Early in autumn of this year, I returned to the legendary fishing village of Cojímar, just a few kilometres east of Havana. The waters that bathe the shores of this small town exhibit a splendid range of colors, in which fishermen cast both lines and eyes waiting for the miracle of a catch.
For some mysterious reason, my feet always take me down to the old wooden pier where a number of locals may be trying their luck at fishing. Some elders are also there. Many of them are living books on the history of Cojímar. I notice an old gentleman sitting at the end of the pier and soon I am chatting with him about the town, his town. With a glitter in his eyes and a pride difficult to conceal, he tells me that several times he had seen Ernest Hemingway walking around the town.
Very near the old pier stands a small Spanish fort known as the Torreón de Cojímar, which is part of Havana’s fortification system, a UNESCO World heritage Site. Built in 1649 to protect the coast, it would prove its worth in 1762 during the British invasion when it prevented the British fleet to land there forcing them to do so farther east. Although there were some native Indians and black slaves and a handful of Spanish colonizers in Cojímar back in 1555, it really began to grow after the construction of the Torreón when ranches and houses were built precisely around the small fort.
My eyes, however, wonder off and I catch sight of the first monument erected in memory of Hemingway one year after his death. It is said that the town’s residents, including Gregorio Fuentes, collected metal pieces from propellers, chain links and anchors to cast the bronze bust by Cuban sculptor Fernando Boada Martín. It stands beneath a neoclassical archway in front of the fort.
Cojímar is peculiar in its mixture of beauty and intimacy. Everything seems to take place in a confidential manner in this quintessentially laid-back town. Walking down its main street, I stumble across two street musicians. One of them assures me he had spoken “repeatedly” with Hemingway and that what he remembered the most was his affable character and how he had liked to talk with the town folk. He went on to describe the writer as a “tall, white, strong man with very blue eyes” and finished off his depiction by singing the song that, according to the trovador, Hemingway had liked the most.
In the meantime, I am silently calculating the age of this street musician–in his early 50s I would guess–who swears he had met Hemingway. From my prior conversations with people in Cojímar, I have come to the conclusion that everybody here believes they have met/seen/talked to Papa some time or another. It’s like the relative you never got to meet because they died before you were born, but you become acquainted with them thanks to family stories. Either way, I am always a little jealous of their familiarity, real or imagined, with the Nobel Prizewinner.
Just three blocks away, another of Hemingway’s haunts awaits me: La Terraza de Cojímar Restaurant. The place actually opened back in 1925 as a cheap restaurant called Las Arecas, and it was in 1940 that it became an exclusive restaurant and bar under a new name: La Terraza. It soon became famous with international visitors. Many film stars of the day, such as Imperio Argentina, Libertad Lamarque, Jorge Negrete, Hugo del Carril and Lola Flores, made La Terraza a required stop. However, none was more influential in its fame than Ernest Hemingway, who would come here regularly after going out to sea with his loyal and faithful friend, Gregorio Fuentes, first mate of the writer’s boat, the Pilar.
I decide to linger at the bar and taste the drink of the house–the Don Gregorio Cocktail. While I sip the combination of maraschino and blue curaçao served over crushed ice, I take a look at the many photographs of Hemingway that line restaurant’s walls. And waiting for him to come back from any of his fishing trips is the author’s favorite corner table, which has a splendid view of his beloved ocean, permanently set for its most famous customer.