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Hemingway began work on "For Whom the Bell Tolls" in Cuba in 1939

Finca Vigía

The house, which his third wife Martha Gellhorn found through the small ads in 1939, was left to the Cuban government by Hemingway when he decided to leave his adopted island following Castro's revolution twenty years later.

It is looked after with meticulous care. Every object is noted and catalogued and located, as far as possible, in the same place it had when the Hemingways left. Nine thousand of his books remain on the shelves, each one hand-cleaned by the loyal staff. The public is allowed only as far as the doors and windows, which are thrown open but roped off.


Hemingway's ghost is in a mischievous mood today. In order to set up our filming, a small number of us are allowed over the cordon and into the precious interior. We fall silent. So perfect is the feat of preservation that it conveys the eerie impression that the Hemingways might have left the room only five minutes earlier. I stare at the armchair with its most un-macho pattern of leaves and blossoms and try to shift my imagination back forty years and put Hem in there and me opposite watching him pour a huge Gordon's gin from the tray that is still there with all his bottles on it, when my reverie is abruptly broken by a clatter, followed by a sharp intake of breath. Our thorough, careful, utterly mortified director has dislodged a piece of Venetian pottery from its precarious stand and it now lies in several pieces on the floor. Shock, horror, apology. We expect to be sent home immediately.

We slip away through the gardens, to film on Pilar, the forty-foot boat which Hemingway bought in 1934 and gave in his will to his boatman Gregorio Fuentes. Fuentes, still alive at 101, gave the boat to the government who decided it should be preserved up here at the house. It's set, rather gloomily, in a concrete base with a massive timber cover, surrounded on three sides by swaying bamboo.

Palin finds his sea legs, on land, aboard Hemingway's beloved Pilar.

Filming in it isn't easy. I'm treated rather as we might treat a Cuban who wanted to roller-skate in Westminster Abbey. They are clearly worried about letting me on deck at all, but eventually agree to my climbing aboard, provided I take my shoes off. When I make to sit on the fishing chair, shrieks of horror go up and I have to abort the attempt in mid-squat.

It's a little sad to see this sturdy, practical, unflashy, walnut-hulled working boat ending her days as an untouchable object on a hill nine miles from the sea, but I suppose that's the price of fame.

Photo Credits: ŠEarl Theisen/John F. Kennedy Library 2000, © Basil Pao, 1999. Text excerpt: "Michael Palin's Hemingway Adventure" by Michael Palin © Michael Palin, 1999 Used with permission of Cassell & Company.