Madrid. Once a haunt of the greats from Ernest Hemingway to Salvador Dali and Hollywood beauty Eva Gardner, Madrid’s famous Cafe Gijon may be nearing the end of its 120-year history.
Shaded under the tall trees of the Spanish capital’s Paseo de Recoletos boulevard, the cafe’s outside tables have lured artists, writers and actors since 1888.
But after surviving the Spanish Civil War and dictatorship, the Cafe Gijon may finally fall victim to Madrid’s cash-strapped City Hall, which owns the terrace and has received richer offers for the concession.
Without the terrace, the cafe may not survive.
“The financial heart of the business is in the terrace, 60-70 percent of profits come from the terrace,” said Jose Barcena, waiter and spokesman for the Cafe Gijon.
“The management has done its sums and if we lose the terrace the idea is to sell up,” he added.
“But who would buy a business without its main asset?”
The threat to the cafe, which employs 42 people, has provoked an uproar among intellectuals who still sit at the marble tables.
Before them, the rollcall of customers included Spanish writer Federico Garcia Lorca and filmmaker Luis Bunuel, Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni, and American author Truman Capote.
“Dali used to swat flies on the terrace,” recalls 56-year-old Barcena, who has worked in the cafe for 38 years.
Only twice has the venerable cafe closed: during the Civil War from 1936-1939 when it became a canteen for Republican militia and then in the 1980s for renovation work, during which the terrace stayed open.
Intellectuals still debate in its august ambiance, with deep red velvet curtains drawn over plate glass windows, wood-panelled walls and a terrace with wrought iron chairs and tables.
‘Not everything is about business’
“The time we writers, actors and musicians spent here is part of the story of Spanish culture, European culture, and Latin American culture when it comes to Madrid,” said writer Juan Jose Armas Marcelo, sitting with three colleagues around a sun-splashed table on the terrace.
“How are they going to kill off this place, which is like an academy?” he asked on a spring afternoon.
“I know we need money to eat and many other things but, come on, not everything is about business. Not everything has to be about competitiveness and who pays the most,” he said, promising to stop any attempt to replace the cafe with “a bank or a Chinese restaurant”.
Sitting next to him, Jose Esteban, co-author of “The Book of the Cafe Gijon,” confessed: “I grew up here, among poets, among writers. I learned a lot more here than I did at university.”
According to Barcena, the cultural history of the cafe has in the past weighed more heavily than cash when it came to renewing the lease. But this time, they are still waiting for a decision.
“It is in the evaluation process,” said a spokesman for the Madrid City Hall, without giving any figures for bids received and noting that a decision had been due at the end of May.
“The terrace does not belong to the Cafe Gijon, which only manages it,” he added.
With a debt of more than six billion euros ($7.5 billion) and in the midst of a recession, the largest of Spain’s town halls may well be tempted to accept the highest offer.
The Socialist-led opposition in the Madrid regional parliament has called for the cafe to be designated a cultural heritage asset. But even if the regional government agrees, it would not protect the terrace.
“It is the only literary cafe in Madrid,” said Jose Esteban, admitting he could not believe the cafe could disappear. “It would be a catastrophe, a tragedy for Madrid and for Spanish culture.”