Drive By History

My work travels take me to various cities, where I typically try to squeeze in a bit of culture while I'm there. But today's day-trip to Baltimore and Washington, DC, left no time for that. Alas, I snapped one great picture of the National Mall as we drove by in a cab on the wait to the airport. That's the Jefferson Memorial, honoring the 3rd US President and author of the Declaration of Independence, and behind it the Washington Monument, honoring the 1st US President (and, the world's tallest stone structure!).

National Mall


Hemingway's La Finca Vigia

I'm gearing up for another trip (more on that later) and I still haven't posted everything from my last trip! Here's another wonderful memory from Cuba...

Ernest Hemingway had a long and storied relationship with the island. He first arrived in 1932 for the marlin fishing, and rented room #511 the Hotel Ambos Mundos in Old Havana until 1939. This is where he began writing For Whom the Bell Tolls.

In 1940, he used the royalties from that book to purchase Finca Vigia (“Lookout Farm”), a quiet villa in San Francisco de Paula about fifteen miles east of Havana.  He shared it with his third wife, Martha Gellhorn (with whom he worked as a journalist reporting on the Spanish Civil War - the subject of the book); she was very impressive in her own right - this is a great book about her. He later shared it with his fourth wife, Mary Welsh

Hemingway lived and worked here for over 20 years, writing Islands in the Stream, Across the River and into the Trees, A Moveable Feast, and The Old Man and the Sea. When news of his suicide back in the US reached Cuba in 1962, the property was turned into a museum (whether taken by the Cuban revolutionary government or gifted to the people of Cuba by Mary Welsh is a subject of debate), complete with much of his original furniture, artwork, and personal memorabilia. 

Today, the restored home and grounds look much like they did when occupied by the famous author, with one exception: when visitors reach the end of the long, secluded driveway they are greeted with tourist amenities like fresh pressed pineapple juice and a Cuban band:

Pineapple juice


But leaving the driveway behind and heading up to the main house is like stepping back in time to a white washed villa so full of personal artifacts and period pieces that you half expect to hear Papa Hemingway hammering away at his typewriter behind one of the heavy wooden desks inside.

Main house


Visitors cannot enter the house; instead, you follow along the outside walls where most of the windows are open (no screens), allowing great visibility into each room. And a little black dog who had dug a hole near the foundation in which to escape from the midday heat:


Every room is adorned with hunting trophies from Hemingway's African safaris:

Living room

  Front hall



Sitting room


And the books! There are over nine thousand of them in his personal collection here; I would have loved to have gotten closer to investigate.









The furniture, tile floors and art are exquisite; besides personal photos and several Spanish tapestries depicting bullfights, there is also this ceramic plate by his friend Pablo Picasso:


And on a wall in the bathroom, hidden behind the door, you can see where Hemingway diligently recorded his weight every day...ranging from 200 lbs. to a high of about 240 lbs.



Also in the bathroom, a dead lizard sits in a glass jar of formaldehyde. The story goes that one of Hemingway's many cats got a hold of this fellow, and the lizard put up a fight to the end. Amazed by the lizard’s bravery, Hemingway decided to preserve it as a tribute to courage and dignity.


Alongside the main house is a tower, originally conceived as a writing retreat, although Hemingway preferred to work in his bedroom.


Here is a vintage shot of Hemingway on the steps:


And the main room inside the tower...


...which provides sweeping views of Havana:


Back on ground level, there is a small patio and trellis, with a long, winding path leading down to the pool area.




Garden path

The grounds are lush with flowers and ancient trees:



And at the far end of the property sits Hemingway's pool, where Ava Gardner went skinny dipping back in the day, after which Hemingway ordered his staff never to empty the water 😋


A small pool house serves as an art gallery full of personal photos of Hemingway and his celebrity friends.


Out back sits a pet cemetery (!).  Hemingway had ~50 cats in his lifetime (!) and some of them are resting here.

Pet cemetery

But the pièce de résistance is Hemingway's fishing boat, the Pilar. Besides using it for fishing in the Florida Keys, during WWII he used the Pilar to patrol the waters north of Cuba on the lookout for Nazi submarines that might attack sugar ships headed for the Allies.



The boat - and the entire property - is a fantastic piece of history, well worth a visit if you are ever in Havana.

Along the Malecon

One morning I woke up early and hopped in a Cocotaxi (a three-wheeled, two-seater taxi that is like a moped with a fiberglass roof) in order to explore Havana. 


It was a nice way to go, because as you can see, it is open-air so I could enjoy all the sights and sounds, and my driver pulled over whenever I wanted to snap a photo. Which was often.

We headed down the Malecon, a broad walkway and seawall that extends 5 miles along the harbor from my hotel in the Vedado District down to Old Havana. It's very popular among locals, who you often see strolling, jogging, socializing, or fishing along its path.


There are several points of interest along the Malecon, many marking historic military figures and events, like this status of a Cuban General on horseback:

Cuban general

Another one, commemorating General Antonio Maceo y Grajales (an early guerrilla fighter in the war for Independence):


And even a monument to the 261 Americans killed by the explosion of the USS Maine, an armored cruiser sent to Havana Harbor in 1898 to protect U.S. interests there during the Cuban revolt against Spain. In all these years, no one has ever come forward to accept responsibility for the attack, which claimed three quarters of the ship's crew. Apparently, there used to be an eagle on top of this monument, but it was removed as too overt a symbol of American Imperialism.

USS Maine

Speaking of which...the nearby José Martí Anti-Imperialist Platform opened in 2000 as a place for the government to hold rallies and showcase some spectacular propaganda like a billboard that proclaims, "we will never surrender."  

Anti imperialist

It's no coincidence that the platform is located right next to the U.S. Special Interests Section, our de facto embassy since diplomatic ties between our two countries were severed after the revolution.

US Special Interests

In 2006, US diplomats displayed messages on a scrolling digital billboard in the windows of their top floor - things like, "In a free country you don't need permission to leave the country. Is Cuba a free country?" and a quote from George Burns, "How sad that all the people who would know how to run this country are driving taxis or cutting hair." This so incensed Fidel Castro that he erected 138, 20-meter tall flagpoles carrying black flags with single white stars that obscured the messages. The flags have since been taken down, but the flagpoles remain, separating the platform from the Special Interests Section building:


The next stop along the Malecon was the historic Hotel Nacional de Cuba, a large Art Deco building opened in 1930 and host to a who's who of '30s and '40s era celebrities, including Errol Flynn, Meyer Lansky, Winston Churchill, Fred Astaire, Buster Keaton, Lucky Luciano, Rita Hayworth, Ernest Hemingway, Frank Sinatra, Ava Gardner, Nat King Cole and Walt Disney. It became the site of Castro's 26th of July Movement during the revolution.

Hotel nacional

The Parque Nene Traviesa is a mosaic wonderland created by ceramicist and painter José Fuster, who's designs have completely overtaken his hometown of Jaimanitas to the north of Havana.


Here, too, we passed the sherbert-colored buildings and classic cars that have become iconic Cuba:

Green car

Side street

Red car

But moving further into Habana Centro, the buildings become much more fragile, congested and run down. Some are clearly - if astonishingly - still inhabited, while others are literally just shells for their former selves that could crumble at any moment.

Habana centro

Despite the decay, there is a hint of their glory days in the pastel colors of their peeling paint, and the Moorish design of their broken tile work.


Tile work

This area is also home to some impressive street art:

Blue car





It isn't until you get closer to Havana Vieja at the eastern end of the Malecon that the buildings have been fully restored. And it is at this end that we encounter Castillo De Los Tres Reyes Del Morro (Morro Castle), a fortress built in 1589 to protect the port of Havana (and the ships docked there that were loaded with New World goods bound for Spain) from pirates or other enemies.

Morro castle

This is essentially where the Malecon ends. I had the Cocotaxi take me inland for the return trip to the hotel, and will save those photos for another post.


Plaza de San Francisco

The Plaza de San Francisco borders the Havana port area, and was originally a commercial center thanks to the nearby ships transferring goods to and from Spain. It is comprised of the old customs house, Aduana General de la Republica (1914), and the old stock exchange, Lonja del Commercio (1908). On the top is a statue of Mercury, the god of commerce.

Lonja del Commercio

To the right of the building, in the distance, you can see Cristo de la Habana, a 60-foot tall white marble statue of Jesus in the fishing village of Casablanca, which is right across the Bay from Havana Vieja. It was commissioned by President Batista's wife in 1958, just 15 days before Fidel Castro initiated the Revolution.

Carriage y Cristo

Plaza de San Francisco

On the southeast corner of the square is the Basilica Menor de San Francisco de Asis, from which the square took its name. Built in 1580 as the home of the Franciscan community, it is now a concert hall for choral and chamber music.


Next to the basilica is a statue of Fray Junipero Serra, a Spanish Franciscan friar who conducted missions in Southern California (then New Spain) to convert the native population in the 1760s. A Juaneño Indian boy is depicted alongside him.

Fray Junipero Serra with Juaneño

From Wikipedia:

Serra was beatified by Pope John Paul II on September 25, 1988 and Pope Francis expects to canonize him in September 2015 during his first visit to the United States.This has been controversial with Native Americans, who criticize Serra's brutal treatment of their ancestors and associate him with the suppression of their culture.


Lastly, the cruise terminal Sierra Maestra sits between the Plaza and Havana harbor.

Terminal Sierra Maestra

And of course, the terminal/plaza wouldn't be complete without an image of Che:


Plaza de la Catedral

Plaza de la Catedral2

Plaza de la Catedral is one of the main squares in La Habana Vieja; it dates back to the 16th century and is dominated by the gorgeous Baroque facade of the Catedral de San Cristobal (note the asymmetrical bell towers).

Plaza de la Catedral
Plaza de la Catedral


Construction of the cathedral began in 1748 under Jesuit priests, but was completed by Franciscans in 1777 after the Jesuits were driven out of Cuba by the Spanish crown. It is made of coral rock from the Gulf of Mexico, and while I didn't see them, marine fossils are apparently visible in some spots. According to popular belief, the relics of Christopher Columbus were housed here (hence the name) before being moved back to Spain after the Revolution, although no official historical record confirms it. Pope John Paul II also held mass here in January of 1998.

Catedral de San Cristobal
Catedral de San Cristobal
Catedral de San Cristobal2
Interior of Catedral de San Cristobal

By the time we finished touring the cathedral they had closed the front doors for the day. As they ushered us out through a side door, two tiny orange kittens darted in from outside and hid in the transept! They looked terrified, and their mother was outside in the alley calling for them :(


Adjacent to the cathedral (left of it in the above picture) is the Palacio de los Marqueses de Aguas Claras, built in the 18th century and home of one of the last titled nobleman to live in Cuba, it currently houses a paladar.

Palacio de las Marqueses de Aguas Claras
Exterior of the Palacio de las Marquesas de Aguas Claras

Across from this is the Palacio del Conde Lombillo which housed families of some of the first settlers in Havana and is now occupied by the historic society, and the Palacio de los Marqueses de Arcos, home to the father of the first Marquis of the dynasty, later a post office and now an art gallery.

Palacio del Conde Lombillo
Palacio del Conde Lombillo

I spotted this woman on the edge of the plaza, and took a few photos of her in exchange for a couple of pesos (CUCs).

Cigar lady

The plaza is also home to the famous bar La Bodeguita del Medio ("little shop in the middle"), birthplace of the mojito and frequented by Ernest Hemingway, Nat King Cole, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Marlene Dietrich among others. I didn't get a chance to go inside and see the various photographs, drawings, graffiti and autographs from its illustrious visitors over the years. I must go back!

Plaza de Armas

On our second morning in Havana, we met with a representative of the city's Historian Office who talked about their efforts to preserve the architectural and cultural heritage of the area. She then took us on an walking tour of the 18th century plazas of Old Havana.

Plaza de Armas sign
Street signs from a tile factory in Portugal

Plaza de Armas, which dates back to the 1600s, is lined with cobblestone streets, Baroque buildings, and lots of tropical vegetation.

Calle Obispo
Calle Obispo
Plaza de Armas
Secondhand book market in Plaza de Armas
Bird Bath
Bird bath, Plaza de Armas

There's also a huge second hand book market with newspapers, magazines, and books from the 1940s and 1950s. Lots of Revolutionary materials, as you can imagine.

Book Market
Book market, Plaza de Armas

Book Market2

Used Books, Plaza de Armas

The buildings around the square are beautiful examples of Spanish Colonial design, like the Hotel Santa Isabel, with its mediopunto windows -  half moon, stained glass created in the 18th century to protect houses from the glare of the tropical sun.

Hotel Santa Isabel

And El Templete, the spot where the city of San Cristobal de La Habana was founded in 1599. Inside are 3 large canvases by Jean-Baptiste Vermay depicting scenes from the history of Havana.

El Templete
El Templete, original site of the city of Havana.
Bronze pineapples - Queen of the tropical fruit - at El Templete

Transportation options are queued up on the square: take your pick from horse drawn carriages or classic cars.

Horse and carriage
Horse drawn carriage, Plaza de Armas
The Malecon
Classic cars along the Malecon

Like most tourist areas, there were also lots of entrepreneurial people looking to make a fast peso: people dressed in traditional Cuban and Colonial garb who charge 2-3 Cuban Convertible Pesos for a photo (of course I did it!), men anxious to create pen and ink drawings of you on the spot, and many musical performers.

Street Performers
Just one of the girls.
Street Artist
Drawing your portrait...for a price.
King Fernando VII
Woman in Colonial garb, in front of Statue of King Fernando VII

Another curiosity in the square: Calle O'Reilly, marking where an Irish-born, Spanish military officer came ashore in Havana:

Calle O'Reilly
Calle O'Reilly
Calle O'Reilly2
"Two Island Peoples in the Same Sea of Struggle and Hope: Cuba and Ireland"

But my favorite sighting this day was the dogs lolling about in the sunshine. There are tons of stray dogs in Cuba (and sadly, I heard rabies is a problem), and while many of them are in tough shape, the ones around the Plaza de Armas looked content.

Sleeping Beauty
Sleeping Beauty

The reason is that some museums in Havana have taken it upon themselves to shelter the stray dogs, like this lucky fellow who's name tag reads, "My name is Aparicio. I live in the Museo de Orfebreria, and I have been neutered!"

Aparicio, outside the Museo de Orfebreria

I'll leave you with one more classic car picture...because there are tons to share :)

Classic Car

Villa Necchi Campiglio

I'm gearing up for my next trip across the pond, and needed to add one more post from my last trip: a visit to Villa Necchi Campiglio at Via Mozart 14 in the heart of Milan.


This was the last stop on our Smithsonian Made In Italy tour,  providing us with an insider's view of the style, design and life of an upper middle class Lombardy family in the early 20th century.

The home belonged to the sisters Necchi - Gigina (1901-2001) and Nedda (1900-1993) - and Gigina's husband Angelo Campiglio (1891-1984), members of a famous Italian manufacturing family known for its eponymous line of cast iron and enameled sewing machines.


Constructed between 1932 and 1935 by the Milanese architect Piero Portaluppi, the home is set back from the street and surrounded by a large garden with a swimming pool and tennis court.


It has an Art Deco design, in contrast with the more traditionally ornate homes in the neighborhood, and was modern in both in its style as well as its amenities (e.g., an elevator, dumbwaiter, telephones and intercoms, and the area's first heated swimming pool).


The sisters, who died without leaving any heirs, bequeathed the property to the Italian government for use as a museum.

Stone from Lombardy Italian marble graces the exterior, along with a sundial:



A walnut root and marble stairway dominates the main entrance:


Briar root (walnut) and brass/silver/zinc pocket doors designed to withstand a bomb connect the library, smoking room, and sun porch, and salon.



Most of the rooms remain as they did when the Necchi family and their servants lived there, featuring beautiful architecture, decorative arts, furnishings and collections of the period. Claudia Gian Ferrari’s collection of early 20th century art and Alighiero de’ Micheli’s collection of 18th century paintings and decorative arts were added in more recent years.



The dining room features 16th and 17th century tapestries from Brussels:


As was custom at the time, servants quarters and the kitchen and laundry rooms were located in the basement, with food brought up by hand or via the dumbwaiter. The upper floor is comprised of the sisters' apartments - a large bedroom, bath,  dressing room, and sitting area for Gigina and Angelo, plus a slightly smaller (single-bed) version of the same for the unmarried Nedda.



They shared a long corridor of custom closets designed to house their extensive collection of hats, frocks, and shoes.


Also on this floor is a tiny corner apartment for the dressing maid (yes, the woman who pressed, mended, laid out and helped them don their clothing every day).

The home, its contents, and history are simply amazing and worth a visit if you are in Milan. If you can't make it there, the next best thing is to watch the movie I Am Love, directed by Luca Guadagnino's and starring Tilda Swinton.  After an exhaustive search for a set location that best represented his vision for the period piece, he landed on Villa Necchi Campiglio, commenting:

“It shows the obsession with perfection and details that the Milanese bourgeoisie have. Old money always comes with great charm. Their real success is making others believe that money doesn’t exist — and luxury, as most people perceive it, doesn’t really exist in this house. It’s very severe, and feels almost unmovable, like a piece of rock.”

And it is that obsession with perfection and details that made this the perfect place to wrap up a week steeped in Italian design. Bellissimo!

Navigli District

Everyday life has gotten in the way of me finishing my Milan travelogue...but there are a handful of things I still want to share with you! Here's one of them...

After lunch and shopping at 10 Corso Como, we strolled around the Navigli District; meaning "ships" in Italian, the Navigli was once a network of waterways and trade routes, designed in part by Leonardo da Vinci, and now home to restaurants, boutiques, and artist studios.


Oringinally five canals, the oldest built in 1179, they connected the city with the rivers and lakes in the Lombardian region and were used for irrigation and transport  - both people and goods - to and from areas as far as the Alps and beyond. In fact, the marble used for the construction of the Duomo was transported via these waterways from the Lago Maggiore near the Alps.


Traffic on the canals dwindled once road transportation took off, and some were filled in during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.  Only three canals survive today: the Naviglio della Martesana in the north-east and the Naviglio Grande and Naviglio Pavese in the south-west of the city.

This area was until recently an impoverished, working-class neighborhood and is still a bit "edgy."


But in recent years, the houses along the canals were renovated, and many are now home to artist studios, restaurants and bars.


Along the Naviglio Grande, you'll also find the Vicolo dei Lavandai, where women used to wash their laundry with water from the canal. There were children playing here on the day we visited:


The Navigli is a fun, energetic part of town. I've had a long-time fascination with Leonardo da Vinci, and it is amazing to see a system of damns and sluices that he designed so many years ago. Like much of Milan, the neighborhood is an eclectic mix of ancient and modern.


10 Corso Como

Before I had even arrived in Milan, I had read about 10 Corso Como and was dying to go there. Located near Porta Nuova at the address from which it takes its name, it's a stylish art gallery, bookshop, fashion store, cafe, terrace, and boutique hotel all rolled into one.


It's founder, Carla Sozzani, spent the early part of her career working as an editor for various Italian fashion magazines (including Vogue Italia, where her sister Franca is currently Editor in Chief) and American Vogue. Over the years, she worked with famous photographers including Herb Ritts, Bruce Webber, Robert Mapplethorpe, Juergen Teller, and William Wegman, publishing several books and photography catalogs along the way.

But it was in 1990 that Sozzani used her years of editorial experience to create a "living magazine" in a former mechanic's workshop at 10 Corso Como. Beginning with the Galleria Carla Sozzani, the concept space eventually evolved into a multi-level shopping and dining complex selling art, fashion, music, contemporary design objects and more. 


The indoor/outdoor cafe on the ground floor is in a quiet courtyard surrounded by plants and flowers:



We sat outside and enjoyed a decadent lunch in between browsing the various floors.


Also on the ground floor is a large retail space featuring an assortment of apparel, jewelry, and accessories from high-end designers:


Heading upstairs, there is a bookstore with an extensive collection of fashion, design, art, photography, travel, and food titles:




Turntables for the DJ:


And 3 hotel suites overlooking the courtyard, each with it's own private entrance and all furnished in homage to mid-20th and 21st century designers so that visitors can live the 10 Corso Como experience.

The top floor houses the original Galleria Carla Sozzani art gallery, which was exhibiting the winners of the 2014 World Press Photos contest, including this haunting image of blind Indian albino boys by Brent Stirton.

Last, but not least, there is a beautiful rooftop terrace, full of brightly tiled furniture, metal and stone sculptures, lush plants, and great views.



I just love everything about 10 Corso Como; it's a must-visit spot if you are ever in Milan.

Foundazione Achille Castiglioni

We headed over to Piazza Castello to visit the studio of industrial designer Achille Castiglioni (1918-2002), considered one of the greatest designers of the 20th century. Image

He worked in this space for nearly 60 years, and the rooms remain exactly as he left them, packed floor-to-ceiling with all manner of knick-knacks, memorabilia, sketches, books, magazines, models and films.



His heirs entered into an agreement with La Trienniale di Milano to create a foundation and keep the studio open for archiving and tours.

We were lucky enough to have Achille's daughter, Giovanna, as our tour guide, and she shared wonderful stories about her father and what led him to design several of his most popular products.


MoMA's permanent collection in NY hosts fourteen of his works, and many of his designs were produced by leading companies like Alessi, B&B Italia, Flos, and Kartell.

What's interesting is that he was inspired by everyday things, and used a minimum amount of ordinairy materials to create forms with maximum effect.


Most of his products are now considered design classics, and many are still in production.


Giovanna spent about an hour walking us through the cluttered rooms and explaining the genesis of a variety of products: a collapsible tin cup, the Mezzandro portable stool borne out of a desire to sit while talking on the hall telephone, an ashtray inspired by a Slinky.


A 1968 light switch designed for electrical component company VLM that is still in use today:


His famous Arco floor lamp with the long, curved arm extending the light out from a heavy marble base (Giovanna's holding up his original sketches), now prominently featured in the Flos store window near our hotel:

And this ingenious resin spoon for jars, perfectly designed to scoop out the last dollop of peanut butter, mayonaise, or jam. The red version is only available in the studio, and I bought two - one for me, and one for my Mom.


This was another fantastic visit. I just love seeing the work spaces of these creative people. So inspiring.