The Spanish papers have been full of articles about Mario Vargas Llosa since he won the Nobel Prize for Literature last week. The one that I found most intriguing was in El País and talked about how he spends a typical day in Madrid, where he has had a flat for the last 10 years. It’s a pretty well perfect way to spend the day if you ask me.
Pablo de Llano, the El País journalist, had a chat with Fiorella Battistini, one of Vargas Llosa’s secretaries, who told him about the writer’s routine. The flat is on Calle Flora, right in the middle of Madrid near the Puerta del Sol, but in a hidden corner. The narrow pavements and surprising amount of traffic make walking along this little backstreet a bit of a nightmare, but next time I’ll certainly look up a bit more and try and guess which of the grand buildings flanking the street he lives in.
Whenever Vargas Llosa is in Madrid, he leaves the flat at 8.30 every morning and walks down to the Teatro Real (the opera house) and cuts through to the vast expanse of the Plaza de Oriente. So in just a few minutes, he has left the noisy, claustrophobic streets behind and is on the western edge of the ridge on which the city stands, with space all around and usually dazzlingly bright light too.
The square was built in the first half of the 19th century in front of the Royal Palace. It was Joseph Bonaparte, Napoleon’s brother, who first had the idea of creating open spaces in the densely-packed streets of Madrid, when he was briefly on the Spanish throne. While the Plaza Mayor had been conceived as a popular and commercial space, this was to be a place where royalty and the aristocracy could flaunt their grandeur on their way to the opera.
Vargas Llosa crosses the square to the Sabatini Gardens alongside the palace. You can see for miles across the countryside – it is obvious why the Arabs chose this spot to build a fortress in the 9th century. He walks across the bottom of the Plaza de España towards Calle Rosales. The Parque del Oeste, one of Madrid’s loveliest parks, slopes down from here to the Manzanares river. The scene of bitter fighting in the Civil War, it is now a leafy, shady, peaceful place.
Vargas Llosa walks up to the Debod Temple, an extraordinary sight in the capital of Spain. More than 2,000 years old, the temple was given to Spain in 1968 in thanks for the work of Spanish archaeologists, who helped salvage the temples of Abu Simbel, which would otherwise have been flooded as a result of the construction of the Aswan Dam on the Nile.
The writer buys the newspapers on his way back home, and reads them over breakfast. From noon till 2pm he writes. Just two hours, but I bet he doesn’t fritter that time away online. After lunch, he does some more reading and then walks to one of his favourite cafés, either the Central on the Plaza del Angel near Plaza Santa Ana, or the Barbieri in Lavapiés.
Spending hours in carefully-chosen cafés has been a favourite activity of Madrid writers, artists, actors and politicians for centuries. The city’s first theatres were located in and around Plaza Santa Ana back in the 16th century. Cervantes lived in this area, as did Lope de Vega, Quevedo and many other leading lights of the Golden Age.
The baptisms, weddings and funerals of many of these figures took place in the Iglesia de San Sebastián, near the Café Central. Benito Pérez Galdós began his novel Misericordia, written at the end of the 19th century, with a description of the church:
“… San Sebastián has two faces, like some people, two faces which are certainly more amusing than handsome… You will have noted a cheerful ugliness on both faces, in the purest Madrid spirit”.
The Central is a lovely café with marble tables and red banquettes, and there is live jazz most nights. It is next door to the neoclassical Palacio del Conde de Tepa, which has just been converted into a hotel and is due to open this month.
When it was built in the early 19th century, it was one of the finest private residences in Madrid. Before that, this was the site of the Fonda de San Sebastián, which was a favourite meeting place of some of the most important cultural figures of the second half of the 18th century, including Nicolás Fernández de Moratín, Gaspar de Jovellanos and Ramón Pérez de Ayala. In his biography of his father, the playwright Leandro Fernández de Moratín wrote that “the gatherings at the Fonda had one rule: that only theatre, bulls, love and verses could be discussed”.
Thinking of Vargas Llosa sitting in the Central reminds me of El Café, an article written in 1832 by the great satirist Mariano José de Larra, in which he sums up the pleasure of sitting around in cafés, still one of the most popular ways to spend time in Madrid: “I sat down… pulled my cape up to my eyes, turned down the brim of my hat, and was all set to take in whatever foolish nonsense happened to emerge from the bustling crowd”.
Later on, Vargas Llosa often goes to the Cines Ideal, a few minutes’ walk away, where a lot of foreign films are shown in original version, or meets friends for dinner at Casa Lucio or Julian de Tolosa, two traditional restaurants on Cava Baja, the lane that traces the line of the medieval town wall. Again, just a few minutes’ stroll away, that’s what it’s like in Madrid.
Given that he’s such a prolific and wide-ranging writer, it’s a bit strange that Vargas Llosa has never really written about Madrid. But just looking at how he chooses to spend his time when he’s in the city – and all the history and culture he takes in along the way – it can only be a matter of time.
See Mario Vargas Llosa talking on Esmadrid about when he first came to live in Madrid as a student in 1958 here