The most obvious — but far from the only — author to read when in Madrid must be Ernest Hemingway. For a man so fond of the laconic line, his rambling, enduring presence in the city is at once ironic and misplaced. It’s not only the guidebooks which are directing me to his erstwhile favourite watering-hole in the north, south, east or west of the city; it’s as if he left a tangible reminder of his presence — an extra shiny spot or cigarette burn burnished into the leather of an armchair — in each of the now rather shabby-chic establishments.
One such haunt is the Gran Café de Gijón on the Paseo de Recoletos, a busy main road that culminates in the fountain-topped Plaza de Cibeles, where Real Madrid fans flock when there’s reason to celebrate. The café itself apparently nurtures instead its historic tradition, promoting itself as a high-end, gourmet retreat for writers and artists. In the first half of the twentieth century it was the hotspot for poetry circles and literary gatherings. I’m sceptical as to whether journalists and writers today really outnumber the bankers who lunch here, but the literary tradition associated with the place is interesting, because in fact it was on this street that Madrid’s major annual book fair, the famous Feria del Libro (Festival of the Book), took place when it was born in the 1930s.
The Feria del Libro has taken place in the city every summer since its inception, bar the dark years of the Spanish Civil War. No longer is it based in the environs of the glamorous Café de Gijón, perhaps in part due to the increase in traffic, but the festival’s hundred-odd stalls do not fail to pull the crowds in its current location — a long, uphill path in the beautiful Retiro Park.
For a couple of weeks from May to June each year, locals to the Madrid area inspect and purchase books, meet some of their authors, and read them in the shade of the trees. There are offshoots from the festival — street-lined crates not unlike those that occupy London’s Southbank — but the excitement is largely refined to the park’s greenery. Particularly popular among the festival goers are crime fiction novels, Spanish translations of Stephen King’s books, and biographies. And of course, Hemingway’s tomes make a predictable, and very welcome, appearance.
There’s nothing especially outlandish about any of this (Stephen King’s a pretty safe bet), but one feels that the book festival is still one part of an important cultural tradition valued by inhabitants the city over, not least in the interest of securing tourist revenue. Like so many of the city’s monuments and traditions, it’s one that survived the adversity of war. It’s Madrid that houses Picasso’s ‘Guernica’, the discomforting portrait of pain caused by bombing of the town in Basque Country in 1937. The peaceful surroundings of the Retiro Park are another world away, but dipping into the likes of Hemingway and his words on war quite possibly offers some readers a less than perfect form of escapism from the country and its past.