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Following in the Footsteps of Hemingway: From Key West to Africa
The first time I heard of Ernest Hemingway I was in high school. I was assigned to read The Old Man and the Sea. I immediately identified with the fisherman in the book, as I, too, struggled for days on the waters of the Gulf on my way to freedom from Havana to Miami. Although I enjoyed the book immensely, I did not know much about the author. It wasn’t until I started traveling around the world that I discovered (in a way), that I was following in the footsteps of the legendary writer. What follows are my personal experiences in some of the very same places Hemingway stood, and where I enjoyed some of my most memorable cigars.
– Rafael Nodal
The first leg of my Hemingway “journey” began on this beautiful island which is only three hours from the mainland of the US, but it might as well be on the other side of the world, for Key West has its own culture and unique ambience. The “Conch Republic,” as it is known to the locals, has a colorful past and present. On April 23, 1982 the city council, in a humorous conceit, declared independence from the United States and named the city’s mayor, “Prime Minister.” Today Key West celebrates its Independence Day with a weeklong festival. I doubt that during the 1930’s, when Hemingway called Key West home, there were as many tourists but I have no doubt that it was as colorful and unique then as it is today.
The first place I saw after four days on the boat from Cuba was Key West. So it is no surprise that I love everything about Key West: the fishing, the sea, the food, the laidback, relaxed atmosphere, and the long days and nights of continuous drinking (though not too excessively, mind you).
Key West has always been close to Cuba, not only geographically but culturally as well. The island has been a refuge for Cubans since the war against Spain, and during the late 1800’s it became one of the largest producers of cigars. The cigar rollers or “tabaqueros” were an important part of the city, and helped consolidate the cigar-smoking custom that exists to this day. There are few cities outside of Cuba where you can see so many people selling and smoking cigars as they go about their daily activities.
It is easy to imagine Hemingway sitting at Sloppy Joe’s bar, drinking and sharing fishing stories. I personally look forward to the most famous sunset in the world, with a Mojito in one hand and a cigar in the other. Perhaps Ernest Hemingway stood there in the same spot enjoying the sunset and thinking about his next short story.
My journey continued at another one of my favorite places in the world: Venice, Italy. With its long history, romantic canals and great food, it’s no surprise to me that Venice was also one of Ernest Hemingway’s favorite destinations.
Venice is a city unlike any other in the world. Unfortunately, nowadays there are more tourists and fewer locals, but even with the streets full of visitors and the gondolas filled to capacity with camera-laden tourists on the Grand Canal, it is worth a visit.
If one takes the time to walk past the famous San Marco Square and wander through the narrow side streets and small canals, you will find buildings full of history and interesting architecture. My favorite time to visit Venice is in February during Carnival when everyone is wearing masks and elaborate costumes. According to legend, Carnival began in 1162 until it was outlawed in 1797 under the rule of the King of Austria. In 1979 the local government decided to bring back the Carnival to celebrate the history and culture of the city.
There are a multitude of bars and restaurants in Venice in which to drink and dine, but one of the most famous bars is Harry’s Bar, Hemingway’s favorite when he stayed in Venice for a few months in the late 1950’s. I love to spend the afternoons in Harry’s Bar, where the famous Belini drink and the Carpaccio were created. Later on, I light up a cigar and walk by the Plaza San Marco on the way to one of Venice’s many fine restaurants, just as Hemingway may have done while working on his book, Across the River And Into The Trees.
Then, it was on to Paris. Paris is a fascinating city with a tremendous history, great architecture, beautiful parks, great food, and wine. It’s no wonder that Hemingway was attracted to this city as it attracted me ever since my first visit. Of course, no visit to Paris is complete without the obligatory visits to the Eiffel Tower, the Louvre and a stroll with a good cigar through the Champs d’Elysees.
One night, while staying at the Ritz Hotel, I was unable to sleep, so I decided to go down to the bar and have a nightcap. It was around 2:00am and the bar was empty. The bartender noticed the unlit cigar in my mouth, and since there were no other guests, he invited me to light-up on the condition that I give him one, too. We started talking about Cuba, The United States, cigars, and the bartender told me how the Ritz Hotel was liberated by Ernest Hemingway and a group of French Resistance fighters during World War II. It’s an interesting story, but one that may be more urban legend than fact. What is more likely to have happened was, Hemingway, who was a war correspondent at the time, stormed into Paris as soon as it was liberated by the Allied Forces, and went directly to the Ritz Hotel bar where he spent a week of non-stop drinking and celebration.
Spain is a country that I love very much. Perhaps because my grandparents emigrated from Spain to Cuba, and because it is a country where eating and drinking is as important as religion. The Iberian Peninsula and Spain have been dominated throughout history by the Romans, and later by the Muslims, until the “Reconquista” by the Catholic Kingdoms of the North, which culminated in 1492 with the fall of Granada, and later, by France during the Napoleonic wars.
Due to its rich history, Spain has been a melting pot of cultures, which is reflected in almost every aspect of modern Spanish life. Although Castilian Spanish is widely used, other languages have semi-official status, like Aranese and Catalan, spoken mainly in Cataluñia, Other regional languages include Basque and Galician.
Madrid, Spain’s capitol, is also the cultural and financial center of the country where the King of Spain and the Royal Family live. Madrid is also an incredible European city, with wide avenues and beautiful parks, not to mention a gastronomic treasure trove. Every aspect of the Madrileños’ daily lives evolves around eating and drinking. Everybody goes to the tapas bars after work to eat small portions of food with their favorite wine or beer. Later in the evening, usually around 9:00 or 10:00pm, they head to the thousands of restaurants around the city. It is not uncommon in Madrid, even after a long night of tapas and dinner, to go to a local cafeteria around midnight for a nightcap, or a “Churro con Chocolate” especially during the cold nights of the winter.
With such love for food and drink, it’s not surprising that Ernest Hemingway fell in love with the Spanish culture, especially the bullfights. Although many see them as barbaric, bullfights are a big part of Spanish tradition. The Toreros, or Matadores, are treated like royalty. The largest Bullfight Ring, or Plaza de Torros, is also located in Madrid. It is an unbelievable spectacle, and one that Hemingway enjoyed very much. In his book The Sun Also Rises, he writes extensively about bullfights and the Festival of San Fermin in Pamplona with the running of the bulls.
It is hard to walk the Gran Via (Grand Street) or go to the Plaza del Sol and not find a favorite bar or restaurant of Hemingway’s, like the Cervezeria Alemana (The German Beer Bar) where he spent countless afternoons drinking, or Botin (established in 1725, it claims to be the world’s oldest restaurant), where I celebrated my 40th birthday.
With all of the great Spanish traditions Hemingway experienced and wrote about, the one he enjoyed very much, as did I, was the siesta – a two to three hour break in the middle of the day after lunch, to nap. Can you imagine, taking a two or three hour break after lunch at your job? I suppose that when you’re surrounded by so much food, drink and time to sleep, it’s not hard to understand why Madrid was a favorite of Mr. Hemingway.
I have been in some of the most magnificent churches and houses of prayer that man has built. But there, in the heart of Africa, surrounded by nature, as if time had not passed, there is no place on earth that I have felt strongest the presence of God.
After a day of safari at Amboseli National Park, I was smoking a cigar in a little bar at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro watching the colorful sunset, when I saw a plaque on the wall that read: “This bar was Ernest Hemingway’s favorite bar.” I could not believe it!
Later that week I took a break from the safari tent camps and the national parks to stay for few days in one of the most wonderful hotels I have ever stayed in, the Mount Kenya Safari Club.
The hotel is located on the slopes of Mount Kenya in Nanyuki on more that 100 acres of beautiful foliage. From my villa I had a breathtaking view of the mountain. On the first night, after dinner there was a live orchestra playing. One of the musicians noticed that I was smoking a cigar and the orchestra played a Cuban classic, “La Guantanamera”. It was incredible, I was smoking a cigar and listening to Cuban music in the middle of Africa! Of course, I did what any Cuban would have done; I ordered their best rum. The waiter looked at me and with a big smile and said, “You remind me of one of our most memorable club members, Ernest Hemingway.” (Now, come on…really?)
After a few days of rest at the Safari Club, which I spent drinking rum, smoking cigars and reading Hemingway’s book, The Snows of Kilimanjaro, I flew to the Masai Mara National Reserve. This area known by the locals as The Mara, is located in the Narok County of Kenya adjacent to the Serengeti National Park and Tanzania. It’s renowned for its large population of lions, leopards, and especially for the annual migration of animals to and from the Serengeti area. It is an imposing spectacle to see thousands of zebras, Thomson’s Gazelle, and wildebeest running together for hundreds of miles, in what seems like a 20 lane expressway.
The camp is surrounded by an electrical fence to deter leopards, lions and hyenas from coming into the camp. Every night after dinner a group of us got together in the rustic little bar to share stories from the day’s experiences. I would be smoking my usual cigar with an after dinner drink. By the side of the bar was a torch that illuminated the place and helped keep the insects out. If you looked really hard, beyond the torch, you could see a little sign, one that read, “Here was Ernest Hemingway during his visit to Africa in 1933.”
It seems to me, that without any conscious planning, I have pretty much followed the steps of Ernest Hemingway from Key West to Africa. However, there is one place that I am looking forward to visiting one day-The El Floridita Bar in Havana, Cuba, where Hemingway was a regular during his years in Cuba while enjoying Cuba’s famous Mojitos. Hemingway left Cuba in 1961 after Castro’s Communist Revolution. Unfortunately, he will not be able to go back to enjoy a drink in a free Cuba, but I know that when the day comes, I will be enjoying one of my own Dominican-made cigars while reading one of his famous books.