MUSEO CHICOTE by Guidepost (Photos by permission Museo Chicote)
The Museo Chicote down Madrid’s incredibly effervescent – and therefore dazzling? – Gran Via is a venerable and venerated institution on the Spanish bar scene. For that very reason tons have been written up on it and it’s futile to attempt adding something new to the justifiable eulogies. We’ll just tick off what’s already been said, then, based on which, as you’ll see, the Museo is eligible for being one of the most interesting bars anywhere.
Here it goes:
The misnomer sprang from the fact that Perico Chicote (1899-1997), barman at the Hotel Ritz and the Savoy before founding the “museum” in 1931, acquired a truly grand collection of bottled wine and spirits (up to 20,000 by some pundits’ reckoning) from all corners of the globe and across historic eras (including the Roman Era of Emperors Hadrian and Trajan), and stored it in the basement of what was then Bar Chicote.
In so doing he created a veritable museum.
The collection is said to have been the best of its kind in the world.
Eventually Bar Chicote became Museo Chicote.
The name has survived to this day even when the collection has disappeared. It was acquired by notorious businessman Jose Maria Ruiz Mateos, Marquis of Olivara. A convicted felon, Ruiz Mateos was divested of the collection which the Spanish government auctioned off.
Today nobody knows for sure who owns the collection where, if it does still exist.
THE CAFE GIJON by Whitley Weston (Photos: W. Weston)
At first glance the Café Gijon appears to be just another ordinary coffee shop. But in actual fact, it is an icon of old Madrid, on the corner of Paseo de Recoletos and Calle del Amirante.
Founded in 1888, Café Gijon survived the Spanish Civil War and the Franco regime, during which, what was just a coffee shop, was converted into a bastion of freedom in fascist Madrid. Artists, writers and philosophers from across the city – and even parts of Spain – gathered for informal meetings (tertulias) at the time of the dictatorship, right through what is popularly known as the Spanish Transition, that is, the amazingly smooth transition from that dictatorship to democracy.
It’s true that widespread use of modern-technology – android phones, ipads and Kindles – have somewhat replaced the traditional need for journals and printed books and that somehow these ubiquitous gadgets seem to create a chasm between people. I emphasise, however, that even now Café Gijon is a favourite meeting-place for intellectuals and creatives. They come to mull over sumptuous mugs of coffee – as their peers have been doing for over a hundred years – to debate and exchange ideas, perfect their crafts or indulge in the small pleasures of a quiet read.
“This is the place where many great writers have gathered and produced some of their best work,” says Antonio Hernández Ramírez, winner of the 2003 Premio de Novela Fernando Lara (Fernando Lara Novel Prize) for his book titled Vestida de Novia. He is seated next to me, with two of his friends who each introduce themselves and tells me that Spanish literary greats such as the poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca and 19th Century novelist Benito Pérez Galdós used to sit at the very tables in front.
The longer I sit nursing my café jamaicano and soaking up the incredible atmosphere, the more I realize how uniquely authentic the Café is. A lady draped in mink fixes her Fedora in the mirror. I’m transported to the 1920s and nothing’s contrived about it either.
The old bohemian clock, sharing the wall with paintings from illustrious habitues, chimes 17:00. It is easy to lose yourself at Recoletos corner Almirante – a place out of time, with a cup of coffee and the company of some of the city’s finest.
Guitar is undoubtedly the most representative musical instrument of Spain. In this age when guitar assembly-line factories geared toward bulk sale is the norm, it’s such a relief to find that the old fashion still exists, albeit in alarmingly dwindling numbers, and, what’s more, it is beautiful.
In my quest for what makes the Real Madrid tick, I discover Guitarreria Felix Manzanero, one of the last traditional guitarrerias in this old capital of an empire where, once upon a time, “the sun never sets.” Guitarreria Felix Manzanero is just a few minutes’ walk from La Latina Metro. In their shop, 78 year old Felix Manzanero and his son Ivan specialise in constructing the city’s finest quality guitars, using only traditional methods and wood of the highest quality.
“Everything here is done by hand,” says Felix who learned the difficult and demanding art of guitar making during his twelve-year apprenticeship at the legendary Jose Ramirez’s workshop which was established in 1890, creators of the famous Ramirez concert-quality classical and flamenco guitars.
When the apprentice who started at age 14 left the Ramirezes to strike out on his own, he had become a master craftsman.
It boggles the mind that the centenary knowledge and technique in the art of authentic guitar-making continues to have a life of its own in this small workshop on Calle de Santa Ana.
Manzanero kindly invites me to a privileged tour of the shop’s inner sanctum. There are guitars (and tools) hanging from every corner of the backroom and several stacks of wood stored on overhead shelves: pine and spruce (pino and abeto) for the soundboard, Indian and Brazilian rosewood (palosanto), 1985 vintage, for making Classic Concert guitars, and up to 40 year old cypress wood (cipres) reserved for the iconic Flamenco guitars.
“The labour here is constant, constant, constant… it’s meticulous and it’s skilled,” says Manzanero who explains that it normally takes up to one month to complete just one guitar.
Coveted by professional guitarists worldwide, the Manzanero guitars sell for thousands of euros. Not that he has not sold one for a whopping 8 million! He has. His classical guitars have won prestigious prizes like the First Place in Acoustics at the International Contest of Master Guitarmakers (Concurso Internacional de Maestros Guitarreros) in Tarbes, France in 1989. Blues guitarists Chris James and Patrick Rynn, as well as the “Los Chunguitos” Flamenco brothers Juan and Jose Salazar are on the A-list of individuals who have visited the workshop.
Also available to see at Guitarreria Felix Manzanero is his personal guitar collection: an impressive display of rare 18th, 19th and 20th century guitars from all over the world.
Happily, Manzanero has taught his son Ivan, now a master luthier in his own right, the secrets of his trade, therefore, ensuring that the tradition and symbol of excellent Spanish craftsmanship will live on.