Back in July 2013, my life was about to change. After 7 years in Madrid I decided it was time to move onto another country and close the Madrileño chapter in my life. On my last morning, I strolled downstairs to the café under my apartment – Café Comercial, Madrid’s oldest café – for one last café con leche and a sandwich mixto con huevo.
Many cherished memories and events took place here in this grand café under the set of its flaking opulence. Hours studying and editing a client’s PhD thesis on Medieval Spanish literature between stints of trying to write my own novel in a secluded corner with a glass of
tinto or a coffee. I remember my one-to-one French classes on Monday nights with a handsome Andorran teacher, struggling with my French prepositions I barely got right in my fluent, but grammatically incorrect Spanish. I laughed a lot after moving to my apartment next door, when some of my best friends helped me shove my worldly goods into a car and we shifted the rest of my stuff on the metro. We earned those cold beers.
I wish this was a simple good bye that only came from leaving Madrid, but Café Comercial is gone for good. On 27 July 2015, the café closed down after 128 years in operation without any explanation. All we got was an announcement on Facebook.
While tourists pack themselves into the tourist trap known Café Gijón on the Paseo de Recoletos, famous for being a popular watering-hole for figures like Hemingway, Café Comercial in the Glorieta de Bilbao was a pleasant change with just an impressive historical pedigree. It was still a bit over priced when compared to other cafés in Madrid, but it had a grotty splendor I loved.
The café is said to be Madrid’s oldest, and its closure devastated local residents, since like it or not, Café Comerical was still a heritage site that played a part in Madrid’s cultural history. It was home to literary tertulias, literary gatherings, in the period that followed the Spanish Civil War and a haven for intellectual circles associated with Regenerationism, a movement that sought to reform Spain after its defeat in the war against the US in 1898. It was not just another historic café, but a relic from the city’s golden age and it was also one of the first in the capital to employ women as waitresses. Café Comercial was a hangout for artists, journalists and businessmen. It was the original hub of Madrid’s café culture.
Not much had changed and it was easy to imagine the café in its heyday. The revolving door facing the roundabout and the fountain on Glorieta de Bilbao, opened into the large room lined with scratched mirrors, slender columns, crockery clinking on top of the marble-topped tables and animated discussion, still carrying the old feel even though most of the interior was remodeled in the 1950s.
This week, locals have been leaving post it notes on the papered up windows to say good bye. I won’t have the chance to say farewell properly, and haven’t been back to Madrid since I left, but the memories for me will stay.
My own history in Café Comercial’s is a blip. But cafés and bars are where we make many of our own memories. We remember the people we kissed there, the friends we’ve hugged, the conversations had over coffee or wine. Some think that people are becoming emotional about the cafés closure, “it’s just a café”, they exclaim, forgetting that they are, in their own way, a memorial to life