Hot on the trail of D-Day soldiers bound for Germany, Ernest Hemingway’s dash through Belgium is not the stuff of bullfights or gallant tales of the sea. But no story is too small for passionate ‘Papa’ fans.
Today, anywhere the Nobel-winning author slept, wrote, ate, got drunk… has become a pin on the Hemingway pilgrimage map. Paris. Pamplona. Havana. Key West. And of course his birth and final resting places in Illinois and Idaho.
Like many authors of his time Hemingway came to fiction via journalism, clearly influencing his recognised economical style typified by short yet vivid descriptions. The budding journalist cut short his cadetship at the Kansas City Star when he volunteered for a medical posting in Italy during the First World War.
The story goes that he went to war a boy and returned a writer. His breakout short story ‘Big two-hearted river’ is a semi-autobiographical piece about a young man seeking solitude in the countryside after the harrows of war. Hemingway makes no secret that his fiction draws heavily on such experiences. “A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing,” he expressed in ‘Death in the afternoon’).
He was posted to Paris during the Roaring Twenties, falling in with the so-called “lost generation” of expat artists, writers and creators soaking up the city’s post-war joie de vivre. The French capital is not shy about its years-long association with Hemingway and co. A plaque and audio-guide tour document this association.
According to Paris Insider during this formative period in Hemingway’s life, “He met, drank with, loved, and loathed people like Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Ezra Pound, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Joan Miró, even Pablo Picasso.”
One fond declaration on the wall of a small apartment in the city’s famous Latin Quarter recalls: “From January 1922 to August 1923, on the third story of this building, with his wife Hadley, lived the American writer Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961). This quartier was the true birthplace of his work and the uncluttered style that characterizes it. This American in Paris maintained good relations with his neighbors, including with the owner of the bal-musette [a bar with music] next door. ‘Such was the Paris of our youth, the days when we were very poor and very happy’.” (Hemingway, ‘A moveable feast’)
Bullfights, beer halls and bells
Around this time he also took repeat trips to Pamplona to run with the bulls and started calling himself ‘Papa’ Hemingway. He spent time in Madrid covering the Spanish Civil War after 1937, further cultivating his love for the country that would go on for decades and inspire works such as ‘For whom the bell tolls’ and earlier nonfiction work, ‘Death in the afternoon’.
Bullfights, beer halls and (now) famous eateries like El Callejón and Cervecería Alemana were his favoured haunts, prompting a rarish gush that “Madrid is the most Spanish of all cities, the best to live in”. Madrid’s Tourism portal also invites visitors to walk in the writer’s footsteps with maps and stories about his favourite haunts.
“In an article published in Life magazine, under the name of ‘The dangerous summer’, Hemingway remembers this place, located in the central Santa Ana Square, as a good place to have beers and coffee,” notes Welcome to Madrid about the Cervecería Alemana.
Hotel Madrid Gran Vía (now Tryp Gran Vía) has its own plaque promoting Hemingway’s mention of thehotel in ‘Night before battle’ and in ‘The fifth column’. While according to the portal, the owner of Botin restaurant is happy to tell guests that Hemingway used to eat roast pig at the restaurant and that his grandfather once tried to teach the author how to make paella “without much success”. ‘The sun also rises’ reportedly ends with a scene depicting Botin’s dining room.
True fans of Hemingway don’t quibble over what qualifies as a milestone. For example, a plaque on the wall of a Belgian hotel-restaurant declaring that the legendary writer spent a night there is good enough. “Le grand écrivain américain Ernest Hemingway, alors correspondant de guerre, a séjourné en ces lieux aux mois décembre 1944.”
It documents Hemingway’s brief layover at Hôtel de l’Abbaye in Saint-Hubert, a storied town in the Belgian Ardennes, as an embedded war correspondent with American soldiers. He was observing local efforts to rebuild a bridge crossing the Ourthe river in nearby Houffalize, allowing the 22nd Regiment of the 4th American Infantry Division to carry on towards Germany.
According to Le Soir, a French-language Belgian daily, Hemingway was “part of a convoy of eight journalists who left Paris to relate the exploits but also the difficulties of the liberation of Belgium”.
This account puts him in the region around 10 September. Together with his entourage, he spent the night at Hôtel de l’Abbaye “treating a cold [he] caught the day before with a solid bacon fricassee”. That the month on the plaque and this story don’t line up is all part of the Hemingway myth-forming process!
It is said he checked out of the hotel before the others so he could be the first war correspondent to cross the German border, paying the seemingly hefty 962 franc hotel and restaurant bill as the price for this privilege.In a letter to his son, Hemingway later describes the area: “The forest around Houffalize is as dense as the straight pine woods you could see behind the ranch in Nordquist, Wyoming.”
History buffs will know that this remote, densely wooded region approaching the borderlands of Belgium and Germany hosted some of the fiercest fighting of World War Two – notably the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Hürtgen Forest – taking place several months after the Normandy Landings. There is apparently even a walking trail in the Hürtgen named after him.
Hemingway clearly cut a special figure among the American correspondents of the era. In his International Academic Forum review of the writer’s “unconventional role in World War II”, historian Anders Greenspan of Texas A&M says Hemingway dispatched only five articles between 1944 and 1945, and seemed more intent to wage “irregular warfare”.
There are reports of him leading resistance fighters and generally getting into the thick of it around Paris and later in the Ardennes. He denied these accusations, often made by other correspondents, because he must have known these actions could get him in trouble (contravening the Geneva Convention) and even put other journalists at risk.
The legacy of Hemingway’s presence in the region is indeed writ large and small wherever you go. Hidden Europe puts him just over the German border in Hemmeres, a hamlet straddling the Siegfried Line (part of Germany’s 630km defence system), where locals will tell you Hemingway enjoyed a chicken and potato dinner behind a chapel on the main street. Hemmeres was one of several villages in the area annexed by Belgium after the War, only to be returned to German hands around 1956 as part of a treaty exchange.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but ‘they’ probably never met Hemingway. And anyone who did seems to have a story to pass down and a plaque to mark the spot where it all happened!