Geoffrey Norman: If Hemingway was there, give the joint a miss
It took a while for me to establish one of my most firm rules of travel -- 20 years, to be exact.
The length of time between the honeymoon my wife and I took to the Florida Keys and the second honeymoon we spent in Venice. We stayed in Islamorada in the Upper Keys on our honeymoon. For the fishing.
But we drove down to Key West one day and went to the usual places and did the usual things. I had it in my mind that I wanted to go to the saloon where Hemingway did his drinking and my wife thought that would be interesting.
Turned out, it was wretched.
Sloppy Joe’s was loud and overdone with Hemingway memorabilia, including a 54-kilo sailfish he’d caught.
It was a good mount, but had accumulated years of cigarette smoke on its blue surfaces.
Hanging there above the boisterous tourists; it looked as though it wanted, more than anything, to return to the clean blue water of the Gulf Stream.
Hemingway spent a lot of time in the original Sloppy Joe’s, at the end of Prohibition, and is said to have come up with the name for the place. But one wonders if he would even stick around for a beer in its present incarnation.
The crowd -- and it was a crowd -- consisted of the sort of people Hemingway made a career out of detesting. Self-important and loudly so. Paying too much for their drinks.
One thought of Francis Macomber in the hours just before, and just after, he ran.
“This is awful,” my wife said.
I agreed and we left.
I recalled something from Hemingway about how the rich come and spoil the good places. I think he was writing about a ski place in the Alps, but it could have been Key West where, among other vulgarities, there’s an annual Hemingway look-alike contest.
The scene of this carnival is ... Sloppy Joe’s.
The things that sailfish has to witness.
Ruining bars on two continents
Some years later, my wife and I went to Venice for a second honeymoon.
Venice, of course, is not about to be discovered by a couple of Americans.
But, then, in some mysterious way, everyone who goes to Venice discovers that city.
We certainly felt that way, after two or three days. The little hotel, just off the canal, was our little secret though tourists like us had been coming here for years and years.
We walked the little streets and the fundamentos with a feeling, almost, of suspense, as though we would be surprised at every corner though everything in the city had been there for years -- centuries -- and was mapped and plotted with precision in a thousand guidebooks.
We ate at small places and spent hours in galleries and cathedrals and never rode in a gondola.
On our third or fourth day in Venice, I said, “Want to go to Harry’s Bar tonight, before dinner?”
“All right,” my wife said. She sounded skeptical, but I passed over that.
Harry’s Bar is where Hemingway went to flatten a barstool after shooting on the lagoon when he lived in Venice.
The city is the setting of one of his worst novels -- "Across the River and Into the Trees" -- a book that’s almost as bad as some of those published since his death.
Harry’s Bar, established in the 1930s, was the favorite place of expatriate Americans and financed by one who thought the old city was nice enough but lacked a good place to drink. The name of the man who put up the money was Harry.
Harry’s Bar is on the Grand Canal, not far from the Plaza San Marco. I found it without a map, which I took as proof that I was getting my sea legs in Venice.
We opened the door and were hit with bright light, loud conversation and the feeling that we’d been transported back to Manhattan and an East Side place full of guys in over-priced jackets who’d stopped by after fighting the daily battles of the bond trader.
We almost retreated, as we had from Sloppy Joe’s.
But a maitre d’ offered us a seat and we took it. We ordered bellinis. This is the signature drink of Harry's. It contains, among other things, peach juice.
It’s an insult to any cultured drinker and it costs a bloody fortune. A half hour at Harry’s was almost -- almost -- enough to kill the mood for the entire evening.
So that was when I came up with my rule.
Nelson Algren formulated three famous rules for a happy life. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. Never play cards with a man called Doc. And never sleep with a woman who has more troubles than you.
For the traveler, add: Never visit a place made famous by Hemingway. The people who came later spoiled it.
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The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Geoffrey Norman.