Hemingway’s Belgian sojourn

By Christian Nielsen

Everyone wants a piece of ‘Papa’, the journalist and author Ernest Hemingway whose exploits have become larger than life. Beyond France and Cuba, the famed author made lesser-known stopovers in Belgium at the tail end of World War II.

Lloyd Arnold
Image: Lloyd Arnold

Friday 4 June 2021

Few greats of the arts and literature are given the recognition they deserve during their lifetime. But they’re not Ernest Hemingway. As much maligned for machismo and self-destructive narcissism as he is lauded for his pared-back literary masterpieces, beyond dispute is Hemingway’s ability to stir passions even today. 

Born in 1899 in Oak Park, Illinois, to a wealthy family – doctor father, musician mother – young Ernest was ever the restless spirit, in search of adventure beyond the “wide lawns and narrow minds” of the western Chicago suburbs he called home. 

Hunting, fishing, war, glory and the kernel of a story were his many muses. 

Fans are so taken by the outsized life of this Nobel Prize-winning American author that anywhere the man slept, wrote, ate, got drunk… has become something of a pin on the Hemingway pilgrimage map. Paris. Pamplona. Madrid. Havana. Key West. And of course his birth and final resting places in Illinois and Idaho. 

Remembrance tourism 

Like many authors of his time, Hemingway came to fiction-writing via journalism, and this is thought to have strongly influenced his now famous economical style. His use of short sentences, compact first paragraphs and vigorous English were all picked up during a stint at the Kansas City Star (cut short when Hemingway volunteered for a medical posting in Italy during the First World War). 

He left a boy and returned as a writer. His breakout short story ‘Big two-hearted river’ is a semi-autobiographical piece about a young man who retreats to the countryside for solitude after returning from war. Hemingway makes no secret that his fiction draws heavily on such experiences; making adventurism a key feature of his inspiration-gathering process.

“If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. […] A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing.”

Hemingway in ‘Death in the afternoon

The young journalist’s first overseas post as a correspondent was Paris during the ‘Roaring Twenties’ where he lived with the first of his four wives, Hadley Richardson. The French capital is not shy about its years-long association with Hemingway and other ‘Lost Generation’ expat artists, writers and creators soaking up the razzamatazz of Paris after the War. 

The obligatory plaque and audio-guide tours documenting this connection are all there to be found. One fond declaration on the wall of a small apartment in the city’s famous Latin Quarter, at 74 Rue du Cardinal Lemoine, 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 neighbours, 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’)

Beer halls and bells

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.”

During this period, he took repeated trips to Pamplona to run with the bulls. It is also around this time that he started calling himself ‘Papa’ Hemingway in preference to Ernest. He also spent time in Madrid covering the Spanish Civil War in 1937-8, further cultivating his love for the country that would go on for decades and conjure several of his works, among them 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 staples, 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 the hotel in Night Before Battle and in The Fifth Column. 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 ends with a scene depicting Botin’s dining room.

Liberating Belgium

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. 

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

“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 town in the Belgian Ardennes, as an embedded war correspondent with American soldiers. The story goes that he observed 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.

Side-order of history

Hôtel de l’Abbaye is in a prime location opposite the Basilique Saint-Hubert and splendid abbey of the same name. At the time of writing (April 2021), the hotel is empty and advertised for sale.

Image: ©Christian Nielsen

The town itself has been a pilgrimage site for centuries. Hubert was a 7th century count who witnessed an apparition of a cross between the antlers of a stag (or hart) he was hunting in the vicinity. It urged him to embrace a “holy life” or go “quickly to hell”. Already something of a recluse after his wife’s death in childbirth, Hubert obliged by giving up his earthly belongings and living a pious life.

Another version of the story is that the stag lectured him about having more compassion for animals as God’s creatures with a “value in their own right”. These stories and his teachings earned Hubertus the moniker Patron Saint of hunters… but also mathematics, opticians and metalworkers, for some reason. St Hubert’s Feast Day is 3 November but the town celebrates its Hunting and Nature Day with a procession and blessing ceremony for hunters, horses and pets on the first Sunday of September.

Meanwhile, in the St-Hubert Chapel in Tervuren (outside Brussels), similar parades and blessings take place in October each year. The ‘Apostle of the Ardennes’, as he became known, is honoured among sport-hunters as the progenitor of ethical hunting. He died in 727 AD in Fura (Latin) which scholars have argued is either Tervuren (hence the Chapel and celebration) or Voeren (Fourons), closer to Liege. Regardless, the town of Saint Hubert remains to this day the capital of hunting. Go figure.

According to Le Soir, the French-language Belgian newspaper, 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 mythmaking 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 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 II – notably the Battle of the Bulge and the Battle of Hürtgen Forest – which took place several months after the Normandy landings. There is apparently even a walking trail in the Hürtgen named after him.

The legacy of Hemingway’s presence in the region is 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. Along with a handful of villages in the area, Hemmeres was annexed by Belgium after the war, only to be returned to German hands around 1956 as part of a treaty exchange.

Warrior or war correspondent?

Hemingway clearly cuts a special figure among the American WWII correspondents. 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 knew these actions could get him in deep trouble (contravening the Geneva Convention) and even put other journalists at risk. But Hemingway’s private correspondence reveal that he did “actively engage in the war effort”. Greenspan further asserts that Hemingway’s skills and knowledge of French and ability to read maps and understand the terrain must have “proved highly useful to US military commanders in the area”.

Few legends every live up to the billing, and even fewer during their own lifetime. But in Ernest ‘Papa’ Hemingway there is perhaps as much fact as there is fiction both in his life and his oeuvre. The man and the name are as close as you can get to a true tale of a life lived to the fullest. Charismatic, yes, but the substance of charisma often lies in mystique and the suspicion that one will never be truly satisfied when faced with the reality. 

To avoid disappointment, 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.    

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