Two Floridas Rolled Into One

by Country Inns & Suites
Thursday, December 10, 2009

Facing each other across Tampa Bay, the cities of Tampa and St. Petersburg offer differing views on paella and palm trees, cigars and surrealism, and the cultural heritage of Florida.

 In Tampa, the present blends easily with the past. Old men still hand-roll cigars in Ybor City, Tampa’s historic cigar district, as they did when it was the “Cigar Capital of the World.” And some Spanish and Cuban restaurants still serve up old family recipes handed down through generations.

One of those old men, Antonio Riverol, listens to Spanish songs as he gently wraps the final thin layer of tobacco around a cigar in Ybor City’s Gonzalez & Martinez cigar shop. In his early 80s, he’s been rolling cigars in Tampa more than 50 years. A dozen cigars he rolled that morning are squeezed into a press behind him beside brown burlap sacks of sweet, syrupy-smelling tobacco leaves. Stopping now and then to puff a cigarette, he shows tourists how he cuts a little sombrero, as he calls it, to form the end of the cigar. His masterpieces start at $6.

Next door, the aroma of simmering garlic, green peppers and tomatoes wafts through the waiting area at the Columbia Restaurant, an Ybor City landmark owned by the same family since 1905. Among its traditions: paella, Spain’s national dish, a stew of clams, shrimp, mussels, scallops, grouper, chicken and pork swirled into yellow rice, olive oil, green peppers, onions, tomatoes, garlic, spices and white wine.

Across Tampa Bay, in St. Petersburg, new waterfront condominiums and an upscale shopping center have risen just an easy stroll away from a wooded historic neighborhood of stately old homes.

Founded in 1855 and 33 years older than St. Petersburg, Tampa was always the tough, blue-collar big brother, while “The Sunshine City,” 20 miles west toward the Gulf, lured tourists, snowbirds and Northern transplants with promises of palm trees, spring baseball and sunny days.

Their personalities haven’t changed much as they’ve aged. While Tampa’s downtown skyline and port burgeoned, St. Petersburg, named for the dazzling Russian capital, capitalized on its priceless, picturesque bay front and sugary white Gulf beaches. History museums on both sides of the bay, along with the world-renowned Salvador Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg, offer windows into this area’s rich heritage.

Legacy of Cigars

The heavenly smell of baking bread greets visitors to Ybor City Museum State Park. Rangers make the bread (not in the ovens that are still in place, but in bread machines) to remind visitors that the museum is housed in the old Ferlita Bakery.

The history of Ybor City’s immigrants—Cubans, Spaniards, Sicilians, Germans—and their roles in the cigar industry and other businesses is told through old photographs and displays. A mural shows cigar rollers at work. A chair is left behind by a lectore, or reader, who sat in it to read newspapers and novels to workers rolling cigars.

“My grandfather was a lectore,” Cuba-born Frank Castillo tells his three children on a visit from North Carolina. “Being Cuban, I want to maintain the traditions,” he says. “The older I get, I realize more of a need to maintain an awareness in the children.”

Some 32,000 visitors like Castillo and his family flock to the museum every year to learn about cigar making and to go inside a casita next door. This shotgun-style house is typical of cigar makers’ homes in 1895, when this one was built. A bonus: 30 volunteers, most of them Ybor City natives, share memories of the old Latin quarter, founded by Vicente Martinez Ybor in the 1880s.

Victorian Florida

The Henry B. Plant Museum takes up one wing of what was once a historic hotel, now home to classrooms and offices of The University of Tampa. Plant built the Tampa Bay Hotel with its Moorish minarets in 1891, and the museum displays some of its turn-of-the-century luxuries—bronze statues, Venetian mirrors and French furniture.

 Gasparilla: A Tampa Tradition runs from January 15 through February 15, 2010, and features the city’s only exhibit of Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla memorabilia. Facing the Late Victorians: Portraits of Writers and Artists from the Mark Samuels Lasner Collection is a traveling exhibit that includes drawings, prints, photographs, manuscripts and books from the 19th century’s most influential artists and writers, such as Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw and Henry James. The exhibit runs March 5 through June 5, 2010.

Artifacts of the Past

Downtown, next to Tampa’s convention center, the Tampa Bay History Center offers changing exhibits and a research library of books, family and subject files, and artifacts such as cigar boxes. Exhibits such as the Icons of Tampa Bay depict historical characters, events and symbols unique to the region, while Florida’s First People features Tocobaga and Calusa artifacts, as well as artwork by St. Augustine artist Theodore Morris.

Flight and Fancy

On the other side of Tampa Bay, the St. Petersburg Museum of History chronicles the life of this tourist town, with displays beginning with its earliest inhabitants, the American Indians who lived along Tampa Bay, to the 1990s, when the city welcomed its professional baseball team, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays. In a tribute to the city’s status as the birthplace of commercial flight, a replica of the seaplane that made history hangs from the museum’s ceiling. The original flew from St. Petersburg to Tampa on January 1, 1914.

 Currently an exhibit of Florida Highwaymen paintings is on display. The Florida Highwaymen were a group of 26 African-American artists, who used vivid colors to depict Florida’s lush landscape. These artists created this body of work from the 1950s through the 1980s. These pieces now fetch $5,000 or more a piece.

Dally at the Dalí

A few miles away, the Salvador Dalí Museum boasts the most comprehensive Dalí collection in the world. Guides tell visitors tidbits about the eccentric surrealist as they walk past his paintings.

The collection includes 96 oil paintings and more than 100 watercolors and drawings, as well as lithographs, sculptures, jewelry and books. The gift shop sells everything Dalí, from ties and silk scarves to dishes, jewelry, prints, post cards and polo shirts.

 History and art museums, though, tell only part of the story here in Tampa Bay. To really understand its culture, visitors should talk to old-timers, look at historic architecture, have a Cuban sandwich and maybe even smoke a cigar.