Blog Archives: Cuba


Valerie Hemingway Q & A

Havana, Cuba

Young Irish reporter Valerie Danby-Smith, first met Hemingway in 1959, when interviewing him for the Belgian News Service. Thereafter, Valerie devoted her life to Hemingway and his wife, Mary, travelling with them throughout Spain and France and living with them during their final years in Cuba.

Valerie will accompany our Cuba group tour in Havana, spending an afternoon with the group, visiting Hemingway’s house, where she will share stories of Ernest’s life there.

We asked Valerie to share her memories of her time with Ernest and Mary, her thoughts on who has inspired her, her best travel advice and more.

Valerie Hemingway ©Lynn Donaldson
How did you first meet Ernest Hemingway?

I met Ernest Hemingway in May 1959 at the Suecia Hotel in Madrid where I interviewed him for the Belgian news service that hired me to do English language interviews.  During the interview Hemingway told me that I should go to Pamplona in July for San Fermin, their annual festival.  I agreed to go and at the end of the week in Pamplona he hired me as a temporary secretary for the summer.  The job lasted until his final illness in 1961. 

What is your favourite memory of your time with him?

I have so many wonderful memories.  One of my favorite is my 20th birthday dinner at the Floridita in Havana where, after a day’s fishing in Pilar, we celebrated with a memorable meal and music.  Ernest and Mary sang “Happy Birthday” to me as we ate our coco glacé ice-creams in the coconut shell.  Mine had a candle in the middle.  Then they sang in harmony from their repertory of contemporary and Latino songs.  It was a sweet and low-key moment amid a very high profile and hectic life.

Tour of Hemingways House
Do you have a favourite Hemingway novel?

My favourite book is A Moveable Feast because I read the manuscript, typed up a good part of it, and spent several days in Paris with Ernest while he was putting the finishing touches on the book.  My favourite novel is For Whom the Bell Tolls.  This is possibly because of my interest in Spain and things Hispanic and because Hemingway gave me an intimate tour of the area in Spain where most of the novel takes place while he explained how he came to devise the story. 

Who has inspired you?

Certainly James Joyce, the writer, inspired me with his innovative use of language.  Hemingway’s life style example has inspired me.  I have never known anyone who has such an ability to enjoy life in all its aspects, conviviality, food, sports, a deep and abiding interest in literature, painting, history, geography, science and music.  I cannot think of any aspect of life, physical or intellectual, that he did not embrace.  Mary Lovell, English biographer, has also inspired me.  Mid-life, after her first trip to East Africa where she met Beryl Markham, she left her job in accountancy and wrote Beryl’s life: Straight on till Morning, which is still in print.  She never looked back.  Twenty-five or so years on she has published ten biographies, all to critical acclaim.  I first met Mary when I interviewed her in 1995.

Havana, Cuba
How has Cuba changed over the years?

I first went to Cuba in 1960 and stayed for seven months.  Castro was already in power, so I missed the great period of wealth and gambling when Havana was filled with playboys and beautiful people.  Life with the Hemingway’s at the Finca was incredibly luxurious nonetheless.  Their American friends had all fled but there were many wealthy or interesting Cubans in their circle and also the English Ambassador and his family.  His daughter became a good friend of mine and we are in touch to this day.  The years have not been kind to the Cuban cities, but the wild life and countryside is as beautiful as ever.  After the deprivation of the ’90s when the Soviet Union broke up and Cuba was without sponsorship, and in dire poverty for a number of years, the country has gradually improved.  In fact, it has really turned the corner and a new and brighter era has begun.  The new restaurants are excellent.  The music, ballet and art are amazing.  The people have never lost spirit and are more innovative than ever.  Havana still needs much renovation and reconstruction, but it is one of the world’s most delightful cities both to look at and as a centre of activity.  Each time I return there are great improvements. 

Havana, Cuba
How often do you travel?

I travel about six months of every year.  Much of my work, giving lectures and writing articles requires travel.  I have been going to Cuba about twice a year for the past four years, but I also go to Europe, Africa and the Middle East.

What is your most amusing travel story? 

In 2007 when I was in Havana on assignment for Smithsonian Magazine I met theatre impresario Toby Gough on the terrace of the Hotel Nacional.  We talked about Havana in the 1950s and how it was during Hemingway’s time.  He said that he intended to put on a show at the Edinburgh Festival about pre-Castro days.  My brother Michael was with me on that trip.  Toby took us around Havana off the beaten path.  We went to the Callejon de Hamel and saw the Santería worshipers in full swing.  This would have been very much underground during the Hemingway days.  One day, a year later, I had a telephone cal in Montanal from Toby in Cuba asking me to perform at the Edinburgh Festival in his forthcoming show about Havana in the 1950s.  If I came he would call it Hemingway’s Havana.  Why not? I replied.  Three months later I found myself on stage with fourteen superb Cuban musicians, dancers and singers at the Edinburgh Festival.  It was one of the most exciting months of my entire life.  Our show won “The Spirit of the Festival” award.    It is a perfect example of how travel can lead to amazing and amusing adventures. 

Havana Black History walking tour
What is your best piece of travel advice?

My best piece of travel advice is to travel light.  It is surprising how much better one can get along with fewer items to keep track of, fewer things to lose or worry about.  Bring only the essentials in their most compact form.  Another piece of advice I have found most useful is to be prepared.  Learn as much as you can before traveling about where you are going and its special features.  If you are in a country where a foreign language is spoken, make sure to learn a dozen or so words: Hello, goodbye, thank you, for instance.  In most countries it is easy to connect with the people (and get much better service), if you can speak a few basic words.

To learn more about our group tour to Cuba where Valerie will join the group, click here.

Counter Revolution

Counter Revolution

My first trip to Cuba was in 1998 when Cubans joked about their country’s three great successes and three great disasters. The former were health care, social welfare and education. The latter were breakfast, lunch and dinner.

This was towards the end of the “special period” of economic reform. Following the collapse of main trading partner, the Soviet Union, Fidel Castro reluctantly turned to tourism to bolster the economy. My fly-drive around the island became an exercise in trying to find fuel and restaurants that had food.  In June 2018 I returned for a fourth visit.

Times have changed. Fidel has gone (legacy and reputation largely intact) and brother, Raul, has started a period of liberalisation that has transformed the country. Don’t get me wrong – vintage American cars still rumble past crumbling Baroque and Neoclassical buildings, tobacco is farmed, cigars are smoked, mojitos are sipped, salsa, son and rumba are always in the air but scratch the surface and you’ll discover a new, dynamic and creative country that is grabbing every opportunity to craft an imaginative future.

Vintage American Car, Havana

And so back to the joke. Of course, you can still dine on disastrous Cuban cuisine. If you fancy a little austerity-nostalgia, try some of the unreconstructed State-run restaurants but with a little guidance (and a reservation) there are some tremendous private eateries (paladares) that serve up thoughtful cuisine that is very easy on the eye and the palate. Among many belt-stretching experiences last month, I indulged at Grados, in the Vedado suburb of Havana. You are greeted as a house guest and dine along the colonnaded veranda of an early twentieth century villa. Raulito welcomes you into his kitchen to discuss his creations, often based on traditional Cuban dishes but with a ‘Raulito twist’. A three-piece band performs rumba on the porch and rum and cigars are paired. This kind of openness and interaction is new. Innovation and individuality was previously stifled in Cuba but is now finding its voice and, good God, the Cubans have a lot to say and are beginning to say it loudly.

Grados, Havana

Hotels used to be drab and functional.  Even Havana’s finest historic properties were all “fur coat and no knickers”.  Impressive facades belied barely functional rooms and apathetic service.  But now there is a new five-star Kempinski with a roof-top pool commanding epic views across Havana’s skyline and excellent service to boot. It is the new wave of private guesthouses and apartments that are truly revolutionary and some of which can finally be described as offering a boutique experience. They are small, often in historic buildings and many are artistically furnished and decorated. Malecon 663 is a great example of this new wave – located in a stunning old building along Havana’s seafront with just four eclectically decorated rooms including a suite with a sea view to die for.  The bar opens onto the malecon and the bar stools are bicycles!

Malecon 663, Havana

This new creative revolution is exploding in a variety of different ways. Modern art, especially, is beginning to express feelings, thoughts and ideas that have been repressed for generations. However, a visit to the magnificent Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes in Havana is essential to understand the development of graphic art in Cuba, from Taino chief Hatuey, refusing at the stake to convert to Catholicism (“if heaven is where the conquistadores go”) to modern works from a period when Castro decreed that all art should support the revolution – check out the references to Warhol and the appearance of the Beatles in some of the pieces. You’ll need a guide/curator to fully appreciate what’s on show as the information provided is minimal. It’s also possible to visit the home of Roberto Salas for a private audience to discuss his and his Father’s work in photographing Che, Fidel and comrades during and after their revolutionary campaign.

Once you’ve surveyed the past, dive into the colourful, controversial and hugely inventive world of Cuba’s modern artists. New Cuban art is documenting current attitudes to the revolution and Cuba’s future as a nation. Artists have wedged open the doors to self-expression and are having their say in a fashion that would not have been tolerated just a few years ago. New galleries and workshops are opening (mainly in the capital) and it’s possible to meet artists and discuss work that reflects on Cuba’s colonial and modern history but with an eye firmly focussed on the future. Large triptychs recreate traditional landscapes of colonial slave plantations with repeated Mickey Mouses representing the slave workforce, kitsch glass-wear encases iconic photographs of the revolution and huge canvases create pastoral scenes crafted from thousands of tiny fishhooks. Cuban artists are beginning to rock the international art scene but are keen to meet and interact with those interested in their work and what they have to say. The Fabrica de Arte Cubano in Havana is a wonderful warren of spaces and stages that showcases the best of Cuba’s young artists and musicians.

This Cuban creative flourish expresses itself in far more ways than art. Fidel’s original vision of tourism was the creation of Varadero, a strip of large beach hotels on a ‘gated’ peninsula to the east of Havana (never the twain shall meet?). While many never stray beyond the beach, a considerable number of visitors want to see and understand more about this fascinating island, its history, people and culture. It’s now possible to explore with experienced, knowledgeable and welcoming guides who are keen to share their experience of life in Cuba and to show off their country in increasingly imaginative ways.

Electric bike tours are the next thing! I specifically avoided mojitos at lunchtime, knowing that I would be ‘cycling’ in the afternoon. However, my guide, Martin, insisted that we have beers and cigars in order to get to know each other before heading out. Turns out that it’s a doddle cycling with a little electric assistance. We took the Havana ferry across the harbour to Casablanca and then switched to “full electrical assistance” for the hill climb to Morro Castle, followed by a ride back into Havana along the Malecon (Havana’s famous seafront that’s known locally as the Big Sofa). It was only when we were on the back-roads of Havana that he started playing Bob Marley and old ska songs through his secret back-pack speaker. Martin’s kitsch red-star Che hat and our musical convoy were designed to court attention and a twenty-minute coast through this crumbling city turned into an hour of mickey-taking “hey Che” calls and consequent conversations with locals about our “Easy-Rider” style steeds.

2019 marks 60 years since Fidel swept into Havana to claim the island. The revolution has left an indelible impression on every walk of life in Cuba and it’s utterly fascinating to try and unpackage and understand this unique country that has existed in relative isolation for over half a century.  Don’t listen to the curmudgeons who insist that Cuba should have been visited ten years ago. Revolution is being replaced by an evolutionary wave of private enterprise, self-expression and creativity. This is exactly what makes Cuba such an exciting place to visit right now.

Steppes Travel tailor-makes trips to Cuba and in April 2019 are running a special small-group tour of the western half of the island that will include some very exciting behind-the-scenes experiences. These include a private audience with Valerie Hemingway at Ernest’s house (Finca Vigia) and a tour of Havana’s architecture with renowned architect and designer, Hermes Mallea.

Price is £6295 per person based on two people sharing.  Speak with John for full details 01285 880980.