Iconic cafe faces uncertain future
By Andrea Comas
After 124 years Madridâ€™s historic CafĂ© GijĂłn is facing uncertainty. The lease on the establishmentâ€™s popular terrace has expired and Madridâ€™s City Hall has put it on offer to the highest bidder. It just may be another sad story of how the crisis is ravaging Spain.
The CafĂ© GijĂłn opened in 1888 and soon became an important meeting place for intellectuals of the time, like Santiago Ramon y Cajal, Ramon Valle-Inclan, Pio Baroja. Later Nobel laureate Camilo Jose Cela became a regular and his book “The Hive” was inspired by the cafĂ©. Throughout its history, the â€śtertuliasâ€ť or, gatherings of leading artistic, cultural and political people, have never ceased. Currently the cafĂ© is frequented by contemporary writers such as Francisco Umbral and Arturo Perez-Reverte among others.
When our TV crew told us they planned to do a story about CafĂ© Gijon, I was reminded of the first time my father took me there for dinner with acquaintances. He told me it was a very famous cafĂ© where intellectuals had their gatherings and debates. I canâ€™t recall ever having seen anything like that. But in my imagination the CafĂ© GijĂłn became something symbolic, something special. It was as if you received a dose of culture just by entering.
A few days ago I was back at the CafĂ© GijĂłn, this time without my father but with my cameras. Hardly anyone was inside, just a smattering of female civil servants drinking their mid-morning coffee at the bar, and a few foreigners led there by their guide books. The light streaming in through the windows created a nice atmosphere, but there was no hint of the famous tertulias.
I took some pictures and waited until lunchtime, when the “problematic” terrace would be filled with people. Compared with the interior of the cafĂ©, to me the terrace seemed almost vulgar. But I guess the sun is more attractive than the decadent air of the cafĂ©. Just as I was about to leave, and thanks to a patron, I noticed a small plaque outside the entrance which was worth a picture. When I thanked the woman for pointing it out, she told me that she had been coming to a â€śtertuliaâ€ť every Friday for the past 32 years. Immediately a light went off in my head and I asked her for the time of the meetings. Mercedes, that was her name, told me that in less than half an hour. I asked her to let me stay with them to take some pictures.
Soon men and women, some quite old, started arriving. In total there were around 13 people. Jose Barcena, a waiter who has been working there for years, helped them take their places around a long table in the basement of the restaurant. Many of the men and women who assembled were painters and writers. I was very excited and felt a renewal of the excitement I had so many years ago when I first visited the cafĂ© with my father. It was just what I had imagined when I read novels that talked about CafĂ© GijĂłn.
I was surrounded by intellectual people, a scarce breed that takes the time to talk and debate outside the rush of today’s society. The â€śtertulianosâ€ť insisted that I stay for the lunch, at their invitation. They said they needed young blood! I apologized saying I had to go and pick up my son, but in reality I was dying to stay and prolong this sneak peak as an observer to days gone by. On the other hand, I felt shame. “What could I possibly contribute to this gathering? Are there still talented people of my generation eager to gather and debate?”