Wax representation of the old Café Gijón at the Museo de Cera in Madrid
A Guidepost Reprint
29 March 1963
By Sonia Copeland
EVERYONE has heard of the Café Gijón – one of the few remaining “typical” Cafés of the old days left over from the earlier part of the century, when Madrid was renowned for its coffee houses, seeped in the traditions of the artistic and literary peñas or sets that congregated in them for meetings, discussions and debates.
In the surge of modern life and the mushroom growth of the streamlined American bars, most of these old establishments – such as the Levante in the Puerta del Sol, frequented by writers and journalists; the Varela in calle Preciados, where poets would publicly recite their works; the Gata Negra, where actors and artists met at late hours – have lost their original atmosphere and influence.
But in the Café Gijón, a discreet, grey-brick establishment, half-hidden amidst the trees of the Recoletos Avenue with the words Gran Café in dull-gold letters above its shuttered windows, this spirit has been preserved and today, not only the writers, journalists, actors and artists of Madrid congregate there for their tertulias (informal meetings), but doctors, dentists, lawyers and other professional groups also meet in its inspired atmosphere for discussions round a cup of coffee.
The Café was opened in 1879 by a Señor Gumersindo García, who sold it in 1913 to Benigno López, a barber from Extremadura, grandfather of the present-day owners, Don José García and his cousin Don José López.
The fame and reputation of the Gijón was originally begun by Fernando Fernán Gómez and José García Nieto, well-known artistic figures of today, who in the early forties formed “La Juventud Creadora” as a sort of club for young writers. In 1948, the Café was reformed by architects Arniches, brother of the famous author Carlos Arniches, and Galicia; and from then onwards actors and artists, as well as writers and poets began congregating there.
Its past, as one can imagine, is full and interesting. “Here everything has happened,” said Don José with a sweeping gesture of his arms. “Historic tertulias which will never be forgotten, political reunions on the eve of the Falange were formed here over cups of coffee… One of the things I won’t forget,” he added with a smile, “was the day the drains burst during rather a solemn meeting and the whole place was inundated.”
The Café was kept open during the Civil War until one day the Loyalists seized it, killing eight waiters and an uncle of the owners.
The fame of the Café is by no means confined to Spain – but, through cinema and television, has become worldwide. It has been televised in America, England, Italy, Portugal, Germany and France.
The traditions and familiar faces of the Gijón waiters are so much part of the Café as the large, old-fashioned clock above the door, the revolving entrance doors, the mellow colors of the interior decoration, the notice board where timetables of the different tertulias are drawing-pinned (there are so many now that they have to be arranged at fixed hours). And it is by no means just any waiter who serves in this sancta sanctorum of art. Of the six fixed waiters, five have been there since 1939; like Manola, known for giving credit to young actors just starting on their careers, like Juanito and Antonio, Enrique and Pedro, and Eduardo Vico, cousin of the actor, who has been part of the Café since 1928 when, as a small boy, he was taken on as a trainee. However, in the summer, when the attractive garden terrace in the avenue is opened to cope with tourists, ten more waiters are recruited.
The family proprietors are naturally very proud of owning the Gijón. “Our life is centered round the Café,” said Don José. “In fact we now all live in the adjoining three houses, numbers 25, 28 and 30. We have a large book filled with all the newspaper cuttings and articles in which the Café is mentioned.” He added that a fiction book had also been written about the Café and the people who went there.
“Is there a visitor’s book?” I asked. “That was the only thing my grandfather forgot about,” he confessed. “And it is too late to put one now because of all the famous people that have been here before.”
However, today, a crucial point has been reached in the history of the Café. To the dismay and consternation of the artist and regular clientele, the owners have decided to reform it and for the last month, the café has been closed, filled with the noise of workmen, dust, bricks and mortar.
“But we are leaving the ground floor almost completely as it was before,” Don José was quick to tell me. “Although the old-fashioned revolving doors must go, the alterations will in no way spoil the Café. It’s only to make it a bit more comfortable and remove the dampness. And we are putting new velvet curtains in the windows,” he added. “The main change will be in the conversion of the cellar into a kitchen and restaurant for serving hot meals.”
The alterations were hoped to be completed by February 20, then March 20, but the date has been put off until April 1st.
“The workmen are working night and day because so many people ring up asking when it’s going to be ready,” said Don José. He also told me about an American who, hearing of the alterations, had asked to buy a table and four chairs of the old Spanish style, which were being substituted for new sets to fly back to his home in America. “They are being given to him as a present,” the owner smiled.
But to ensure that the modernizations will not extinguish nor injure the deep-rooted traditions and atmosphere of the Café, the owners have arranged a grand come-back celebration for the opening day. The doors will be shut to the general public and private invitations will be sent to the intimate friends. And for the following few days, tertulias have been arranged for all the peñas – from the writers and poets to the doctors and dentists who previously used the Café for their meetings.
However, Don José has a problem. Each year, on March 21, a Café Gijón prize is awarded for a short story competition. This idea was initiated by actor and film-director Fernando Fernán Gómez twelve years ago. Traditionally there is always a celebration in the Café on the day of the presentation. “This year we have had to break the tradition as we obviously couldn’t use the Café,” said Don José. “Nobody knows quite what is going to happen. The best solution will probably be to combine the prize-giving with the opening day in one grand celebration at the very beginning of April…”
But for the summer season, the doors of the Café Gijón will once more be open; for the writers and aspiring poets and painters; for foreigners and sightseers from all over the world to visit as one of the most typical and well-known haunts of Madrid.
In 1963 Gijon‘s owners renovated the great café but “ensure[d] that the modernizations will not extinguish nor injure [its] deep-rooted traditions and atmosphere. They arranged a grand come-back celebration for the opening day. ”
Its identity thankfully intact, this is how Café Gijón looks these days.
Featured image/Wax representation/Tamorlan, CC BY3.0
Café frontage/rgarcia via Flickr, CC BY2.0
Window/Ramon Peco via Flickr, CC BY-SA2.0, cropped
Ground floor/Javier Cuervo via Flickr, CC BY-SA2.0
Terrace/Madripedia, CC BY-SA
Basement restaurant/aCernuda.com via Flickr, CC BY2.0