Network: Aficionados of the cyberbar

In Spain, where technology has made a slow start and few young people can afford their own link to the Internet, surfing in bars has become a popular social activity. Elizabeth Nash reports

The Internet is captivating Spain, a little behind the rest of Europe, via a social institution that Spaniards handle better than most: the bar. Spain has Europe's lowest take-up of the Internet, but many cities have flourishing "cyberbars" where would-be netties can log on while enjoying the more familiar pleasures of sinking a beer or a generous Spanish measure of whisky.

Madrid's Netcafe, in a bustling part of town near cinemas and night-clubs, was opened last year by two software entrepreneurs seeking a diverting sideline.

"We could see that the Internet was about to take off and we wanted to link it with the idea of being sociable and having a good time," says Alfredo Benes, 31, one of the founders. Netcafe soon built up a clientele of people who drop by several times a week, and is now so popular that you may have a long wait at the bar for a free table.

At first sight it is like any modern Spanish bar, with austere sweeps of glass and marble and a giant screen blaring rock videos. But each of the eight tables has beneath its circular glass top a screen, a keyboard and a mouse. Buy a drink, book your slot, which is written up on a board by the optics, and await your turn. The rest is free.

"It's like reserving a billiard table," Alfredo says. "We limit you to 45 minutes when there's a queue."

Originally opening from 6pm to 2am, they decided to open earlier after arriving one day to find 31 people waiting in the street. At five o'clock on a recent afternoon, all tables were occupied and seven people were waiting, including a group of American students.

"It's our contact with home," says Julie, 21, from Michigan, who has been studying Spanish in Madrid for four months. "I come here once or twice a week to send e-mail to family and friends in the States. It's cheap and easy. And you make friends here. In the evening it's hopping, with dancing and lots of noise."

Juan Ruiz, 22, who is doing business studies, says he surfs the Net for writers and actresses to chat with. "It's like reading, or watching TV - a fun way to pass the time."

Most regulars are between 18 and 30, Alfredo reckons, and his formula shrewdly links two passions that are dear to the young Spaniard's heart: getting together for a good time, and being in on the latest thing. "People come out of curiosity at first," he says. "Everyone wants to sign up, like getting a mobile phone. Some drop it when the first enthusiasm wears off, but others get hooked."

Gemma Gonzalez, 24, who is studying tourism at a college round the corner, confesses that she is addicted and visits as often as she can. "I love talking, and this gives me the chance to talk to friends in Argentina, Mexico and Liverpool." Through the Net she has met other Madrid enthusiasts: "We meet up at weekends and go out on the razzle together."

Gemma likes the thumping disco rhythms and, far from finding them a distraction, says it adds to the fun. "It's good to use the Net away from the solemn atmosphere of a library or office." She adds that the bar is an easy and welcoming place for single women, combining an informal camaraderie with respect for those in solitary communion with their screen.

Alfredo Benes attributes Spaniards' late start on the Internet to the shortage and high cost of telecommunications links. Growth in the sales of personal computers is far below the European average and teleworking is in its infancy. But in recent months, as lines have multiplied and costs fallen, more and more companies and individuals are taking the plunge.

Jose Luis, 32, an industrial engineer, and Juan, 38, a doctor, use the Net professionally, but come to enjoy the Netcafe's chatlines and rum and Coke. "The bar is a good mix of drinks, company and computers," says Jose Luis. "They'll soon be popping up everywhere, like mushrooms"n

Netcafe, San Bernardo, 81, 28015 Madrid (00341 594 0999). e-mail: net- cafe@net-cafe.es.

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