The terrace of the Café Gijón, one of Madrid’s few remaining traditional cafés, is one of those places where the afternoon, and often the evening as well, just slips by. You sit there idly watching the people walking past, someone you know comes along, you order another beer and … well, you get the picture.
I suppose we’ve all just taken it for granted, but then in July a story in the press made us all sit up. The city council weren’t going to renew its licence! Not for the café itself, but for the terrace. Apparently the bit of ground in front of your premises, in this case a stretch of the Paseo de Recoletos boulevard, is not automatically yours, and the council allocated it to another company – who had bid twice as much.
Well, the Madrid intellectual community (and those of us who just like frittering the day away at pavement cafés) was up in arms. One of the city’s great literary institutions was under threat! The Gijón’s owners said that without the income generated by the terrace, the future of the café could not be guaranteed. Everyone assumed the worst, but then, a couple of days ago, the company that had won the bid did the decent thing and pulled out. The Gijón is now entitled to operate its terrace for at least the next 25 years, so everyone can breathe easy and, well, sit back, have another beer and carry on doing very little at all.
The Café Gijón was opened in 1888 by Gumersindo Gómez, who came from Gijón in Asturias on the north coast of Spain, and had made his fortune in Havana. In 1914, he sold it to Benigno López, a barber from Extrmadura who had been frequenting the café for years. Benigno died in 1922, but his wife Encarnación took over and ran the place until she died at the age of 103 in the 1970s, after which their children and grandchildren took over.
Habitués in the early years included the politician José de Canalejas, the pioneering doctor Santiago Ramón y Cajal and the writer Benito Pérez Galdós. In the 1920s, Federico Garía Lorca, Rafael Alberti and Pablo Neruda regularly met there. Writers drifted back in the 1940s after the Civil War, some of whom formed the movement known as Juventud Creadora (Creative Youth). One of its members was the young Camilo José Cela, who based his novel La Colmena (The Hive) on the trials and tribulations of the clientele of the Café Gijón, and went on to win the Nobel Prize for literature.
There have been several other books about the café since then, and more are sure to follow.