing village.

Back in old Havana as I walked its narrow streets bordered by spectacular renovated historic mansions, I reminisced with a friend about our Hemingway tour.  As we parted, he summed the novelist’s connection to Cuba well, remarking: “I now know why Hemingway loved this city.  Look as these splendid structures and all the attractive women walking the streets!   Are they not like beautiful flowers enhancing a charming scene?  You know Hemingway loved gorgeous women!” Havana

  Facts to Know About Cuba:

  1. Visitors to Cuba must use convertible pesos (CUC) – at present is about the same as  a Canadian dollar.  The Cuban peso, which can only be used by tourists to purchase such products as fruit and vegetables, converts at about 1 CUC to 22 Cuban pesos.
  2. For transportation, in Havana take taxis.  They are the best way to get around – average cost in the old city and surrounding area from 6 to 8 CUC.  
  3. In spite of the shortages, all of Cuba is still safe, thefts are rare and tap water is drinkable, even in the villages.  However, for tourists to feel safe, they should drink bottled water, found everywhere.
  4. The best buys in Cuba are rum and cigars.  Beware of black market cigars - often they are not   authentic.  Seven-year old Havana Club is the top rum in Cuba.  It is smoother than brandy and sells at around 16 CUC a litre bottle.  In Havana, the best place to buy Cuban souvenirs is at Handicraft Markets like the one near Plaza de la Catedral.
  5. The best time to travel to Cuba is from December to the end of April - the dry season.
  6. For long time stays in Cuba check- out MonteHabana Aparthotel:  Calle 70, entre 5ta A y 7ma, Miramar, Playa, Ciudad de La Habana.  This apartment hotel is the ideal for long stays - a ‘home away from home’.  It is located in Miramar area, one of the most beautiful neighbourhoods of Havana, and is surrounded by new hotels, commercial and business centres and stores.
  7. Food in most ordinary Cuban restaurants is quite dull – from 7 to 8 CUC a meal.  An average meal in tourist restaurants costs from 12 to 60 CUC.  Visitors should try the main Cuban dish, Rice and Black Beans - very tasty if spiced.  Some good restaurants to try while in Havana are: Floridita Restaurant, famous as Hemingway’s haunt; Eljibe Restaurant, serving large groups;  and for the epitome of meals try Hotel Nacional where for about 60 CUC the best food in town can be had.
  8. For entertainment, Havana's most renowned nightspot is La Tropicana built in a grotto of royal palms.  It features a spectacular extravaganza of lavish scenery, dancing and sumptuous costumes – cost with meal 80, 90 & a 100 CUC, depending on the seat.  However, there are other cabarets like the Parisian at the Nacional Hotel that costs about half the price of El Tropicana.
  9. Remember to keep 25 CUC for the departure tax.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                    
    For Further Information, Contact Cuba Tourist Board:
    Toronto: 1200 Bay Street. Suite 305. Toronto. ON. M5R 2A5.  Tel: (416) 362-0700. 
    Toll Free: 1-866-404 CUBA (2822).  Fax: (416) 362-6799 e-mail:
    © Habeeb Salloum April 2011

For general information, please check these two sites for  two of my published cookbooks and the awards listed below that they received during the past year:

Gold Award 2011, PubWest Book Design Awards for Bison Delights: Middle Eastern Cuisine, Western Style (Regina:  CPRC, University of  Regina, 2010). PubWest is the Publishers Association of the West (Lake Oswego, Oregon).

- Winner for Canada:  Category "Canada-English for Best Arab Cuisine Cookbook" for Bison Delights:  Middle Eastern Cuisine, Western Style (Regina:  CPRC, University of  Regina, 2010), Gourmand Best in the World Competition, Gourmand Awards, Paris, 2010

- Winner for U.S.A.:  Category "Best Arab Cuisine Cookbook" for The Arabian Nights:  From Lamb Kebabs to Baba Ghannouj  (North Clarendon, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 2010), Gourmand Best in the World Competition, Paris, 2010

- 3rd Place Winner:  Category "Arab" (3.12) for the Gourmand Best in the World Cookbook Awards for The Arabian Nights:  From Lamb Kebabs to Baba Ghannouj (North Clarendon, Vermont: Tuttle Publishing, 2010), Gourmand Best in the World Competition, Paris, 2010. 

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