To Ernest Hemingway, Madrid in 1937 was the capital of the world. Fiercely loyal to the Spanish Republic in its fight against Gen. Francisco Franco, Hemingway made Madrid his headquarters when he served as a foreign correspondent during the Spanish Civil War. The city and the soldiers defending it captivated his heart and mind.
Hemingway had been a frequent visitor to Madrid since 1923, lured by the spectacle of the bullfight and the bravery of its matadors. As he watched the corridas and later witnessed the war, the author absorbed the dramas unfolding around him. The places and events served as the backdrop for such works as "The Sun Also Rises," "For Whom the Bell Tolls," "Death in the Afternoon," "The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War" and "The Dangerous Summer."
These books immortalized many of the city's great streets, plazas, museums, restaurants and bars. Today the adventurous aficionado can follow the footsteps of "Papa" Hemingway and his literary characters to experience a Madrid seldom seen by tourists.
The geography of Hemingway's Madrid encompasses the bustling central city as well as some quieter avenues and parks off the beaten path. But all can be explored on foot and by subway during a brief visit -- even in one day for the traveler with the energy to explore from morning to midnight. But two days or more will allow time for savoring the atmosphere at the author's favorite restaurants and bars.
A good way to start is with a stroll along the Gran Vi'a. It was Hemingway's regular path of travel as he sought out and befriended soldiers and politicos of the Spanish Republic. The Gran Vi'a is filled with sharp contrasts. The pavement is shared by vendors, beggars, the elegantly attired as well as elderly Spanish widows dressed in black from head to toe. The Gran Vi'a offers luxury boutiques side-by-side with considerably less sophisticated, but still interesting, souvenir shops. Quaint sidewalk cafe's contrast with the invasion of Wendy's and McDonald's (where a chicken sandwich is a McPollo, but a Big Mac is a Big Mac in any language).
The Gran Vi'a is indeed a kaleidoscope of sights and sounds, but be sure to look up to the fantasy of columns, domes, statues and towers in baroque and neoclassic styles. Finding their place, too, are office buildings dating from the 1940s, replacing those destroyed by bombardments during the civil war, which pitted the Spanish Republic against a military uprising led by Franco.
Today, it requires a flight of the imagination to picture the great street as Hemingway knew it -- strewn with broken glass, jagged craters indenting the pavement, the air gritty with granite dust, all of it like "a hailstorm that happened every day."
The author's favorite refuge from the storms of the war was Chicote's bar at 12 Gran Vi'a. To enter its revolving door is to plunge back into the 1930s, for Chicote's hasn't changed much from the days when Hemingway considered it "the place to start an evening from, all right, and we had all started some fine ones from there." Vaguely art deco inside, Chicote's charms include curved booths, a patched ceiling and the kind of tinted glass that allows you to look out at passersby while remaining deliciously hidden from their curiosity. It is seedy enough to be intriguing -- especially if you can conjure up images of the wartime machinations that often worked themselves out at its corner tables.
Today, Chicote's is frequented by an older crowd, including some middle-aged, plumpish hookers, but all are under the watchful eye of a gentlemanly "bouncer." The waiters wear white jackets and cast an air of dignity over the place, as if to compensate for its rather down-at-the-heels appearance. For readers of the short stories "The Denunciation" and, especially, "The Butterfly and the Tank," Chicote's should prove a memorable visit.
At 28 Gran Vi'a stands another important landmark, the tall white Telefo'nico or Telephone Exchange, where Hemingway and other journalists filed their dispatches. Because it was the tallest building in Madrid, soldiers of the Spanish Republic piled sandbags on its roof and used it as a lookout,while Franco's artillery replied by making it a popular target.
Almost directly across the street, behind a glitzy fac,ade grafted onto an older building, is the Hotel Gran Vi'a, another gathering spot for journalists during the war. In its basement restaurant (now defunct), Hemingway met with his friend Martha Gellhorn, the Collier's correspondent who was to become the third Mrs. Hemingway.
The famous Hotel Florida, which Hemingway and other writers made their living and working headquarters, was situated farther up the Gran Vi'a off the Plaza Callao. Here Hemingway gave some of his most bravura performances, embellishing with skill and conviction on the theme of the great writer at war, before a long line of skeptical -- but finally convinced -- admirers. He provided soldiers and journalists with scarce food, liquor, music, hot baths, card games and companionship.
The setting for "The Fifth Column," the hotel suffered so much damage during the civil war that it was later demolished. The building in its place is noteworthy, however, if only to serve as an occasion to marvel at the contrast between what was and what is. Sprung from the rubble of the old Hotel Florida is the Galerias Preciados, a modern, high-rise department store where you can buy everything from Spanish fans and Lladro porcelain to the latest in high-tech entertainment gear.
Within minutes of the glitter of the Galerias and the bustle of the Gran Vi'a lies another Hemingway retreat. A few blocks from the store along the Plaza Callao, you turn left into a neighborhood of tiny, labyrinthine streets. Here, at 6 Ternera, you'll find Hemingway's favorite restaurant, which he writes fondly of in his bullfighting memoir, "The Dangerous Summer." It is aptly named El Callejo'n, which means narrow passage or alley. In bullfight terminology, el callejo'n refers to the alley between the wooden fence and the first row of seats in a bull ring. In the callejo'n of bull rings all over Spain, Hemingway often consulted with his bullfighter friends during the corrida he loved.
The restaurant El Callejo'n proudly boasts of its association with Hemingway. A plaque outside bears the restaurant's name and underneath it, "Rinco'n de Hemingway" (literally, Hemingway's corner). "The round table in the corner of the first dining room where he always sat is a small tribute to a great man," a statement in the window reads. "How many times did we serve him baby eels or paella or roast lamb, which he loved, especially washed down with some fine Valdepenas red wine. He always came in smiling from a corrida."
The front dining room of El Callejo'n is virtually a monument to the author. Above dark wood paneling, white walls show off photos of bullfighters, among them Antonio Ordo'n ez -- one of the two principals of "The Dangerous Summer" -- various celebrities, etchings and autographed photos of Hemingway seated at his favorite table. Above that table stands a shelf containing a bust of Ernesto flanked by Spanish and U.S. flags. It sounds kitsch, but the memorabilia in this and the other dining rooms, through some strange alchemistry, actually enhances the charm. The cool darkness of the restaurant gives it an easy intimacy one can imagine Hemingway cherishing. The roast lamb and paella are worthy of praise, and a bountiful meal can be had for about $7 a person.
Not far away, the Plaza de Espana offers a refreshing respite from the hurry of the crowds and the noise of the traffic snarled on the Gran Vi'a. Heavily bombed during the civil war, the plaza was one of the sites filmed by Hemingway and his camera crew for "The Spanish Earth," a documentary he and other American authors made to arouse U.S. sympathy for the Spanish Republic. Faithfully restored, the plaza today is a quiet, tree-shaded refuge for sun-baked sightseers. Its focal point is a great monument to the author Cervantes, creator of Don Quixote. In front of Cervantes' statue are bronze life-size figures of Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, in search of chivalric adventure.
The resolution of Madrid residents was tested daily in 1937, under horrifyingly adverse circumstances, while Franco's troops continued their assault on the city. Franco's soldiers were positioned only a mile away from the center of Madrid in the expansive Casa de Campo, a park located to the north and west of the city. Wives of soldiers defending the city would pack lunches for their husbands and send the men off on buses marked "to the front," never knowing if they would return from the work of war. Hemingway wrote of the human aspects of the siege of Madrid in "The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War."
Today, the huge Casa de Campo offers a variety of recreational options. For the vigorous, there are footpaths and facilities for fishing, rowing, tennis and soccer, as well as an amusement park and zoo. For those of a more reflective temperament, there are rough areas of trees and brush occasionally punctuated by old walls, patched and crumbling, where it's easy to imagine the fighting that once captured the world's attention.
For a breathtaking aerial view of the Casa de Campo and the city of Madrid, there are 20-minute cable-car rides available for about $1.60 round trip. You board the cars at a station located above the Somosierra Cafeteria near the corner of Paseo del Pintor Rosales, close to the Plaza de Espana. The cable car (or telefe'rica) rides offer a panoramic view of the countryside below, the domed skyline of old Madrid -- highlighted by the huge Royal Palace -- and the modern University City, which was rebuilt after being almost totally destroyed during the war.
Back at your starting point, you'll find the Paseo del Pintor Rosales, a lovely tree-lined boulevard with outdoor cafe's and ice-cream stands on one side, and on the other a row of post-civil war apartment houses with flower-laden balconies and brightly colored awnings. Hemingway used the top floor of a building near the corner of Calle de Rey Francisco, as a grandstand seat to view the fighting in the Casa de Campo below. After five months of shelling, most of the buildings were in ruins, but his observation post was sufficiently intact to give him a long view westward into the valley.
To understand Hemingway and the country he adopted, you won't want to miss the spectacle of the bullfight. To Hemingway, every corrida was "a great tragedy." He became fascinated with the drama of life and death it symbolized. To many outsiders, the bullfight represents senseless killing, but this bloody test of courage is a unique Spanish tradition, part of an old world that still lives. Madrid's Plaza de Toros is easily reached on the subway at the Ventas stop. A few extra pesetas will get you a seat in the shade -- good protection from Spain's unrelenting sun -- and for a few more coins you can rent a cushion for the concrete seats.
(The novice spectator should do some advance reading on the various aspects of the corrida. In the introduction to "The Dangerous Summer,"James Michener provides an excellent explanation of the bullfight choreography. The book itself delves into the personal dramas behind the corrida. "Death in the Afternoon" provides further insights.)
Bullfights and battles were not the only attractions of Madrid for Hemingway. The city's treasure chest of great art, the Prado Museum, was also a favorite stop. One of the world's foremost art museums, the Prado houses more than 3,000 paintings in an 18th-century neoclassical building. Among them are the works of the famous Spanish court painters Vela'zquez and Goya, as well as El Greco. But Hemingway's favorite painting, according to biographer A.E. Hotchner, was a portrait of a woman by Andrea del Sarto, which hangs in the section devoted to 16th-century Italian art.
What Hemingway could not have seen, but would have appreciated, is Picasso's "Guernica," which is now housed in the Prado's Caso'n del Buen Retiro adjacent to the main building. The painting portrays the 1937 bombing of civilians in the Basque town of Guernica. After completing the painting, Picasso stipulated it should not be shown in Spain until democracy had been reestablished there. In the fall of 1981, six years after Franco's death, the painting left New York's Museum of Modern Art for its new home.
The piece occupies almost an entire wall and is about 11 feet high and 25 feet long. Before seeing Guernica visitors pass through a corridor showing the preliminary sketches Picasso made for the various subjects of the painting. Moving in themselves, they amplify the terror on the faces of women, children and animals in the composition.
Across the street is the beautiful Retiro Park, one of Europe's loveliest green areas. Not far away is the site of Gaylord's Hotel Both of these were places where Robert Jordan, the hero of "For Whom the Bell Tolls," dreamed of bringing his love, Maria.
Before dinner, a last stop for rest and refreshment could well be the Cerveceri'a Alemania on the Plaza de Santa Ana. This was one of Hemingway's favorite bars, and retains a rather noisy, gregarious charm. It was here that Hemingway recounted to biographer Hotchner how he almost shot the great Republican commander Modesto, whom he believed had made inappropriate overtures to Martha Gellhorn. Also on the square is the Hotel Victoria, a retreat for correspondents who did not believe Hemingway's claim that the Hotel Florida was invincible.
For dinner, try Casa Boti'n, which Hemingway called "the best restaurant in the world." Readers of "The Sun Also Rises" will remember it as the place where Lady Brett and Jake dined on roast suckling pig and drank Rioja Alta wine in the final chapter of the book and of their romance.
Dating from 1725, Boti'n's offers a wonderful ambiance. Located on Calle de Cuchilleros, a narrow street near the Plaza Mayor, the restaurant has preserved its 18th-century charm in every corner. There are five small dining rooms, all decorated with beautiful old tiles, murals, paintings and engravings. The menu is varied, but if you want roast suckling pig, it comes as part of the "menu del di'a" -- with soup; potatoes; wine, beer or mineral water; and ice cream for about $12 per person. For an extra $5 you can substitute half a bottle of the Rioja Alta wine. As popular with Spaniards as it is with tourists, Boti'n's opens at 8 in the evening and fills quickly. Reservations are a good idea, and if you arrive around 8:30 you can get an excellent view of the decor before the rooms spill over with patrons.
After dinner, you can visit the Palace Hotel. It was there that Lady Brett and Jake drank martinis in the hotel bar as they reconciled themselves to their futile love. Connoisseurs of fine hotels will appreciate the Palace, which stands majestically on the site of a palace destroyed in the 1890s. Used as a hospital during the Civil War, the hotel faces a plaza with a graceful monument to Neptune, who commands a water fountain in the center of the plaza as masterfully as the Romans believed he commanded the seas. Recently refurbished, the Palace bar now spreads itself through several adjoining rooms in the hotel lobby. The most dramatic aspect of its setting is the rotunda, topped by a rainbow-colored stained glass dome.
Although "Papa" Hemingway no longer strolls along Madrid's streets or seeks refuge and inspiration in his favorite bars, his literature preserves his presence. From the elegance of the Palace Hotel to the varied attractions of the Gran Vi'a, a tour of Hemingway's Madrid can help the imaginative traveler understand why this city -- like Hemingway's Paris -- remains "a moveable feast."