Searching for Hemingway in Madrid

Ultimate expat.  Consumer of endless drinks. Haver of impressive mustaches. Hemingway embodies romance, bravery, and masculinity.

During my wannabe beat years which didn’t take place in the passenger seat of a car but in my teenage bedroom, I devoured stacks of novels.  Alternating primarily between Kerouac’s visions of the open road with the sun setting on the prairie, to Hemingway’s simple narratives — We went to the fifth arrondissement and drank a bottle of clean, smooth bourbon then rode in a cab through the rain to the park.  The book that made me first fall in love with the man?  The Sun Also Rises, chronicling a group of friends as they drink from Paris to Pamplona, and ultimately Madrid.

Now that I’m able to travel and travel internationally, it didn’t take long to bring me through Madrid to hit up Hemingway’s old haunts. We had two days in the city and three places to visit — Restaurant Botin to devour the same suckling pig as Jake and Lady Ashley in the final pages of that beloved book. Cerveceria Alemana to sit at the author’s favorite table in one of his most frequented bars. And Las Ventas, to the bullring where the man watched matadors tempt fate and animal alike.

First, Botin.  Since arriving in Spain Carl and I had a hard time adjusting to restaurants opening at 7:00pm.  In Barcelona we learned quickly that unless you arrived within 20 minutes of the doors unlocking, well reviewed spots would be entirely full.  Dinners aren’t hurried through in the country either.  You’re more than welcome to sit for hours chatting over your post dinner coffee, resulting in slow table turnaround.

We were in Barcelona for the weekend though, and figured that on a weekday we’d be fine arriving at Botin shortly after it’s opening —  A small wait we did not mind.  Opening at 8:00, we shuffled in at 8:25 and were told to try back at 11:00.  Turns out Botin is such an institution that since Hemingway’s day it’s been turned into more of a money machine than culinary establishment. Our friend who insisted we go here had visited years before, tipsy with a group of six, and were sat within minutes. Reservations can’t be made online for two, but we did notice a party of eight being sat right away with no reservation. If you’re a foreigner with a large party seating isn’t an issue, but a couples place this ain’t.

“We lunched upstairs at Botin´s. It is one of the best restaurants in the world. We had roast young suckling pig and drank rioja alta. Brett did not eat much. She never ate much. I ate a very big meal and drank three bottles of rioja alta.”  Ernest Hemingway, “The Sun Also Rises”

Being turned away didn’t defeat us.  We’d grab some tapas to hold us over til eleven, have some wine, do some wandering, then eat a late dinner.  Situated near the Plaza Mayor though, Botin is in a touristy area which proved difficult to find an appealing backup.  Passing many a laminated menu we settled for a bustling spot advertising tapas and ordered a few plates.

The serving sizes were on par with Applebee’s entrees, proving the “tapas” categorization on Yelp to be false; And after eating only a fraction of our underwhelming dishes (our salad was wilted, tasteless, and questionably topped with black olives and beets) we could eat no more.  Worse, we’d in no way be capable of consuming food again in two hours. With disappointed bellies we dropped into the tiny and sleek  Fábrica Maravillas brewery for a beer before heading back to the hotel.

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Cozying up in terry cloth robes we opened a baby bottle of wine from the mini bar and watched a Real World type show where a group of twentysomethings live in a house, have fake human drama, then get kicked off the show by voters, but not before the friends and family members of these housemates have to defend their presumably heinous actions to the voting public.  I must say, reality tv when you don’t speak the language is 50x better than reality tv when you do.

Come morning we hopped into the wrong line at Las Ventas bullring.  Noting the surprisingly large line devoid of khaki shorts and Nikons dangling around necks, we quickly realized we were waiting with locals to buy tickets for the next fight rather than the tourist line for ring tours.

Many revile bullfighting.  This is understandable.  It’s a sport full of machismo birthed only once gladiator fighting became outlawed, when killing bulls seemed like a reasonable replacement to killing man. There is validity to the revulsion people have, so I’m not here to say that bullfighting is good or bad.  There is, however, a lot more to it than “man kills animal”.

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Fights will last a total of 15 minutes; the bull isn’t stabbed repeatedly over hours and hours.  At the end of that time, if not killed, the bull is killed quickly outside of the ring.  This is considered a failed fight on the matadors part, and wounds both personal pride and public opinion of the fighter.

Bulls who fight especially well and prove to have valor can be pardoned from slaughter at the end of a fight as well, to live out their days frolicking in meadows.  Only one bull has ever been pardoned though.  There’s not some field out there full of bulls swapping matador goring stories.

 

If the matador puts up an exceptionally good fight he’s rewarded with an ear of the bull and if he’s exceptional in his exceptionalism, he’s rewarded with both ears and possibly the tail.  The Presidente is the one who decides how to allot body parts.  He’s basically the bull decider and sits in a special “Presidente” box apart from the crowd. Imagine Joaquin Phoenix in Gladiator giving a thumbs up or thumbs down to a cheering public.

“Nobody ever lives their life all the way up except bull fighters.”  Ernest Hemingway, “The Sun Also Rises”

Though The Sun Also Rises bullfights take place in Pamplona, Hemingway himself frequented Madrid’s bullring.  Architecture in Spain never ceased to amaze me, and Las Ventas is a prime example of a bewitching space.  25,000 seats are built from carved stone and all the spilled beer and wine simply flow down drains located on each seating tier. Built in the 30’s, it’s a marvel to behold.

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No fights in Madrid aligned with our being in the city, and none in Seville or Cordoba synced with our days there either.  I’m saddened by this, as our friend who’s witnessed a Spanish fight has compared it to College football games in the United States.  The cheap “sun seats” are stationed in the hottest area of the ring where the young guzzle red wine, cheering in the heat.

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Day two in Madrid we wondered, “do I dare go to Botin again?”  The city is full of amazing restaurants we could try, but as silly, as touristy, as much time we put into the damn place already, we decided, yes.

Entering the Plaza Mayor at 8:02 I was inwardly hoping we’d be turned away; Spurned. We had a backup restaurant that looked absolutely stellar which we planned on heading to just after our rejection.  This would also give us leave to complain about not getting into Botin for the rest of our lives. Cause if we ever come back to Madrid there’s no way we’re passing through these doors years later.

To our shock and momentary disappointment, we were admitted.  As the host nodded us in I looked around surveying the space.  This could not have taken more than 4 seconds, but when I turned around both the host and Carl were nowhere to be found.  Immediately in front of me was a winding and empty stairway, and to the left the kitchen.  My best friend “silent panic” visited as I stood perplexed and horrified.

A chef in the kitchen got my attention and tilted his head, gesturing past him.  I was further confused, but as he continued to gesture I decided why not be summoned into the kitchen by a stranger. I guess this place will be my tomb.

Turns out, passing through the kitchen one arrives in a room I can only describe as “the children’s table” as it housed ten seats and a silverware cabinet—  The $100.00 a seat children’s table.  Within 10 minutes all five tables in the room were filled, two of them by couples with Spain and Madrid guidebooks on their tables.  I cannot judge, for I am exactly like them.

We ordered a lovely bottle of wine, toasted, and drank it as servers opened and closed drawers inches away from us, clamoring for knives and forks.  Shouts from the kitchen were muffled but heard throughout dinner, and clanging pans became our ambience.

I don’t mean to sound ungrateful or bitchy though — the dinner itself was lovely.  A first course of garlic soup, a regional specialty, followed by green beans cooked with ham (everything in this restaurant is coated with pig fat and it’s amazing), and finally the famed suckling pig: baby pig cooked to crispy skinned perfection.  Do I regret going?  Not at all.   Everything was completely delicious, but between the constant photos the servers had to take of neighboring tables and the flimsy curtain behind us that blocked off the kitchen, I’d be wary of recommending other couples.

Our final stop of Cerveceria Alemana was on the walk back to the hotel, but upon peering through it’s windows we chose to walk on by.  A laminated menu was posted by the door, and each table was topped with yet another laminated menu advertising selections like Guinness, Corona, and Amstel Light, rather than the rare German brews we were hoping for.

Look up images of the place and you’ll find glossy looking photos from the 20’s of men in white aprons serving mugs filled with frothy and enticing beer, but the reality is dive bar beer, overhead lighting and plastic napkin dispensers.

“I would not have thought of eating a meal without drinking a beer.” — Ernest Hemingway

I couldn’t imagine Hemingway sipping brews at Cerveceria Alemana, or chomping away at the tourist table in Botin.  Only in Las Ventas could I envision him, watching a sport that’s dying out in today’s world.  Did I find the man in Madrid?  No.  His presence was lost as almost anyone’s is after being below ground for 60 years.

Pop open a used copy of The Sun Also Rises or A Movable Feast though, with yellowed pages and that old book smell and you’re transported.  Words bring to life a different world, one more colorful and dimly lit, scented of bourbon, cigarettes and leather.

It’s worth it to search for those who’ve passed, but some things are irretrievable in the modern world.  And yet, I know where I can always find him.

“Oh Jake,” Brett said, “We could have had such a damned good time together.”  Ahead was a mounted policeman in khaki directing traffic. He raised his baton. The car slowed suddenly, pressing Brett against me.  Yes,” I said. “Isn’t it pretty to think so?”  Ernest Hemingway, “The Sun Also Rises”

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