history travel

Frida and Gellhorn: Walking Beside Two Beautifully Heroic Women

I’ve never bought four one-way tickets before in my life. But, that’s what it took to go on a special journey, one where I could walk in the same place as two beautifully heroic women I will never have the chance to meet.

Once I decided I was going to meet my long-time blogger friend Julie in Holbox Island (aka off-the-beaten path paradise), I thought: We’re already traveling to Mexico, we might as well see two other places at the top of our travel list.

fincia vigia view

mexico city adventures

Mr. H had different reasons for wanting to experience Mexico City and Cuba in the flesh. Like him, I’m a huge fan of food, culture, architecture, and art. The truth is—as most of you know—I’m a big nerd. A history travel nerd.

You know you’re a history travel nerd if you go somewhere in the world because of your obsession with a person, place, or event that occurred in the past. Everything else, while important and wonderful, is secondary to your inner nerd calling the shots.

That’s what makes you come up with a travel budget, no matter how difficult. That’s what makes you take off from work, no matter how difficult. You don’t care, because you want the chance to walk in the same place where that history happened—just so you can be a part of it.

cuba taxi scenery

I focus on history travel destinations most of the time. Traveling to a place without a lot of history isn’t appealing to me, so I tend to skip it.

That’s one of the main reasons I prefer to travel outside the U.S. That isn’t to say there isn’t any American history, but there are two notable hiccups for history lovers.

  1. It’s a young country. No ancient ruins here.
  2. The history we do have isn’t preserved. Courtesy of a new high-rise.

mexico city museum
There is plenty of rich history to dazzle anyone like me in Mexico City and Cuba. But the reason I’ve been so fascinated with both places is because of two women I have looked up to for many years.

Frida Kahlo, the famous Mexican artist as she preferred to be known (Diego Rivera’s third wife as she preferred not to be known). Martha Gellhorn, the first female war correspondent as she preferred to be known (Ernest Hemingway’s third wife as she preferred not to be known).

Along with being a history nerd, I also love stories about strong women who left their mark, showing they were just as good as the boys…that sort of thing.

Every book I’ve written so far has a ball-busting, intelligent woman playing the main character. I never tire of it, and regardless of the genre-bending work I write, the common thread will always be a strong female character.

diego mural

Yogi salute to the great Diego Rivera.

hemingway typewriter

Hemingway used to stand at his typewriter when he worked.

Though Martha Gellhorn and Frida Kahlo are so different, I see commonalities far beyond being the third wives of famous, brilliant men.

They were both famous and brilliant in their own right. They had this unstoppable drive for experiencing more than what was right in front of them, and that drive took them to places around the world and inside their imaginations that inspired them on their individual paths.

They made an impact on people all over the world—and still do to this day. And though they were only born a year apart, I’m pretty sure Martha and Frida never met in real life.

hemingway's house cuba

frida museum

Naturally, I went to Frida’s house, La Casa Azúl, and Gellhorn’s house (aka Hemingway’s house, Finca Vigía), which are crazy popular tourist destinations.

However, I visited what can easily be called tourist traps with intentions that ran deeper.

frida and me

frida painting

There is something so incredibly fascinating about how places shape certain people, whether famous historical figures or not.

To enjoy an espresso at the same cafe they went to, or drive on a street they traveled regularly—it brings you closer to them somehow. And to see their homes is such an intimate glimpse into their lives.

martha gellhorn cuba

gellhorn war correspondent

So, it was nothing short of magical to walk in the footsteps of these women and feel a bit of their spirit breathing inside the walls, furniture, and clothing.

You see their sanctuary where they worked and slept, where they swam and ate.

walking around gellhorn's house

frida's house entrance

Even though Martha Gellhorn and Frida Kahlo are gone, they live on. I’m so happy I had the chance to see their homes and walk beside their courageous spirits.

And to rediscover as I usually do during my travels that no matter how different we may think we are from each other, we are often the same.

“I didn’t write. I just wandered about.” – Martha Gellhorn
“I put on the canvas whatever comes into my mind.” – Frida Kahlo

“What the trees can do handsomely—greening and flowering, fading and then the falling of leaves—human beings cannot do with dignity, let alone without pain.” – Martha Gellhorn
“I paint flowers so they will not die.” – Frida Kahlo

“I tell you loneliness is the thing to master. Courage and fear, love, death are only parts of it and can easily be ruled afterwards.” – Martha Gellhorn
“I paint self-portraits because I am so often alone, because I am the person I know best.” – Frida Kahlo

“Nothing is better for self-esteem than survival.” – Martha Gellhorn
“I am not sick. I am broken. But I am happy to be alive as long as I can paint.” – Frida Kahlo

“It would be a bitter cosmic joke if we destroy ourselves due to atrophy of the imagination.” – Martha Gellhorn
“Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?” – Frida Kahlo

havana balcony
Are you a travel history nerd? Tell me about a place you went to for its amazing history.

32 thoughts on “Frida and Gellhorn: Walking Beside Two Beautifully Heroic Women

  1. Les Petits Pas de Juls says:

    Walking besides you, Frida and Gellhorn makes me travel back in time again. When I see your pictures of Gellhorn and Hemingway’s house, I step into the past and can feel with your words what it feels like to be there and follow their footsteps. I remember that feeling from visiting Frida’s blue house in Mexico City and Hemingway’s house in Key West.

    Unlike you, I might not have travelled to those places as a history nerd, but I also loved discovering those places and dream about the people who lived there.
    However, the first time I traveled to Mexico was to walk the Mayan ruins and reminisce of a manga I loved when I was little, “The Mysterious Cities of Gold.” And I love walking ancient ruins and wonder how the people of yore built them and lived there – what a special feeling to walk the aisles of Machu Picchu, for example…

    Thanks for the little walk this morning.
    Mexico City and Cuba suited you so perfectly. Sometimes, you just look yourself out of the past too…

    xoxoxo
    Jul’

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      You’ve certainly been to more ruins than I have, so you might be an undercover history nerd! 😉

      It is a very cool experience to be able to visit a historical place and actually walk around to experience it. I’m thankful there is so much we can explore firsthand, with plenty of places preserved for people to see for themselves. It’s so important to remember history, especially now in such a future-driven world. xo

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Thanks, love! Mexico City and Cuba are such gorgeous places, so all of our pix turned out well. If anything, it was difficult to choose only a few for the blog.

      Same deal with the quotes…both women said so many beautiful things.

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Indeed! It’s fun to get lost in a place, for sure. You inspired me to go to Mexico City, I remember. You talked about it years ago, and that was about when the obsession started. xo

  2. Carrie Rubin says:

    So glad you had a chance to visit Mexico. Wonderful pics. Did you feel safe in your travels there? I was just reading an article in the paper how even Cancun is starting to get dangerous. Such a shame.

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Carrie doll, we felt perfectly safe. I do talk about this in a piece I have coming out soon on Intrepid Travel. Family and friends were pretty terrified that we were going to Mexico City.

      The important thing to remember is that a city is a city. In fact, many of our cities in the U.S. are more dangerous than others in the world. BUT…that doesn’t account for the whole city. You have to use your judgment. You wouldn’t go walking around by yourself in the most dangerous neighborhood in Chicago at night, so you wouldn’t do that in Mexico City.

      For Cancun, I didn’t read the article, but I’m curious…is it an increase in theft or something else? LOTS of tourists rounded up in places can certainly invite more crime.

  3. Roy McCarthy says:

    Very nice post Britt. I’m not a traveller (as you know) but I share your ability to imagine and enjoy those places where others have walked before us and where the very walls remember them.

    As to American history I disagree somewhat. At least two other US bloggers (chattykerry & browsingtheatlas) have surprised me with their insights into what history has been preserved in many places – some lovely social history insights and places that live on when elsewhere they might have been swept away by now. OK, not ancient but part of your country’s rich heritage.

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Thanks, Roy! Inspiration for some future novel brewing, I’m sure! I know you totally share the same appreciation for history.

      So, on American history…it does depend on where you are in our country. Ever since coming back to the West Coast, I’ve been missing out on history A LOT. It’s very different from Milwaukee and Chicago, as an example. Especially with the crazy population growth in Portland, they have been tearing so many historical buildings down—including the neat, old industrial buildings by the port—to build high-rises.

      Mr. H and I have been like…why don’t they turn those into loft buildings or something? We would move in immediately. Nope, all shiny stuff is going up.

      Julie always does an incredible job showing our history…agreed! 🙂

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      I totally agree, Gallivanta! My interest in history always relates to the people that made it happen. The historical fiction or movies I love are all character-driven. Nice to see you, love! xo

  4. Andrea Stephenson says:

    I was looking forward to this when I saw the title pop up in my inbox. I admire Gellhorn but no relatively little about her, but I adore Frida and I love the way you wrote this post – the way you took us with you closer to these two women. Fabulous!

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Awww…you’re so sweet! I know, it’s been a long time since I’ve blogged. Been tough to keep up with this year, but we all do our best. So glad you liked it!

      Oddly, the first time I heard about Gellhorn was the movie “Hemingway and Gellhorn.” Then, I was obsessed with her and read several biographies and books she has written. I think that was the case for a lot of people, because she kept pretty private and did not like to be known as Hemingway’s wife since she did so many extraordinary things herself. Thanks to Hollywood for bringing her out of the dark for some of us. 😉

  5. Kate Johnston says:

    I don’t know much about either woman, so thank you for a beautiful and engaging introduction. I also have never been to Mexico City or to Cuba.

    I absolutely love history, and I insist to Hubs when we take vacations we must do it to places that have history because I am not a beach lounger. I just can’t hang out on beaches 24/7 no matter how tranquil they are. An hour or two, yes, but then I must get a history or culture fix!! My son is the same as me, restless and hungry to learn. So at least I have a buddy on my quests. 🙂

    I have been to several countries in Europe and indulged in the amazing history and culture there. I will never get enough of England, Italy, Germany, France, or Austria. I have more on my bucket list!!

    I will say I have to disagree with you about the lack of history in the US. We might be young, but our history is no less compelling or painful, particularly colonial history. We’ve gone through quite a lot of change since the time of discovery–much less since the time of becoming a country! There are some amazing preserved houses and plantations and estates and property up and down the Eastern coast. Museums and memorials and parks–certainly in every town and city I’ve ever been. And there truly are some untainted places, where tourists don’t ever go, that are swimming in history and culture. Of course, unless you’re a local or know a local, you’d never find those places. And I think we want to keep it that way!!

    Great post!!

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Both women are SO fascinating, hon. There are plenty of biographies and books to devour. I first read this book by Frida’s sister… https://www.amazon.com/Frida-Barbara-Mujica/dp/0452283035 and Gellhorn has many books herself, but this one is good… https://www.amazon.com/Face-War-Martha-Gellhorn/dp/0871132117

      I’m with you on the beaches. I like a mix. Nice to have the beach nearby, but I need lots of culture and exploration too.

      I hear ya on the US history thing. I just told Roy that I’m feeling that more now that I’m back on the West Coast. Obviously in Milwaukee/Chicago, there was plenty of history around. Especially in Portland, they have been tearing down SO many old buildings to make room for shiny high-rises. So, it depends on where you are—it’s a big country! 🙂

  6. joey says:

    This is sorta my thing, this era, and so I venture that Martha did meet Frida, because Hemingway and Rivera had Trotsky in common. Perhaps I could find that, somewhere, but I’d bet on it.
    I very much want to see Casa Azul and well, I have a friend in Mexico City, so some WINTER time, lol, I will make the journey. My previous excursions to Mexico were more spontaneous border town party stuff when I was young.
    Have you read The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver? Incredible book, Spanish-heavy though. It’s historical fiction, and so different from her other work, but I loved it.
    Anyway, these are two great choices to link together, and I enjoyed this post tremendously. Appreciate seeing your photos online as well 🙂

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      I feel like Martha and Frida would have crossed paths as well, but I couldn’t find any evidence online. Let me know if you find something…that makes sense with Trotsky.

      You should TOTALLY go see your friend and visit Frida’s house. We were surprised with how reasonable tickets were from Portland. And once you get there, the food is inexpensive (thanks to the exchange rate) and to die for.

      I have not read it, but I’ll definitely check it out. Love historical fiction! 🙂

      • joey says:

        It’s a Terrific! book 🙂
        Yes, I’ll let you know if I come across anything, but like you, I couldn’t think of any specific meeting for Frida and Martha, either.

  7. eden baylee says:

    I recently saw an exhibition of Georgia O’Keeffe’s and it made me want to learn more about her and her association with New Mexico.

    Like you, I love visiting places that merge history with culture, and historical figures who inhabited those places. Great pictures too, of course. 🙂

    xo
    eden

  8. David says:

    So I’m up reading content on Vision and Mission statements and come across your article on Clear Voice. Out of curiosity went to your Twitter feed, then another curious click led me to your blog and ultimately to this story. Very randomly and completely by surprise I was introduced by you to Martha and Frida. I had never heard of them before. It was a refreshing side track. I liken it to that path or side street you decide to take, having no idea where it really goes but curious for lies just around the corner. Then, completely by chance, you come across something wonderful and intriguing. Thank you for the brief escape. I’ll have to take a few moments to discover more about these interesting women and to see what other paths I might find on your blog. Thank you…

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Hey, David! Wow, that’s so cool that you traveled from that ClearVoice piece all the way over here. Definitely a different writing hat that I wear on my personal website, so I’m glad you came and enjoyed the piece.

      You should definitely check out these women. Honestly, I love films too…and both “Frida” with Salma Hayek and “Hemingway and Gellhorn” with Nicole Kidman give a nice glimpse into their lives with some Hollywood/some facts.

      Thanks for stopping by. What’s your Twitter handle, so I can make sure to follow you?

  9. Eli Pacheco says:

    After the last NASCAR race at Wilkesboro Speedway, I walked along the track, from the start-finish line all the way around. I imagined the pioneers of racing beating and banging, strategizing and taking chances on that small bit of asphalt in the Carolina foothills. It was my first – and only – season covering auto racing, but I had an appreciation for the sport’s history, and what this old-time track meant to the region and the people there.

    • Britt Skrabanek says:

      Sounds epic, Eli! After some of the conversations on here with this piece, I’m starting to wonder if this is more of a writer’s tendency when we travel. We are always searching for stories, so it makes sense that our travel preferences would be different. 😉

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