Valerie Hemingway On Why Her New Insider Arts Trip Will Take You To The Beating Heart Of

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From Cuba’s extraordinary dance scene to Havana’s exciting community of artists, Cubans seem to have a knack of putting their own incomparable stamp onto every genre of the arts. Over the years, international filmmakers, writers and artists have flocked to the island, in search of their own inspiration, but it is, perhaps, Ernest Hemingway who remains the most famous of these talented ‘ex-pats’ who chose to make their home here.

The writer lived on the island from 1939 to 1960, basing himself nine miles outside of Havana at the rural Finca Figía. It was here where he wrote seven books, including The Old Man and the Sea and A Moveable Feast. Towards the end of his time in Cuba, in 1959, Hemingway met a young Irish reporter Valerie, who became his, and his wife Mary’s, personal assistant. She later married their son, five years after Ernest Hemingway’s death, and went on to become a writer in her own right.

In Cuba, Valerie spent idyllic days and nights typing the final draft of A Moveable Feast, even as Castro’s revolution closed in. From lunches with Orson Welles to midnight serenades by mysterious troubadours, from a rooftop encounter with Castro to numbing hospital vigils, Valerie Hemingway played an intimate, indispensable role in the lives of two generations of Hemingways.

This year, as she is set to celebrate her 80th birthday, she has teamed up with her friend and journalist Lydia Bell, a Cuban expert, to launch two insider trips with The Insider Travel Collection to the island. Cuba: Literature and the Arts (now taking place on 1-9 March 2021 due to Covid-19) will offer visitors a rare chance to get to the heart of the arts scene in Havana and the UNESCO protected town of Trinidad. 

Lydia Bell first started travelling to Cuba about 15 years ago. Since then, she has become deeply attached to the country by virtue of family, friendship and work. She is an experienced journalist in the fields of travel, design and the arts, and writes for a range of publications globally, such as The Times, The Telegraph and The Guardian. Through both of their personal contacts, the writers will open up doors for a small group of 12 guests to meet some of the most talented writers, artists, film directors and dancers living in Cuba today. 

“The most exciting way to experience Havana’s culture is by meeting its artists,” says Lydia. “To do this you need an entree… the art, like the island itself, is always revealing, making the rest of our hyper-globalised world seem that much more ersatz by comparison.”

The trip will tap into the influences of early 20th Century novelists; discover the history of Afro-Cuban music and contrast this with classical dance; see striking contemporary art and meet the influential gallery owners and collectors at their private homes who continue to preserve and protect Cuban art in all its forms.

Additionally, this is a rare chance to explore Havana with Valerie Hemingway who will recount her astonishing years living with one of the greatest writers of the 20th Century in the country that inspired some of his greatest work. Valerie celebrated her 20th birthday in Cuba and returns this year to celebrate her 80th. 

“Some of the highlights we are planning include spending a full day in Havana with Valerie Hemingway, and learning about her father-in-law’s past as well as her own fascinating experiences as an acclaimed writer,” reveals Lydia.

“We’ll visit the private studios of some of the city’s finest contemporary artists and hear their story and the influences behind their work. Explore the architecture and design inside Havana’s most beautiful buildings, some of which are not open to the public, and enjoy exclusive events and informal debate hosted in the private homes of our friends in Havana and Trinidad.”

Here, in an exclusive interview for Forbes, Valerie Hemingway reveals more about her connection with Cuba and with Hemingway:

In your view, what was it about Cuba that Hemingway loved so much?

Ernest Hemingway made Cuba his home for the last 20 years of his life.  He had spent time there intermittently during the prior decade, indeed since he first set foot on the island in 1928.  He rented a room at the Ambos Mundos Hotel in the 1930s, where he wrote when life in Key West became too distracting. Cuba offered him superb fishing, one of his passions. He loved the sea, the open air, the relaxed atmosphere of the island, the friendliness of the people and the tropical weather. He liked living close to the city, yet equally savoured the seclusion he enjoyed in his hilltop villa and farmland. From here he could observe the activity in the harbour and, when he was in need of company, he headed to town to his favorite haunts – the Floridita, El Pacifico, the Bodegita del Medio or the Hotel Nacional. Writing, fishing, swimming, eating and drinking with friends and family were the essence of his Cuban life. 

As a guest of the programme, what particular insights can they expect to gain from the trip?

This will be a unique opportunity for travellers to get a first-hand account of how one of the great literary figures of the 20th Century lived. Few people are still alive who were privileged to live in the Hemingway home as I did. I observed his working habits, and engaged in his sporting life and social circle. He had incredible joie de vivre, epicurean tastes, insatiable curiosity and biting wit. I learned a great deal from him about literature, music, art and life in general. He taught me to fish, to shoot, the mystery of bullfighting and how to pick a winning horse.  Most importantly, he showed how to live well and make every moment count. 

How has Cuba changed from when you lived there?

Cuba has changed immensely since I first went there in January 1960 to work as Hemingway’s secretary and to live at the Finca Vigía with the writer and his fourth wife, Mary. The changes are good and not so good. On the good side, once a haven for gambling, prostitution and contraband, Cuba has regained a reputation as a cultural centre for art, music, and theatre. 

What did you love about your time there? 

First of all, I loved the weather. Coming from cold, wet Ireland, I loved the warmth, the sunshine and the vibrant colours of the tropical vegetation. Then there was the insistent, rhythmic beat of Hispanic music wafting through open windows from transistor radios, and the welcoming smiles that greeted me everywhere when I wandered outside the Finca’s gate. It was a feeling of great wellbeing. For exercise we swam daily in the pool. Twice a week we went fishing off Cojimar in The Pilar, Hemingway’s beloved boat. I learned how to reel in black marlin, sailfish and dorado. The bounty of the catch was a staple of our Finca lunches. Fishing on the Gulf Stream with Ernest and his captain, Gregorio Fuentes, was enormously exciting to a Dublin lass. By contrast, Mary and I visited Havana’s famous market every week and returned with necessities and a few extras. It was my only shopping experience on the island, and my one chance to participate in the authentic Cuban life.  

What is it about the island that means the destination has such a unique relationship with the arts?

The Cuban people always had a sunny disposition and artistic bent. There was not much manufacturing on the island back then. Tobacco and sugar were the main crops. Making cigars and rum, notable Cuban products which are enjoyed worldwide, were poorly-paid occupations for the ordinary person. The beauty of the island and its clement weather has drawn in tourists year-round.  Selling their art to tourists, whether as performance or object, has added to the meager income of the Cuban people.  

What is your favourite spot in Cuba? 

In Havana, in the calm of the evening I love walking along the…

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