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Café Gijón

Dispatch from Madrid | Published : 12/Nov/2005 23:00

Café Gijón (header)
To have a coffee in a literary setting that’s oozing atmosphere and tradition in Madrid requires almost no effort. Just walk to the Pasillo de Recoletos, look for the address plaque that says “21” and open the door to Café Gijón.

Unless you’re a regular (in which case, what are you doing reading this?), service will probably be a bit indifferent, if polite - but that’s not the point. You didn’t come here to get pampered. You came here to enjoy one of the best literary and artistic cafés in the world. History is of such importance that, in fact, the expanded name of the establishment is “Gran Café de la historia de España”.

Café Gijón
Opened in 1888, it quickly won itself a place in Madrid’s political and artistic life by becoming the site of regular tertulias (informal group discussions on everything from art to politics) as well as a favored site of scientists, writers and poets searching for inspiration. Among the café's customers were Santiago Ramón y Cajal (the winner of the 1906 Nobel Prize in Medicine) and later, writers and poets such as Camilio José Cela, Federico García Lorca, Antonio Machado, Rubén Darío and Pérez Galdós.

When selling the café in 1913, its original owner, Don Gumersindo García, stipulated that the establishment not be changed either in its core business orientation or its name. Apparently, the new owners honored the restrictions (and even went further by not bothering to change the décor that much, either) - the café is still basically the same as 100 years ago.

A colorful character named Alfonso sells tobacco next to the entrance - in fact, he did so for a big portion of the 20th century, as well as a (smaller) portion of the 21st century. Although Alfonso is not dead (at least, he wasn’t when I visited last year), he is already commemorated by a plaque stating: “Aquí vendió tabaco y vio pasar la vida Alfonso, cerillero y anarquista. Sus amigos del café Gijón” [Here, Alfonso, a tobacconist and anarchist, sold tobacco and watched the world (lit: life) go by. His friends at Café Gijón]. The story with that plaque jumping the gun by at least a few years was somewhat strange and probably not worth getting into, but suffice it to say that the past tense was chosen to assure Alfonso that his name would be written into Spanish history when he leaves us for a better place.

So, come one afternoon, try to get a table next to the window, order your coffee or tea or whatever you want (Gijón is also a restaurant offering a complete dinner menu) and do what Alfonso did all those years - watch the world go by. It’s fun!

Café Gijón is open until 1:30 am every day (3:00 am on weekends)
Address: Pº de Recoletos, 21.
[M]: Colón or Banco de España