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“Tertulianos ilustrados (Enlightened Speakers) ” at the Café de Levante, painted by Leonardo Alenza,
1839. The painting hung at the Levante in Puerta del Sol. When that café closed down
to the modernization of the famous plaza, all the décor and furnishing
were transferred to Café de Levante on Calle del Prado.

Complete and unabridged


by Peter Besas
First published in GUIDEPOST
28 January 1966



The vanishing (if not vanished already) organ grinder in the streets of Madrid

All that is most typical of Madrid is fast disappearing and only a few powerless die-hard madrileños seem to care. Precisely where tradition is most wanted, it is lacking. The organ grinder, the verbena of old, the throng of students on the Calle San Bernardo, azucarillos, zarzuelas, piropos, even the  trees on the boulevards, all are being sacrificed for modernness. Among the fatalities are the old-time cafés, those congenial meeting-places where you could go, meet friends, talk art and politics and pleasantly idle away the hours sipping black coffee and cognac. These cafés had a solera totally lacking in the new cafeterias, and they had a literary tradition as well, just as some of the cafés in Paris or New York still do.

Studiousness And Down-And-Outness. Notwithstanding the wanton commercialism, a few have managed to survive to the present and you might like to spend a few leisure hours sitting in them before they too take the road to oblivion of their predecessors. On the Puerta del Sol there are still two left which preserve a bit of the old flavor, despite the fluorescent lights which have been installed. The Café de Levante dates back to the 19th century when the Puerta del Sol was the center of town and the Calle Serrano an out-lying dirt road. The café as it is today is still modestly frequented by students and men of letters; upon entering you are confronted with a queer mixture of clientele, a far cry from the American-named “cafeterias”.

“Jugadores de ajedrez (Chess Players)”: sketch of a painting by Leonardo Alenza, circa 1839, for Café de Levante, Calle del Prado

There are hunched old men with black cigars and newspapers stretched out in front of them, card and dice players, scribbling students, haggard women who gaze into the smoke, chulos and businessmen—all who have a few hours to kill while their shoes are shined. And this mixture of studiousness and down-and-outness has a fascination about it which you must yourself experience. In Morocco this kind of café flourishes, in Andalucía it holds its own, but in Madrid it is moribund. Wander around the maze of tables and chairs which are arranged haphazardly around the old pillars and then alight on a table to write, read or just observe, as you please.

The James Joyce Irish pub: In 1963 the Cafetería Nebraska on Calle Alcala was inaugurated where Café Lion used to be. The American-named cafetería didn’t last either. In 2006 the James Joyce Irish pub took over the site.

Across Sol is another old-timer, the Café Universal which attracts similar crowds and has an air of shabby fascination about it. Till about ten years ago you could also visit the famous Café Imperial on Sol, much described by travelers at the turn of the century and a favorite hangout of bullfighters, literati and rakes; but it has gone the way of the Café París of which only the hotel remains. Crossing Cibeles and going up Alcalá we have another oldie, the Café Líon, which has been its present location since 1929 and was the counterpart to an older café called the Lion d´Or which dated back to the last century and shared the fate of its kin by being converted only a few years ago into the Cafeteria Nebraska. The Lion nonetheless still preserves some of its old-time atmosphere: marble-topped tables, an old grandfather´s clock, dusty mirrors and several ante-rooms one of which, “Zum Lustigen Walfisch”, was used before the war by a German discussion circle and is still used for tertulias by contemporary groups.


Smoky Activity. Probably the best-preserved, in spite of recent renovations, and the most famous of the cafés still extant, is the Café Gijón on the Paseo Calvo Sotelo, 21. Heavy draperies, marble-topped tables and an air of general bustle make it a favorite of artists and bohemians of the city. It reaches its zenith of smoky activity in the wee hours of the morning. A downstairs restaurant has been added but the major attraction remains on the main floor where all the luminaries of the Madrid world of fashion and letters seem to familiarly congregate. You’re apt to see actors, playwrights, musicians, directors etc. for the Gijón has become the mecca of activity, it being about the only accomodating place left in town. Here you can still imagine shades of the “generation of ´98”, Baroja, Benavente, Valle – Inclán, Unamuno and Maeztu; most of whom used to hang out in the Gijón before the advent of electricity and tourists.

Café Gijón: “You’re apt to see actors, playwrights, musicians, directors, etc. for it has become the mecca of activity, it being about the only accomodating place left in town.”

Another haunt where you can sit down, have a coffee and watch the activity is the Casa Rojo, just south of the Plaza Mayor. The establishment is better known as bar and restaurant, however, on the ground floor, there is a room with wooden tables which is used only as a café. Most of the clientele is from the neighborhood and makes no claim to intellectuality. Cafés in the way of tea rooms are also rapidly disappearing. If you´ve tried the Embassy Tea Room on the Castellana, you might now try a modest but typical second called Flor y Nata on the Plaza de Celenque, near the Descalzas Reales, where pastries can be nibbled at reasonable prices and the crowd is somewhat more down-to-earth.

San Ginés: “The time to get there is after an all-night binge and when you come out, wander through the streets and perhaps you will still be able to experience some of the charms of old Madrid”

To conclude the tour of old haunts we suggest the oldest chocolatería in Madrid, located right behind the Iglesia de San Ginés on the Calle Mayor (entry through the passage leading from the outdoor used-book shop). The time to go is after an all-night binge, about five in the morning; the thing to order, naturally, is thick Spanish hot chocolate and churros. When you come out wander through the old streets and perhaps you´ll experience some of the charms of that Madrid which is so rapidly disappearing.


Featured image/PD
Organ grinder. Source: La Organillera/Jose Manuel Suarez, CC BY2.0 via Wikimedia Commons. Cropped
The James Joyce/Tamorlan, CC BY3.0
“Jugadores de ajedrez”/Source: Biblioteca Nacional de España, PD
Café Gijón/Kyle Taylor, CC BY2.0
San Ginés/Museo8bits, CC BY-SA3.0