I couldn’t imagine a better reason to experience the island of Cuba for the first time, than attending a romantic family wedding on the warm sandy beach where a turquoise ocean is the backdrop to a beaming couple’s promises of love. Even if I didn’t know the couple, any wedding in that kind of setting would be fabulous, with exotic flowers in abundance, and lots of sunshine and smiling faces.
The day after the wedding, however, we were anxious to explore the history and culture of the gorgeous little island in the sun, so we booked a day trip to the ancient city of Old Havana. It would be a two-hour bus ride, but our guide assured us it would be well worth it. We would travel along the turquesa highway, so named because the road runs parallel to the gorgeous turquoise ocean for a very long way before winding up into the mountains. In our comfortable, air-conditioned bus, we set out to discover the real Cuba. The scenery was breathtaking!
Beautiful brilliant green foliage draped the mountains, and deep in the valleys far below were the tobacco farms. The lush vales were rich with the famous tobacco plants that cigar lovers the world over have come to prize.
Nearing the city, we drove through a long, well-lit tunnel that runs beneath the bay. When we finally reached the sunshine again, massive stone fortresses from the days of the conquistadors lay before us, flanking the harbour of Old Havana. High above the fortress stands an incredible two hundred foot statue of Christ, guarding the ancient city that is eight-five percent Catholic.
I soon realized this day trip would be an extraordinary history lesson, as well as an exceedingly inspirational adventure that would stay with me for the rest of my life!
With eager anticipation we slowly made our way on foot through ancient narrow streets into the historical city of Old Havana. The tour guide paused now and then to explain the historical significance of a particular building that has withstood the changing centuries. Quite a number of the structures are in various stages of restoration, but sadly, far too many of them bear evidence of age and neglect. Crumbling cement, windows devoid of shutters to keep out the elements, and disintegrating, ornate balustrades are the sad remnants of a once vibrant metropolis. Nevertheless, the old city is truly spectacular, and one can’t help but feel the tugging of time, pulling you back into centuries long gone by.
In and out of narrow cobblestone streets, we meandered through Old Havana, imaginations piqued by lavish Spanish architecture and evident former grandeur of the city. Amid a seemingly endless sea of drab gray buildings, we are pleasantly surprised when a completely restored, brilliantly painted hotel suddenly appears before us. The façade of the building is classically Spanish, with a bright, salmon-hued stucco exterior. Shuttered windows framed with intricately carved white sandstone open onto tiny balconies overlooking the street far below. The conquistadors created a perfect blend of splendour and romance when they built the magnificent Hotel Ambos Mundos!
As we drew near, soft piano music drifted into the street from the open windows of the Café Ambos Mundos that encompassed the entire main floor of the hotel. An elderly Cuban gentleman at a lovingly worn baby grand piano just inside the café greeted us with a warm smile, his deft fingers not missing a note of the sweet melody he played. Senses tingling, I imagine him playing those same melodies to a relaxed Ernest Hemmingway, seated at a nearby table with his notebook and pen. I am standing inside Ernest Hemmingway’s favourite bar, in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, deep in the heart of Old Havana! He kept a room here on the fifth floor for many years, and frequented this café where no doubt he felt inspired to write. With all of my senses tingling, I am awestruck as I gaze around the enchanting surroundings.
A twenty-foot high ceiling with ornate crown mouldings towers above the gleaming marble floor that encompasses the entire room. Tastefully furnished, the café offers the atmosphere associated with lounging in ones own living room. Quite near the entrance, there’s an ornately designed mahogany bar with matching barstools comfortably worn from a lifetime of patronage. A hint of fresh mint lingers in the air. The handsome young bartender takes my order, beckoning me to a seat next to an older Cuban gentleman sipping rum and coke, savouring a thick, aromatic Cuban cigar.
Glancing around, I find myself daydreaming about how many times the great Hemmingway sat in this very spot, his arms resting comfortably on the bar while he sipped a Mojito, casually chatting with the locals.
The bartender crushes fresh mint leaves in a tall frosted glass, and works his magic with the remaining ingredients. Around the room, dozens of pictures of Hemmingway adorn the walls, arranged gallery style, a perfect tribute to an extraordinarily gifted author. Suddenly, I am overwhelmingly conscious of my insignificance in the presences of such greatness! Hemmingway’s spirit dwells here – I can feel it with every fibre of my being!
There’s a lavish fountain in the corner of the café, where large tropical fish swim lazily about, adding a soothing calmness to the already tranquil atmosphere. Marble and stone carvings in and around the fountain have no doubt intrigued loyal patrons for a great many lifetimes! There is opulence at every turn in this enchanting place.
Mojito in hand I stroll around the café, admiring the mahogany staircase that winds to the upper floors right next to an ancient elevator; you know, the one that resembles a large steel cage. Outside of the elevator, his vintage uniform crisp and fresh, the proud operator of the classic beast stands at ease, awaiting his next passengers. I can feel myself drifting back to the twenties. Did Hemmingway use the elevator or the stairs? For some odd reason, I envision him taking those stairs two at a time, his lively gait an inspiration in itself! Of course that would have been in his younger years, before his health tragically began to fail him.
Intensely nostalgic emotions threaten tears with every sip of my Mojito. Was it here that Hemmingway conceived the notion of “The Old Man And The Sea”; perhaps at that marble table over there by the open window where a window box of fragrant flowers once bloomed, much like the one there now. There is powerful inspiration within these walls! I can’t help but speculate, did Hemmingway’s muse follow him here, or did it lead him to this blissful sanctuary?
Moving slowly around the room I study the array of pictures adorning the walls, pausing to admire a particularly large copy of Mr. Hemmingway’s signature that is at least four feet long. The simplicity of his hand is fascinating; each letter of his name clearly penned and perfectly legible. It’s blatantly obvious he took pride in his signature, in an era when penmanship prevailed!
Stopping before a gigantic photograph of a brilliantly smiling Hemmingway, I raise my half-empty Mojito and salute the great man. He eyes follow me and I can swear he’s right here, in this time, in this place, happy and healthy! Goose bumps raise the fine hairs on my arms. I have never felt so completely spellbound by a single moment in time!
All too soon, the tour guide catches my eye and gives me a nod; it’s time to leave. More than an hour has passed in the blink of an eye. Reluctantly tearing myself away from the pictures, I finish off my Mojito before placing the empty glass back on the bar. Tipping the piano player a few pesos, and taking one last lingering look around, I step back outside into the heat of the midday sun. Reverently placing my hand on the bright façade of the Hotel Ambos Mundos, I close my eyes, and feel the pulse of this beautiful edifice that has seen greatness come and go for centuries. “Farewell Mr. Hemmingway,” I softly whisper.
Hopefully this incredible structure will stand for centuries to come, warmly welcoming those who have felt the gentle nudge of a muse. Anyone who aspires to write would understand the remarkable feeling of sitting on a barstool in Hemmingway’s favourite bar, the Café Ambos Mundos, or perhaps at a table where the great man shared his soul with generations to come. I am left with a strong sense that his muse still lingers there, and I’m certain Mr. Hemmingway would welcome, with open arms, all fellow writers who deign to share their innermost thoughts and feelings with the world.
To a fledgling writer like me, a visit to Hemmingway’s favourite bar in the Hotel Ambos Mundos, in Old Havana, was one of the most moving experiences I’ve ever had. It was an incredibly inspirational journey and captive memories will always be golden!
The history of this charming city, where Hemmingway left a piece of his heart, is fascinating! It quickly becomes abundantly clear that Cuba and its people were a great influence in Ernest Hemmingway’s life. He loved the Cuban people, and he became part of them, just as they became part of him. He embraced them in life, and they continue to embrace him even in death.
Ernest Hemmingway was greatly respected by the Cuban people, and they speak his name with great reverence. He was a dear friend to them and they have immortalized his memory.
I will always remember strolling through the streets of Old Havana, and I will never forget the day I had a Mojito with Hemmingway!
© Annabel Sheila