Photographers' Blog

Iconic cafe faces uncertain future

March 22, 2012

By Andrea Comas

After 124 years Madrid’s historic Café Gijón is facing uncertainty. The lease on the establishment’s popular terrace has expired and Madrid’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 “tertulias” 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 Café 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 café where intellectuals had their gatherings and debates. I can’t recall ever having seen anything like that. But in my imagination the Café Gijón 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 Café Gijón, 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 “tertulia” 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 café with my father. It was just what I had imagined when I read novels that talked about Café Gijón.

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 “tertulianos” 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?”

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Preserving a heritage, an old style of living is remembering once’s history, it is like going back in time, to remember the old days. As such, modernisation should not deplete our heritage, and efforts to conserve is priced higher than economic value, the main concerns is how to make it profitable, by selling products of memory, a photograph, the traditional way of making coffee, long forgotten menu of foods will draw in the crowds, if you plan and conceptualised properly, even so, there may be provisions in the governments for old buildings, which may lessen your burden.

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