From bullfighting and matadors to local bars and restaurants, writer Ernest Hemingways passion for the culture of the Spanish capital now translates into an alternative tourist trail
Cervecería Alemana bar, where Hemingway was a regular customer
As the Spanish, urban sunset slowly stains the sky with the colours of sherry and rum, the city of Madrid is rubbing its eyes and slowly awakening from an afternoon siesta. For one burly man, the priorities of the latter part of the day are firmly established. Having risen at 5am and written without a break for six hours, Ernest Hemingway is ensconced in his usual window seat, looking out over Plaza de Santa Ana from the vantage point of the rustic Cervecería Alemana bar. It's 1936 and Hemingway, that great American traveller and chronicler of blood sports, war and machismo, has just arrived in the Spanish capital to begin another chapter in his ceaseless life-long quest for action and adventure.
Eighty years on and General Franco, from natural causes, and Hemingway, by putting a shotgun to his head and pulling the trigger, have long gone. The Spanish Civil War, however, has yet to fade from the collective consciousness of the Madrileños. For the author, it was this three-year war between the Republican and Nationalist forces, which he covered as a journalist and filmmaker (creating the documentary The Spanish Earth with Orson Welles), that was the perfect excuse to return to the place that had entranced him a decade earlier.
Bullfighting-themed La Taurina
His love affair with the city led him to write a short story set in Madrid, entitled The Capital of the World, while Death in the Afternoon was a paean to the noble savagery of bullfighting in the 1920s. 'Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night,' he wrote in the latter. 'Appointments with a friend are habitually made for after midnight at the café.'
Although more alive nocturnally than any other city in Europe, Madrid isn't entirely somnambulant during daylight hours. I quickly found that exploring the remnants of Hemingway's favourite haunts in the city won't necessarily require staying out all night. Heading to the roof terrace of what is now the Spanish department store El Corte Inglés doesn't initially seem like natural territory for the writer known as 'Papa', but during the time of the Civil War this building, on Plaza de Callao, was the famed Hotel Florida. It was one of Hemingway's most common resting places, though not a particularly secure one. With shells from Franco's forces landing all around, it was the ideal location for him to manifest his desire to be in the thick of the action.
The hotel was also the main meeting place for international correspondents who had come to Spain to cover the war. And it was from here that, as often as he could, Hemingway would explore the city's bars, at that time run under the nationalised auspices of Republican ideology.
Plaza de Santa Ana in central Madrid
'Tipping was absolutely forbidden – and it still is here,' says Stephen Drake-Jones, a former professor at the University of Madrid, founder of the Wellington Society (a walking tour group), and a local expert on Hemingway. I meet him upon entering the musty, atmospheric confines of La Venencia on Calle de Echegaray, a sherry bar that seems to have altered not one iota over the years. 'There was a strict etiquette here in those days,' he continues. 'When you ordered sherry, you had to hold the glass by the stem. If you grabbed the glass by the rim, then it would have been obvious to anybody in the bar that you were an outsider, not a Republican, and you'd be liable to be arrested.'
Thankfully, such strict laws are not imposed on patrons today. But there is much in Madrid that would be instantly familiar to Hemingway. In the central neighbourhood of Sol, on Calle Victoria, he would buy his tickets to bullfights. Facing this street is La Taurina restaurant, which although not in existence in his day, pays reverence to bullfighting, with vast, tiled murals of matadors facing terrifying-looking bulls. The oxtail tapas (should you be brave enough to order it), is, according to Drake-Jones, likely to be part of a bull that was slaughtered in the ring.
Hemingway's time in Madrid in the late 1930s was to be his last visit to Spain for nearly 20 years. He was banned from the country by the victorious General Franco because of his Republican sympathies, as manifested in the novel For Whom the Bell Tolls, which many consider to be Hemingway's masterpiece, about the realities of war on the front line. It was only after winning the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954 that the Fascist government relented and allowed the man adored by Spaniards, who referred to him as 'Don Ernesto', to return.
Hotel Ritz, Madrid, where Hemingway once socialised
A lifetime of heavy drinking had taken its toll on Hemingway, although he continued to hold court in bars around the city, befriending matadors and drinking in the opulent environs of the Ritz. Now a Mandarin Oriental property, the grand restaurants and bars of Hotel Ritz, Madrid still serve as a meeting place for Spanish high society.
For Hemingway, though, the cheap 'one fork' restaurants held the most appeal, as he considered himself to be a man of the people. It is in one of his haunts, the Cuando Salí de Cuba, tucked away along Calle de la Ternera, that perhaps the true essence of what he adored about Madrid is still extant. A small canteen with a tiled floor, it is now run by Cubans – a touch that Hemingway would surely have admired, given his love of Havana rivalled that of Madrid. On my lunchtime visit, the simple, yellow-walled back room echoed with the sound of clattering cutlery and local families eating vast bowls of soup and drinking red wine out of tumblers. It's an astonishing incongruity that it was here, rather than in the plush confines of luxury hotels and bars, that one of the most esteemed writers of the 20th century felt most at home.
Later in the evening, way past midnight, with the streets and bars alive with Madrileños forgetting about their weekday commitments, the spirit of what Hemingway most adored about this bombastic, regal city seemed as alive as ever.
As the great man once wrote after another long night in Madrid, 'Nightlife is when you get up with a hangover in the morning. Nightlife is when everybody says what the hell and you do not remember who paid the bill. Nightlife goes round and round and you look at the wall to make it stop. Nightlife comes out of a bottle and goes into a jar.'