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SAN FRANCISCO DE PAULA, CUBA — He was an old man who worked alone in a house on a hill outside Havana, and it is here that he wrote the story of a great fish.
And today, it is not so different from when he left it.
For years, this little village 15 miles from the Cuban capital has been the ultimate pilgrimage for any Ernest Hemingway aficionado, the place the world-traveling author ultimately chose to call home, and stayed for 20 years. It is here that the Papa of myth walked the Earth, spending oversized days fishing, drinking, writing — living the life every aspiring novelist wants for his very own.
Cut off from the United States, Hemingway's adopted home has remained elusive for most of his followers, a place as unattainable as the man or his lifestyle. And that may have saved it.
It has become cliche to say that Cuba is frozen in time, but for Hemingway's world, it is undeniably true.
The revolution that led to problems with the United States, and forced the writer to abandon his beloved home, in some ways has preserved it. The Cuban government, either through reverence or a lack of resources — or both — has kept all of the most important Hemingway landmarks just as he left them nearly 50 years ago.
And that, if nothing else about the Cold War between the United States and Cuba, is a good thing.
His affair with Cuba began in the early 1930s. He had come to Cuba for the Gulf Stream, discovering this island 90 miles south of his home in Key West at a time when his love of big-game fishing was growing and his second marriage was dissolving. On and off for years, Hemingway kept a room at the Ambos Mundos hotel in Old Habana, and it is there he wrote the greatest part of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and his columns for Esquire magazine (which he wrote to pay for his boat, Pilar).
Today, for $2 in Cuba's tourist currency, you can step into his room at the Ambos Mundos. Although the hotel has been renovated, Hemingway's room has been left exactly as it was when he stayed there. You can stare out the window, look between the buildings and catch a glimpse of Morro Castle and the lighthouse, remember how he described his mornings in Havana.
"You look out the north window past the Morro and see that the smooth morning sheen is rippling over and you know the trade wind is coming up early. You take a shower, pull on an old pair of khaki pants and a shirt, take the pair of moccasins that are dry, put the other pair in the window so that they will be dry the next night, walk to the elevator, ride down, get a paper at the desk, walk across the corner to the cafe and have breakfast."
A short walk away, near the old capitol, El Floridita restaurant and bar remains much the same as it was when Hemingway spent his afternoons there. They have roped off the corner where he always sat and immortalized in the posthumously published "Islands in the Stream":
"The Floridita was open now and he bought the two papers that were out, Crisol and Alerta, and took them to the bar with him. He took his seat on a tall bar stool at the extreme left of the bar. His back was against the wall toward the street and his left was covered by the wall behind the bar. He ordered a double frozen daiquiri with no sugar."
Today, that corner of the bar is perhaps the most popular, and undoubtedly the busiest, of all the places you encounter on a tour of Hemingway's Cuba. The only change in the decor is a life-size statue of Hemingway, one of the most photographed landmarks in Havana, even more than the Hemingway monument in Cojimar, the fishing village from "The Old Man and the Sea," or even the Terrace, the bar there that makes an appearance in the short novel.
As his love of Cuba grew, so did Hemingway's affections for Martha Gellhorn, the novelist and journalist who would become his third wife. But she soon tired of shacking up at the Ambos Mundos, and urged him to find a permanent residence. He ignored the request. In 1939, Gellhorn dragged Hemingway to San Francisco de Paula to look at a house they could rent for $100 a month.
He griped — it was too expensive, it was in bad shape, it was too far from the city. Gellhorn insisted; Papa caved. Soon, he grew to love it. By Christmas 1940, with the success of "For Whom the Bell Tolls" filling his bank accounts, he bought Finca Vigia, Spanish for "Lookout Farm." He paid $12,500 for it, according to "Ernest Hemingway: A Life Story" by Carlos Baker, which Gellhorn later would derisively, and hilariously, call "The King James version" of Hemingway biographies.
He stayed at Finca Vigia longer than he lived anywhere else. In 1940, he and Gellhorn married, then divorced in 1945. In between, he followed the war to Europe as a correspondent and returned home to hunt German subs in Pilar. When he came back to Cuba, he brought fellow correspondent Mary Welsh to be the new mistress of his island home.
Here he grew old, wrote his last books, including the lion's share of his Paris memoir, "A Moveable Feast." On a visit to Finca Vigia, an editor and friend suggested he take the last section of his massive sea novel, which would become "Islands in the Stream," and publish it separately. "The Old Man and the Sea" was born. It would be the last book he published in his lifetime.
Suspended in time
The Finca was a good place for writing, Hemingway noted often. He wrote standing up, his typewriter propped up on a bookcase. Mary had a tower built for him, but he preferred the sounds of the house to the isolation of the tower and his magnificent view. His affection for his home never waned.
"People ask you why you live in Cuba and you say it is because you like it. It is too complicated to explain about the early mornings in the hills above Havana where every morning is cool and fresh on the hottest day in the summer."
Because of the U.S. embargo, tightened in recent years by the Bush administration, many preservationists have called Finca Vigia one of the most endangered American landmarks in the world. For years, the Cubans kept the house exactly as Hemingway left it in 1960: half-filled liquor bottles on the living-room table, mail scattered on the bed, obsessive notations of his weight scribbled on the bathroom wall. The house became a time capsule, albeit one that was showing its age. Recently, the Cuban government has undertaken a massive renovation, and the house and its contents seem pristinely preserved, even if the work makes the house feel just slightly sanitized.
Still, all of what was his remains. There is the massive swimming pool, where he spent some afternoons and where Ava Gardner famously swam naked. There are the heads of animals he killed while writing "The Green Hills of Africa." There is the stamp "I never write letters" that he never used. His fishing visor still lies on the pillow of a bed in his study, within easy reach of the typewriter.
Although the house is busy with tourists peering through the doors and windows — you cannot go inside — it is possible to steal a minute alone. At certain angles, for just a moment, it is possible to see the house as empty and as quiet as he saw it. And then you understand why he loved it, why it broke his heart to leave it and why he came here in the first place.
Reach Brian Hicks at email@example.com.