Finca Vigía - Hemingway's Home in Cuba

I love house museums,  as you'll see over and over on the blog and  I search them out wherever we go.  I was thrilled to visit Ernest Hemingway's home Finca Vigía on our recent trip to CubaI love these museums because they convey a domestic scene, you can imagine how people lived and what the quality of their everyday life looked like. You can see the books, the decor, the hints of different interests or phases of life, the private histories all muddled up into a domestic vignette.

Oh and what a wonderfully evocative place Finca Vigía is, a domestic haven for perhaps the least domestic writer one can think of. Located ten miles outside of Havana in San Francisco de Paula, the  one story house is situated on the top of a hill and set in extensive grounds which make it feel like a comfortable, private retreat. This is a tropical home built to catch the air, with large windows and a high ceiling. The name, Finca Vigia means Lookout Farm and it does indeed look out over the surrounding countryside. The house is comfortable but not lavish, though there is  a large swimming pool where Hemingway swam daily and Ava Gardner was said to have swum naked. As you can tell the house comes with tall tales just like Hemingway!

Hemingway lived at Finca Vigía  between 1939 and 1960 and it is here that he completed   his Spanish Civil War novel, For Whom the Bell Tolls (1940) and his classic  work  The Old Man and the Sea (1951). The later immortalized his connections to Cuba and was the work for which he earned his 1954 Nobel Prize,  "for his mastery of the art of narrative, most recently demonstrated in The Old Man and the Sea, and for the influence that he has exerted on contemporary style". However, his life was peripatetic and  during the time he was based in Cuba he also spent time in the United States, Europe and made several trips to Africa on game hunting safaris.

The house is now a museum preserved as Hemingway left it and run by the Cuban government following Hemingway's suicide in Idaho in 1961. However, there is considerable controversy surrounding the conditions under which the family left and the museum was established.  Hemingway's widow Mary, contested the claim that she deeded the site and contents to the Cuban people. She  said that following her husband's death the Castro led government expropriated the property allowing her to take nothing more than minimal personal effects and several manuscripts. 

Opened in 2007, the museum was previously listed on the World Monument Fund's  100 Most Endangered sites and the National Trust for Historic Preservation's 11 Most Endangered Places. However, preservation and conservation of the site, buildings, photograph and library have been undertaken between the Consejo Nacional de Patrimonio Cultural (within the Cuban Ministry of Culture) and the American based  Finca Vigía Foundation. The Foundation website states, "The estate and its collection are in  in the process of being preserved by a bi-national team of architects, engineers, and conservators. However...the conserved documents and photographs, as well as the fragile papers waiting conservation have no safe storage space.  The harsh tropical climate, mold and mildew, termites, and fluctuations in temperature and humidity will, over time, destroy the irreplaceable papers."

Clearly there is a lot to preserve here and a lot the family left behind. The house has the feeling that the owners or heirs could come back at anytime and given the changes in Cuba perhaps they will. You'll see a  library, comfortable chintz sofas, personal items, clutter, animal heads, trophies, paintings, posters, and all the practical stuff of living, plates, lamps, tables, clothing and more.

In the Spring 1958 edition of The Paris Review, George Plimpton interviewed Hemingway (who he knew and had interviewed previously) at  Finca Vigía. This was the moment before the end - both for the status quo in Cuba and for Hemingway himself. I can't describe the house more beautifully than Plimpton and the home he described sounds much like what we saw on our visit almost half a century later. 

"The bedroom is on the ground floor and connects with the main room of the house. The door between the two is kept ajar by a heavy volume listing and describing The World’s Aircraft Engines. The bedroom is large, sunny, the windows facing east and south letting in the day’s light on white walls and a yellow-tinged tile floor.The room is divided into two alcoves by a pair of chest-high bookcases that stand out into the room at right angles from opposite walls. A large and low double bed dominates one section, oversized slippers and loafers neatly arranged at the foot, the two bedside tables at the head piled seven-high with books. In the other alcove stands a massive flat-top desk with a chair at either side, its surface an ordered clutter of papers and mementos. Beyond it, at the far end of the room, is an armoire with a leopard skin draped across the top. The other walls are lined with white-painted bookcases from which books overflow to the floor, and are piled on top among old newspapers, bullfight journals, and stacks of letters bound together by rubber bands."

As Plimpton notes, Hemingway had several desks in the house and a separate study in an adjacent tower, but he preferred to work at the desk in the bedroom. As Plimpton  describes the litany of clutter he concludes this is a home of, "an owner who is basically neat but cannot bear to throw anything away." 

I wish I'd read this interview before our visit because it gives you a sense of the author in situ. I particularly love Hemingway's scolding tone when Plimpton persists in asking about meaning and symbolism in his work. Here's Hemindways withering reply,  "It is hard enough to write books and stories without being asked to explain them as well.... Read anything I write for the pleasure of reading it. Whatever else you find will be the measure of what you brought to the reading." 

And so it is with the house, the experience is the measure of what we bring to the place. Our connection to Hemingway's work, our understanding of his end, our interest in how the great author lived. What makes a great house museum is what it invokes in us and here at Finca Vigía I had a sense of Hemingway settled, his work situated in a time and place. But like anything it's only a partial impression and the museum itself only allows you to look through the windows - literally! The house is closed but all of its many windows and doors are open catching the hilltop breezed and now too, the hot breathe of eager tourists craning their necks and stretching their phones  in past the bars. Here you can see one of the caretakers carefully dusting the china. The door way at the far end is where you look into the living room with it's distinctive chintz sofas.

Surprisingly looking in through the windows and doors works well for a visit because these tropical houses were built to connect to the outside and you leave feeling you've had a good look  - despite not having placed a single step inside the house. In this way we look into the past without disturbing it in any way and I like the symbolic sense of peering into history.

One of the distinctive features of the house, which was added during Hemingway's ownership of Finca Vigía, is this four story tower which looks out over the view and houses a delightful study at the top. It was here that Hemingway  tutored the Italian teenage beauty, Adriana Ivancich, said to be the muse for Renata the heroine of Across the River and Into the Trees which he published in 1950. 

There were things I missed in person but picked up  later  -  between additional research and looking through the  photos on our return. For example,  below you can see a scale in the bathroom and a series of annotations on the lefthand wall. Apparently Hemingway recorded his weight and blood pressure meticulously and wrote it all right on the wall! 

I think these photos give you a sense for the intimacy of the museum - where you can see the books in the bathroom as well as the military uniform hanging in the adjacent wardrobe.

In addition to the interesting interiors there are a number of lovely outdoor spots at Finca Vigía including shady seating areas and the infamous swimming pool, below.

You can also see Hemingway's  boat Pilar and a small pet graveyard below.

The museum is the most significant of a number of Hemingway sites in Cuba where you can visit his favorite watering holes and even pose with a ghastly Heminway statue at the Floridita bar in Havana - needless to say we passed on this "must see"! There are so many wonderful places in Havana to have a daiquiri, why follow the crowds?

We stopped at Finca Vigía on our way to Vinales and made a brief detour to see the small seaside village of Cojimar, known to be the site for the Old Man and the Sea. It's certainly a very evocative spot and as you can see above the seventeenth century colonial seafront fortifications  are quite impressive. If you go you may well run into the two characters below who will sing you a song. Like the children who swam out to our boat in Aswan (and buskers the world over) they will ask you where you are from and incorporate it into their song with a simple charm and a smile. You can't go far in Cuba without encountering musicians of some kind and no matter how touristy it  is still a charming experience.

If you'd like to read more on house museums click here and for more on our Cuba trip click here. If you make it to Cuba I 'd recommend a visit to Finca Vigía and if  you don't have plans togo I hope you've enjoyed the armchair tour.


Janie said…
Fabulous post with lots of detail for a visit to Hemingways's house in Cuba. I'm a fan of Hemingway, so it's great to see his books and papers as he left them, unintended nevertheless. I'm sure he would have removed them had he been allowed. During the Cuba years he spent much of his time in Idaho as well, especially the late summer into fall. There is a beautiful plague by the Creek in Ketchum, (Sun Valley) Idaho, near where he died. It reads:
Best of all he loved the fall
the leaves yellow on cottonwoods
leaves floating on trout streams
and above the hills
the high blue windless skies
…Now he will be a part of them forever.
Thanks Janie! I appreciate your kind comment and the interesting lyrical quote from his home in Sun Valley. It's fascinating how different locations "claim" authors after their death. If there's one thing you can say about Hemingway it was that he seemed to love a peripetectic life. I must confess I'm not a great Hemingway fan though I appreciate his place in Western literature.