Madrid Stories: Bitter-sweet tastes at Gonzalez's bar
Sunday 11 May 2003
My favourite bar, Gonzalez, used to be a cheese shop that supplied the smartest families in Madrid. I know this because Vicente, who owns the place with his brother Paco, told me.
Vicente has passed on other snippets about his bar, one of the few establishments in the street to flaunt its original façade. He points to photos of his grandfather who opened the business in 1931, and his aunts who ran it, and the chunky old weighing machine and marble counter, all forming an atmospheric backdrop to what remains a delicatessen, but one where you can eat and drink the specialities of the house.
The room at the back, where the family lived, is today favoured for book launches, celebratory wine tastings and boozy evenings generally. One day Vicente mentioned that his grandfather used to hold clandestine Communist meetings in the cellar.
But it was Aunt Toñi, a sixtysomething who was born in that back room, who told me how her father, Vicente Gonzalez, and his daughters kept the shop afloat through Spain's republic, the civil war and Franco's dictatorship.
Toñi, who shares the family's drooping eyes and roly-poly features, shyly begins: "My father came from La Mancha where the family had a bakehouse and delivered bread to the villages. He set up the shop and it was very successful. But when war came in 1936 it was a trauma ..." Grandfather Vicente was politically active and during the war and the dictatorship after 1939, he was persecuted by police and neighbours.
"In those hungry years there was hardly anything to sell in the shop. He hawked lemons, melons, anything, in the street to support the family. He was imprisoned as a Communist in the 1940s, again in the 1950s, sent from jail to jail, some far from Madrid. Once we went to a railway crossing to watch the train taking him away. And at 16 I started in the shop." Toñi's voice falters.
Vicente adds: "Grandfather told me he helped pack the paintings in the Prado Museum to ship them out of danger from Franco's bombs. He sheltered from bombardment in the doorway of the Bank of Spain, then noticed his legs and the steps covered in blood." "I didn't know that," murmurs Toñi.
She resumes: "He sent prisoners' clothes for my mother to wash, but we needed food. When my brother, Vicente, died of a weak heart at 16, they only let father out for the funeral, then marched him back in handcuffs." Toñi is weeping now. But the mid-1960s brought recovery, and Gonzalez's glory years. Toñi brightens: "Father was freed, and we all worked in the shop. We sold a lot. But our lives had been scarred."
The evening's first cheery customers are entering as Vicente shows me out. "Lots of that was new to me," he confessed, "but, you know, it's the story of everyone in Madrid."
May, and it's cobalt skies and shirtsleeves, right? Rain, gales and the threat of snow, actually. Every year as Madrid prepares the first big bullfights of the season and the open-air book fair, it rains jugs, as they say here. And every year Madrileños express shocked outrage. "Like your country," they taunt. Like yours, I reply.
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