Between the end of the 19th century and the middle of the 20th, Madrid’s favorite pastime – talking, talking, talking – was taken even more seriously than usual. Part of a proper bohemian life was engaging in tertulias, informal gatherings to chat about, of course, everything counter-cultural.
The newly developed tradition of sitting down at a marble table in a red-velvet-and-dark-wood café with a cup of coffee (yes, new!) meant a lot of time could be filled discussing politics, art and bull fighting. In the dozens of cafés especially established to accommodate these heavy talkers, writers would gather to exchange ideas and experiences and read from their work. Painters established new directions and styles over a café solo with a lump of sugar and politicians tested the feasability of their society-changing ideas. Very much an “old skool” and “open source” network, so to speak.
Eventually this little diversion became quite serious, – the gatherings became a force to be reconed with. There were very few influential Madrilenos who did not participate: the tertulias could make or break reputations, careers and governments and so you’d better be there.
Of all the cafés offering tertulias, there is only one left: Café Gijón. Heavily resting on its laurels at this point, books and plaques on its rich history cannot disguise the fact that the current cafe looks rather cutre (tacky); however, there are still some interesting details to be found. According to my waiter, poets, writers and actors still gather to talk about the past, present and future of their professions and, sure enough, actor Manuel Alexandre was engaged in an animated chat with a fellow 90-year-old. A former tobacco seller named Alfonso is honoured with a picture on the wall. It says: Aquí vendió tabaco y vió pasar la vida. Alfonso. Cerillero y anarquista. (Here he sold his tobacco and he saw life going by. Alfonso. Cigarette seller and anarchist). However, the four extra chairs surrounding the actors’ table remained very empty and the spot where Alfonso used to make his money is now filled with a cigarette vending machine. Past glory indeed.
If the tertulia was especially gripping and coffee alone was not enough anymore, our bohemians would head out to L’Hardy, not far away, for something more savoury. This second-storey restaurant is apparently still visited by literary and political Madrid, but the shop on street level with Spanish delicacies and 19th century flair will leave even the most hardened tertuliano speechless for a few moments.
Another option would be Ateneo de Madrid – it was a big name back then and, let’s face it, things haven’t changed. Tertulias are still organized in this theatre/cafeteria/library/museum. If you feel like contributing to the ongoing discussions regarding republicans, Carl Gustav Jung, civil rights, Picasso and primitive arts – to name just a few – this will be your chance. Less interactive but equally interesting classical concerts, recitals and conferences (on ANY topic) are accessible for just 1 or 2 euro.
Go on, bring out the bohemian in you and start talking.
Article first published on www.MAPmagazine.com, autumn 2007