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A history of Madrid's Barrio de las Letras in seven places

Felicity Hughes
Felicity Hughes
A history of Madrid's Barrio de las Letras in seven places
Las Cuevas de Sésamo in Madrid's Barrio de las Letras. Photo: Sergio de Isidro

To mark World Book Day, Madrid-based Felicity Hughes takes us on a fascinating journey through the Spanish capital's Literary District, retracing the steps of Hemingway, Cervantes, Dumas and other iconic writers who stayed in this barrio.

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World Book Day on April 23rd marks the date of Cervantes’ death. The author of Don Quijote lived in the Huertas neighbourhood of Madrid when he published his classic, starting a literary tradition in the area that continues to this day. Also known as Barrio de las Letras, Huertas is Madrid’s equivalent to Bloomsbury.

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In my new book, A Guide to Madrid’s Literary District, I explore this heritage in-depth. To celebrate the launch of this guide and to get you prepped for World Book Day, here’s a quick history of the neighbourhood told through seven places.

Teatro Español

While the current neo-classical building was constructed in 1849, Teatro Español traces its history back to 1583. Madrid’s first theatre, Corral del Príncipe was built here 16 years before London’s Globe. As in Shakespeare’s London, the theatre was extremely popular but up until this point, Madrid did not have a dedicated venue. Instead, plays were performed in the courtyards of buildings. In the Corral del Príncipe, lower-class spectators stood in a square courtyard to watch actors perform on stage, while wealthier citizens were up in balconies overlooking the action.

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Comic farces involving scandalous plots in which lovers switched partners several times were particularly popular. A writer who excelled at this style of drama was Félix Lope de Vega, Shakespeare’s contemporary and one of the Siglo de Oro’s most famous figures. To this day, you can see his name etched into the facade of Teatro Español, alongside other great writers of the time.

Madrid's Teatro Español

Madrid's Teatro Español. Photo: Felicity Hugues

Casa Museo Lope de Vega

Lope de Vega didn’t have far to walk to see his words come to life on stage. His house is just a few minutes walk away at number 11 Calle de Cervantes. Now open to the public, you can still wander into the museum’s pretty garden whenever you fancy. Better yet, book yourself in for a free guided tour and you can see the house and hear all about his exciting and slightly disreputable life. A hit with the ladies, the playwright was a prodigious talent and penned around 500 plays during his lifetime. This prompted Cervantes to call him a “monstruo de la naturaleza” (a freak of nature) in his Eight Comedies and Interludes.

Casa de Lope de Vega by Felicity Hughes

Lope de Vega's house in Madrid. Photo: Felicity Hugues

Convento de las Trinitarias Descalzas

Miguel de Cervantes’ bones lie just one street away in the Convento de las Trinitarias Descalzas at number 18 Calle Lope de Vega. Someone in town planning must have been having a laugh at the expense of both writers when these streets were named! Cervantes’ freak-of-nature taunt came after Lope de Vega had trashed an advance copy of Don Quijote in a letter announcing: “Of poets I do not say: this is a good century! Many are in the making for the coming year. But there is none so bad as Cervantes; nor so foolish as to praise Don Quijote.”

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Lope de Vega, of course, was very wrong. Don Quijote was a smash hit when it came out in 1605 and even though Cervantes was pushing 60 when he published his masterpiece, he did get to enjoy his final years in the spotlight. However, this fame didn’t prevent the destruction of his former house at number 2 Calle de Cervantes nor the misplacement of his bones, which are muddled up with other miscellaneous skeletons in a box inside the convent with the initials MC on it!

Madrid's Convento de las Trinitarias

Madrid's Convento de las Trinitarias. Photo: John Dapolito

Lhardy

As Madrid’s theatre district, Huertas was a thoroughly disreputable place back in Cervantes’ time and a popular saying went: “Calle de Huertas, más putas que puertas” (Calle de Huertas, more whores than doors). However, in the 19th century, this didn’t deter French chef Emilio Huguenin from opening an upmarket restaurant in the area closer to Sol in 1839. A fan of fine dining, Alexandre Dumas famously dined here when he rolled into town.

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However, the restaurant wasn’t affordable for many. In fact, Lhardy was considered so posh that Spain’s answer to Dickens, Benito Pérez Galdós declared that they even “put white ties on their Tahona buns.” It’s still going strong and is a great place to soak up the atmosphere of 19th-century Madrid where heated literary salons or tertulias (social gatherings) were often held in coffee shops and restaurants.

Lhardy madrid

Lhardy in Madrid's Barrio de Las Letras. Photo: John Dapolito

Ateneo de Madrid

The best tertulias were hosted in Ateneo de Madrid, a deceptively slender building tucked away on Calle del Prado. This cultural institution had a rocky beginning during the tyrannical reign of Ferdinand VII when many of its liberal members had to flee to London. However, it was re-established in 1835 after the king died and has been going strong ever since.

The organisation aimed to promote enlightened values that would modernise Spain by fostering scholarship and lively debate and it continues to stick to this philosophy to this day. While it’s still a private member’s club, the spectacular interior of this tardis-like building can be seen by either booking a visit to the library or attending a talk in the gorgeous Salón de Actos.

Madrid's Ateneo. Photo: John Dapolito

La Venencia

The rumour exchange during the Civil War, this bar has changed little since it was first opened in 1927. The décor, with its wooden tables and gleaming rows of bottles, is simplicity itself. To this day, music is never played, nothing but sherry is served and photos are strictly forbidden, a policy that goes back to the Civil War when Madrid was full of Nationalist spies. Ernest Hemingway would drop in to pick up information during his time as a correspondent in the city. Of course, this wasn’t enough to slake his thirst: Chicote’s on Gran Via was a firm favourite as was Villa Rosa and Cevecería Alemana, both on Plaza Santa Ana.

La Venencia. Photo: Felicity Hughes

Las Cuevas de Sésamo

Another Hemingway haunt in Barrio de las Letras was Las Cuevas de Sésamo. This underground cave was opened up after the war as a clandestine literary salon by former Republican aviator Tomás Cruz Díaz. One of the main attractions of this bar was its literary prize. Tomás launched the Sésamo Prize for theatrical works in 1952 and the scheme was such a success that a short story and painting prize was added, followed in 1956 by an award for novelists. Though the prize money was negligible, the cultural cachet for winners was huge, with many authors going on to forge illustrious careers. These included Soledad Puértolas, Juan Marsé, and Juan José Millás.

Las Cuevas de Sésamo in Madrid. Photo: Sergio de Isidro

Of course, there’s much more to discover about the history of Barrio de las Letras. If you’re interested in the subject, my book A Guide to Madrid’s Literary District from The Secret Kingdoms Press is out now. 

Felicity Hughes is the author of The Making of Madrid, a blog about the history of Madrid.

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