Jack Southan goes in search of the true spirit of Hemingway in the city he called home
Stepping out from the shadows of the narrow street into the bright sunshine of a bustling plaza, I shield my eyes and glance at the crowds of tourists in the busy restaurants looking for a respite from the midday heat. The square is overlooked by the magnificent, colonial-era Havana Cathedral and either side of the cobbled courtyard are shady colonnades that run down to an official-looking building at the far end.
Strolling towards the northwest corner of the plaza, I notice people gathered outside a small bar just off the main thoroughfare. ‘La Bodeguita del Medio’ reads the sign beside the open door, although it’s covered with stickers and scrawls in various languages, so it’s not immediately obvious at first glance.
I duck in between the groups of enthusiastic tourists and order a beer from the smartly dressed barman. The bar is famous in Havana, with the likes of Nat King Cole and Gabriel Garcia Marquez said to have been regulars, but what catches my eye is a little sentence written on the wall: ‘My mojito in La Bodeguita, My daiquiri in El Floridita.’ It’s signed ‘Ernest Hemingway’. I, of course, immediately order a mojito.
Hemingway is a legend in Havana. His house sits a little out of town, looking back over the city. It’s filled with artifacts from his life, stuffed animals from his hunts in Africa, and countless books, magazines and photos from his past. It’s a mecca for writers and tourists, just as much as the countless bars and clubs in the capital he was supposed to have frequented.
It seems every bar has hosted the iconic writer at some point, and it’s difficult to find one that doesn’t have a picture of him somewhere on a wall. But it seems to me, as I head back out onto the narrow, busy street, that this El Floridita has to be my next stop.
As I walk between the crumbling buildings, with their colorful, flaking paint and elaborate fascias, I can see why Hemingway fell in love with Havana. Inspiration and creative flair is evident at every turn, whether in the form of a 1950s Plymouth car rumbling by, or a band of older gentlemen playing wonderful music on the streets.
By the time I reach El Floridita, I’m in love with the city. It’s difficult at times, but breathtaking always. Pushing open the door of the bar, I’m hit with a fusion of cigar smoke, tumultuous live music and humdrum chatter. It’s packed with people sitting, standing and leaning in every available space. A team of bartenders sends out frozen daiquiris, six at a time, just as fast as the orders roll in.
I find a free spot at the bar, order a Hemingway Special Daiquiri, and elbow a bit of space so I can see what all the fuss is about. It’s great for sure, but I can’t help but feel that Hemingway would have preferred a whole bottle of Havana Club rather than this rather delicate frozen cocktail. I finish my drink and, as I look up, something catches my eye. On the opposite side of the bar there’s a life-size statue of Hemingway looking directly at me. He leans casually on the bar with an expression that seems quietly disappointed. I nod in understanding, call the barman over and order a neat triple rum — the real Hemingway cocktail.
Jack Southan flew to Havana with KLM Airways on their daily service from London via Amsterdam