My heels click down the abandoned Calle Echegaray, only a few blocks from Madrid’s chaotic Puerta del Sol. Houses line the narrow street with flaking façades illuminated by hanging streetlamps. The road curves in at the centre, channelling the rainwater into a thin stream between the tiles.
The panelled wooden doors of La Venencia are open and I catch a whiff of musty, damp barrels and cold cuts of meat.
The walls are yellowed from the decades of cigarette smoke, even though today’s smokers are forced outside into the rain. Stripped bits of white plaster show through the brown ceiling, and dogged-eared vintage posters advertising sherry are pinned up around the walls.
It seems to me that La Venencia has hardly changed since the Spanish Civil War, with the mahogany bar, tables and chairs fading into uneven patches of brown. It’s cold inside and minutes after opening time on a Sunday night, we’re only five: three locals, the bartender and me.
I’ve been coming here for years, but I’m still self-conscious about my “guiri,” the Castilian word for foreigner, status, with my pale skin, blue eyes and hybrid British-Eastern European accent. Even with my correct use of the Spanish subjunctive it’s obvious I’m not local.
“One palo cortado, please,” I ask.
The bartender places a glass of “palo cortado,” a caramel coloured sherry on the wooden counter. I sip from the tulip shaped glass, the heavy legs trickle down the sides and the sticky fluid leaves my mouth with the sharp taste of dried fruits. Lubricated with alcohol, I attempt conversation, resorting to the icebreaker us Brits always fall back on.
“Que hace frío, no?” I say, “It’s cold.”
“Sí, the problem is the damp,” he replies with a deep, gruff voice and scribbles down the price of my sherry in chalk on the wooden counter. He avoids making eye contact with me and turns towards to a local and I’m thinking about how to get in on the conversation.
Voices echo around the bar, highlighted by the emptiness of a place which is usually packed full.
“It’s very quiet tonight,” I say. My eyes stare up behind the bar to the endless rows of sherry bottles of varying brands, shapes and sizes. They’re all covered in dust, fitting in with the flaking décor of the bar itself.
“Sí,” grunts the bartender and raises his shoulders. He taps chalk dust on his dark green apron that he’s wearing over red and white checked shirt that suits his leathery complexion. “It’s Sunday and Spain is in a crisis, what do you expect?”
The first time I came into the bar he yelled “no photos,” at me; returned my change, and gesticulated to the piece of paper stuck on the wall that says “no tips.”
La Venencia hasn’t shaken off its habits from the Civil War and its memory of Franco. When Hemingway hung out in this bar gathering information as a war correspondent, anonymity and proletarian solidarity were matters of survival.
A woman taps me on the shoulder and says, “Your scarf is on the floor”.
She sides up to the bar and brushes her dripping black hair from her face.
“Antonio, give me an amontillado,” she says, “It’s raining ‘cats and dogs’ out there.”
I glance up to the tables in the upper part of the bar as they fill up. A mangy, longhaired black cat struts down the tiled steps. On my first visit, I mistook her for someone’s fluffy handbag until the golden eyes flashed back at me. Tonight, she comes to my table and jumps onto my lap.
“She likes you,” says the woman, “she’s normally not that friendly, she only sits on the laps of a couple of locals.”
She’s clean, however her fur is slightly matted. She’s curled on my lap with no sign of budging.
“What’s her name?” I ask and cautiously stroke the cat.
“Lola,” says the woman, “She’s quite old, she’s been living here at the bar for years.”
A young man walks in and shakes his umbrella, the water droplets land on my notebook and me. Lola the cat jumps up and scuttles off to the other side of the bar, and curls up next to an empty sherry bottle.
I get up and go to the bar.
“Can I get a manzanilla please, and a tapa of cheese and salchichón.” I ask the bartender.
“Do you want some olives too?” he asks. His tone is softer than before.
I look up and smile, “Yes, please,” I say.
“OK,” he scribbles the amount down on my tab at the bar, the corner of his mouth curls up — do I detect the hint of a smile?