Famed writer Ernest Hemingway adored Madrid, the Spanish capital. Linda Jaivin discovers if it loves him back.
“How do you like your Martini?” asks the waiter at 1912 Museo Bar inside Madrid’s The Westin Palace hotel. The clubby space has mahogany panelling and leather upholstery the colour of cocktail olives. Ernest Hemingway, who liked to stay in the Palace and wrote the hotel into his 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, famously liked to drink here, too. He famously liked to drink everywhere, of course, but he came here for the Martinis. “How did Hemingway like his?” I ask the waiter. He doesn’t have a clue, which my Spanish friends find hilarious. The bartender comes suavely to the rescue: “Dry.” A video on the hotel’s history plays in the bar, portraying many of the celebrities who have stayed here, from Salvador Dali to Bruce Springsteen. No mention of Hemingway.
Visibly prouder of its connection with the Nobel Prize-winning American author is the Hotel Madrid Gran Vía 25 in the city centre. By the door is a plaque stating that Hemingway wrote most of his dispatches on the Spanish Civil War here in 1936. On the bustling 21st-century Gran Vía, I’m the only one to stop and read it. Passers-by are way too entertained by a pair of long-haired elderly gentlemen in full heavy-metal regalia, who’ve stationed themselves on the footpath nearby. My friends have observed the two eccentrics here many times but have never noticed the plaque.
Hemingway adored Madrid, Spain’s architecturally eclectic and culturally vibrant capital. Like almost everywhere, it’s been through a lot in these past two years but it’s coming back to life. And what life! Hemingway called it “the capital of the world” and the “most Spanish of cities”. Many of his devout fans make the pilgrimage here to walk their own Hemingway camino, traipsing to the corners of Madrid that inspired him and carousing at his favourite places. I’m a Hemingway-agnostic but I figured it would be fun to try and see the city through his eyes.
During the Civil War, the great writer stayed at Hotel Florida on Plaza Callao along with other pro-Republic reporters and photographers such as Robert Capa. Fascist bombs would smash into the building with a sound that Hemingway’s lover at the time, journalist Martha Gellhorn, described as “granite thunder”. This evening, the only thunder in the crowded plaza comes from a sound system belonging to some breakdancers. A department store now stands on the site of the old hotel. In the centre of the plaza, animal rights activists are protesting against bullfighting, among other things. I ask one if he knows that Hemingway once stayed across the way. “No. Really?” What does he think of the legendary fan of bullfighting? “I can be an animal-lover and still enjoy his books,” he replies with a shrug and a smile.
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Matadero is 20 minutes by train from the city centre. Hemingway liked to go there early in the morning to watch novilleros, apprentice matadors, practise the kill. Not my idea of fun but thankfully, its buildings now house a trendy cultural centre. After taking in a few exhibitions, I wander east to the barrio’s fringe, where former workers’ quarters are now the heart of a lively migrant neighbourhood. Tiny cafés serve up tasty Dominican and other South American dishes. I sense Papa would be more at home here than in super-cool Matadero itself.
I visit the Prado, Spain’s national art museum, which Hemingway once likened to a beautiful naked woman with “no conversation and only the plainest of beds”. My friends’ young son points to the 17th-century The Bearded Woman of Abruzzi, which looks a lot like a man breastfeeding – the Prado may display its treasures in austere surroundings but there’s plenty of conversation starters. I dedicate myself to disproving Hemingway’s theory that Spanish vermouth is “not recommended for internal use”. Sadly, one of my favourite vermut bars has fallen victim to the pandemic but good fortified wine isn’t hard to find. Try it out with the superior tapas at Alimentación Quiroga, established in the middle of the last century in the historic literary district Las Letras. Verdict: highly recommended for internal use.
At Museo Chicote bar, a splash of Hollywood glamour in the middle of Gran Vía, black-and-white photos cover the walls. I spy Ava Gardner, Sophia Loren, Gregory Peck (mislabelled “Cary Grant”), Pedro Almodóvar – and, gratifyingly, the big man himself. Chicote even serves a drink of Hemingway’s invention: the Papa Doble, a kind of Daiquiri with more alcohol and less sugar. “He had diabetes,” explains Renzo, the bartender. Renzo only just read his first Hemingway novel, El Viejo y el Mar (The Old Man and the Sea), a few weeks ago. He says many tourists come in asking about the iconic American – almost equal to the number who come in for the Mexican singer Augustín Lara. After a few Papa Dobles, this strikes me as very funny.
“Nobody goes to bed in Madrid until they have killed the night,” Hemingway wrote in Death in the Afternoon. I’ve barely killed the evening but I need to be up early the next day for my tour of the bullfighting buff’s favourite ring, Las Ventas, which is open to visitors again.
“It’s not a match or a sport. It’s a ritual, a liturgy with deep significance, the sacrifice of a sacred animal,” says Guillermo, my guide at Las Ventas. He loves bullfighting but hates the English word for it, preferring the Spanish corrida. In his late 20s, Guillermo holds a PhD in philosophy, with a focus on French postmodern theory. He describes the corrida as embodying the “pull” between our Apollonian and Dionysian natures. We watch teenage novilleros train in the ring; some hold capes and others horns. Pointing to where Hemingway used to sit (section nine, in the shade), Guillermo tells me he gets asked about the writer a lot. He’s not a big fan and considers Hemingway “misogynistic” and his books a source of misinformation about the corrida. Towards the end of the tour, he picks up a bullfighter’s cape and demonstrates how to hold and twirl it; he has the grace of a dancer.
From the bullring I have one final stop to make, at sherry bar La Venencia (Calle de Echegaray, 7; +34 914 29 73 13). It’s early afternoon and the bar is packed with regulars. Their eyes narrow at the sight of me. I can read their thoughts: “Another Hemingway tourist.” Mortified, I realise that I’m still clutching the souvenir photo of myself dressed as a matador. Hemingway deeply regretted that his writing about Pamplona’s San Fermin festival turned the local custom of the running of the bulls into an international tourist carnival. Rather than contribute to the San Fermin-ing of La Venencia, I beat a retreat. Turns out there’s an excellent Japanese ramen bar right next door. Sake’s a bit like sherry, isn’t it? Here’s to you, Papa.
Commissioned by the Spanish king in 1912, The Westin Palace, in Madrid’s historic Las Letras district, is part of the city’s vibrant history. Converted into a hospital during the Civil War in the 1930s, it has since hosted peace conferences, interim governments and embassies, not to mention a jaw-dropping list of celebrities from Hemingway to Orson Welles, Pablo Picasso and the Dalai Lama. Its 470 guestrooms and suites blend regal elegance with up-to-date technology and there are several destination restaurants on site. Hemingway, who first stayed here in the 1920s, loved that the Palace was a short stroll from the Prado.