People visit Spain for many reasons – the sun, the sangria, the beautiful architecture, the vibrant nightlife and religious pilgrimage. For others, the country is also a place brimming with literary heritage. Say “Madrid” to a fellow bibliophile and they are likely to respond with “Hemingway” or perhaps “Don Quixote”. In fact it’s difficult to walk the streets of the city and not be taken in by its history from the statues of literary icons and plaques above bars claiming to be the watering-hole favoured by the famous, to the bookish quotes etched into the pavements in the Las Letras Quarter.
Like many tourists before me I sought out some of these bookish haunts and followed in the footsteps of some famous writers on my trip to Madrid earlier this month.
First up, was the Restaurante Sobrino de Botin, a place made famous by Hemingway in his novel The Sun Also Rises where his protagonists sit down for a meal towards the end of the novel but also frequented by the man himself during his residencies in the city. The restaurant lies nestled down a small street to the side of the Plaza Mayor. The Plaza Mayor itself is a hub of touristic activity and the Calle Cuchilleros feels like finding a secret passageway that takes you back in time to an age before cheap travel and smart-phones.
The restaurant is famous not just for Hemingway (their website also boasts of Graham Greene, F Scott Fitzgerald and Fredrick Forsyth patronising the establishment) but also for being in the Guinness book of records as the world’s oldest restaurant (having been founded in 1725).
It was my and Mr. Novel Project Chronicle’s intention to have dinner there (upstairs where the literary greats would have dined) but, as prices were not set at a rate that would satisfy a starving artist, we took a short walk away from the restaurant to the Literary Quarter (Las Letras) and to the Plaza Santa Ana where we partook in a cold beer at another of Hemingway’s haunts – the Cervecaria Alemana. This Plaza is one of my favourite spots in Madrid, where children have fun in a small play area while parents and tourists enjoy dinner and a drink in the warm evening sun and soak up the atmosphere. All of this is overlooked by a statue of the influential poet and playwright Federico Garcia Lorca (a contemporary of Luis Bunuel and Salvador Dali).
Moving down towards Atocha Station (a beautiful train station that resembles a large tropical greenhouse but sadly most famous these days as being the site of the terrorist bombings in Madrid in March 2004) lies a beautiful site for any bibliophile. On a wide street that leads up to the entrance to Madrid’s national park (the Retiro, which is the perfect spot to spend an afternoon reading and people watching), street vendors sell new and second hand books of all descriptions in the early morning sun. Many titles are in Spanish but the stalls also offer a small selection for English speakers.
Towards the end of our break in Spain, we took two short excursions by train to the towns surrounding Madrid – Alcala de Henares and Toledo.
Alcala is a picturesque university town which proudly proclaims to be the birth place of Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote. You can visit the house where he was born, which brings to life the history of 16th and 17th century Spain. The small courtyard and balconies that surround the house are particularly beautiful. The town itself is a UNESCO world heritage site and it is easy to see why. It is so picturesque that it is hard not to be inspired.
Our final destination was another (although altogether more touristy) UNESCO world heritage site, Toledo, a beautiful city set high in the hillside and surrounded by the Tagus River. I’d first heard of Toledo, in the Ninth Gate, a film which stars Johnny Depp as a book dealer seeking out a copy of ‘the Nine Gates of the Kingdom of Shadows”, a book said to have been written by the devil and of which only three copies exist. Ever since then I’d pictured Toledo as a beautiful but sinister place and, as I walked through the its narrow streets I couldn’t shake the feeling that this is a place crying out to be written about in a crime thriller or spy novel.
From my travels in Spain I can see why writers and artists for centuries have been attracted to it’s charms.