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 Café Gijón 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 café. Throughout its history, the “tertulias” or, gatherings of leading artistic, cultural and political people, have never ceased. Currently the café 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 café, to me the terrace seemed almost vulgar. But I guess the sun is more attractive than the decadent air of the café. 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.