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CULTURE

Café Gijón bids adieu to its terrace

Historic Madrid cultural meeting place loses out to higher bidder

Café Gijón's terrace on Recoletos boulevard in the center of Madrid.
Café Gijón's terrace on Recoletos boulevard in the center of Madrid.Luis Sevillano

This terrace situated in a main boulevard of the Recoletos area in Madrid no longer belongs to the historic Café Gijón. Last week, Madrid City Hall approved a proposal which will see Endre Santa Engracia, a large company, take control of the coveted area after a process of public bidding that included the owners of the café.

The starting price was 65,000 euros. The winners, who had recently won a municipal bid for the cafés at Madrid Río, offered 144,000 euros, doubling that of the café owners at 70,000. The decision was purely money-based, with the city council leaving all other factors out of its consideration. Many, including the Socialist leader in the municipal council, Jaime Lissavetzky, had called for a debate on the cultural implications of such a change.

The concession will last 15 years, and is renewable in equal periods until the maximum tenure of 75 years. Prior to this, Café Gijon controlled the terrace for decades, and the final period of this ownership saw the annual price rise to 46,000 euros - the new price, then, signifies an increase of over 200 percent.

In February, a spokesman for Café Gijón told EL PAÍS that the loss of the terrace would put the future of the business at risk, and at the very least, the fate of its 42 employees.

The café was founded in 1888 by Gumersindo García and has witnessed many a tertulia ever since - traditional Spanish gatherings where a range of topics, from the arts to politics, are passionately discussed. It was sold in 1913, but the new owners honored García's wishes not to make significant changes to its layout, and more importantly, its role as a meeting place for socially conscious artists.

Without the terrace we may be obliged to close for the summer"

Andalusian poet Federico García Lorca, American writer Ernest Hemingway and 1940s starlet Eva Gardner are just some of the illustrious customers the café has had since its beginnings over a century ago.

It experienced a sort of golden age after the onset of the Spanish Civil War in 1936; several prominent writers, artists and intellectuals convened at its tables to share their thoughts, many of them belonging to the emblematic Generation of 1936. From the end of the Second World War, through to Spain's transition to democracy, Café Gijón managed to maintain its significance for intellectuals; tertulias continued, with the presence of playwrights Antonio Buero Vallejo and Enrique Jardiel Poncela, writers Camilo José Cela and Rafael Sánchez Ferlosio, and film makers Rafael Azcona, Fernando Rey and Luis García Berlanga.

The city council has had to defend its decision to award the terrace to the highest bidder. "Anything to the contrary would be a form of corruption," one official said. In an attempt to compensate the loss, it has invited the café owners to apply to run an adjoining terrace.

Located in the same boulevard, it is smaller (100 square meters, compared with 172 for the old one) and lacks both a kitchen and cafeteria. Deputy Mayor Miguel Ángel Villanueva added that a stable glass covering over the new space could also be a possibility.

"Yesterday, we served three lunches in the café and thirty on the terrace. Without it, we would be forced to close for four months over the summer," the owners explained to EL PAÍS. Despite defending the public bidding, the councilor for the central district, Enrique Núñez, empathizes with the fate of the café and its significant history.

It appears that the owners will appeal the decision in the courts - a step that would paralyze the whole process. In principle, the café would be able to use the terrace until the new concession kicks in.

According to Núñez, the owners have yet to respond to the municipal government's offer of setting up a terrace on the adjoining space; according to his calculations, it would cost Café Gijón 6,000 euros, a stark contrast to the 144,000 euros that allowed Endre Santa Engracia to get its hands on the coveted terrace.

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