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December 20, 2018

Spain: Madrid and La Venencia

Filed under: Architecture, Europe, Photography, Spain, Travel, Travel, Wine, Writing — Tags: , , , , , , , — anotherheader @ 7:46 pm

Madrid has some characters on the streets.

In November of 2017 we escaped the cold and wet weather of Burgundy France and headed to warmer and drier Spain. The trip was impromptu with the upcoming destinations planned as we proceeded. After popping around with short stays we decided to stay a little longer in Madrid. Initially we booked the room in the center for six nights. In the end the hotel was comfortable we extended our stay to nine nights.

There’s much to see and do in Madrid. It is a sprawling, vibrant metropolitan city with over 3 million residents within its limits. The numerous world-class art museums and a wide array of restaurants and bars are enough to distract the most jaded of tourists.

Palacio Real, Madrid’s Royal Palace

Plaza Mayor

Obviously we liked Madrid, having extended our stay. But for whatever reason the city did not resonate with us. Usually with longer stays in cities patterns are established and favorite places are developed. That wasn’t so much the case for us this time in Madrid. Some times these things have to do with the location of the hotel, but I’m not sure this time. In the end we think more of returning to more humble Valencia for an extended stay rather than to Madrid. That’s not to say we would not return.

With that there is one place in Madrid that we did visit repeatedly and would return to. Not far from our hotel was La Venencia, a sherry bar.

The first time we went to the bar we stood outside contemplating whether to go inside. A few moments later a gregarious American ex-pat arrived by bike. We chatted a bit about his distinctive bike. Before long he invited us in for a sherry, saying it was one of his favorite bars. We hesitated but after several assurances that it wasn’t a scam, which we weren’t really thinking anyway, he insisted and we were soon all at the bar sipping sherry. Before we could buy the second round the ex-pat cyclist paid and was on his way. His was a random act of generosity.

Spidermen, big and small..

…and a large spider.

La Venencia has an interesting back-story. Republican sympathizers frequented the bar during the Spanish Civil War. The clientele were wary of fascist spies; a no photographs policy was established as a result. Even today picture taking is not allowed. There are other historic bar rules. Out of respect for the bar’s socialist principles, no tipping is allowed. And you can’t spit on the floor, which seems like a good rule then and now.

It is said that Ernest Hemmingway frequented La Venencia during the Civil War. The story goes that Hemingway would come to the bar to get news from the front; in the late 1930s he was reporting on the war for the North American Newspaper Alliance. His experiences would later inform “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” his novel about the war.

In older Spanish bars the “Hemmingway was here” claim is so common that one has to conclude that Hemmingway drank an incredible amount and visited virtually every bar in every town he visited. That could be possible, I guess. Otherwise it seems Hemmingway’s exploits have been wildly exaggerated. Who knows? But at least for La Venencia the claims of “Hemmingway drank here” seem more credible. In the end the thought that Hemmingway might well have sipped sherry at the same bar we were was good enough.

Madrid’s old town hall

A closer look at the artwork

The interior of La Venencia is little changed since Hemmingway’s time. Harsh light from bare bulb light fixtures suspended from the ceiling illuminate the peeling paper on the heavily tobacco smoke-stained walls. Unlike the photo, tipping, and spitting policies, the smoking rules have changed, even if the wallpaper has not. La Venencia is now and never was a fancy bar. It looks closer to a garage than a slick modern bar.

La Venencia’s back-story is intriguing but it was the Sherry to caused us to stop in several times during our stay in Madrid. The bar offers five Sherries, Manzanilla, Fino, Oloroso, Amontillado and Palo Cortado. The Sherries were all poured from casks and the cost, around €2 a glass, was tallied on the bar in chalk by the barkeep.

With the sherry comes the tapas: crisp, emerald green olives in herb-scented oil arrives with the first drink followed by slices of pale Manchego cheese; preserved meats and chorizo sausage marbled with the later rounds. As we worked through the rounds on multiple visits we established our preferences. A year later the identities of our preferred Sherries have been forgotten—we need another visit for a refresher. But we did learn with certainty that we like Sherry.

If we had found more places like La Venencia we would have found Madrid more compelling. And undoubtedly there are more places like this. Travel is like that. You can’t always find what you want because you don’t know what you are looking for. But sometimes you find what you need.

Madrid’s main church, the Almudena Cathedral

San Jerónimo el Real, a 16th Century near the Prado Museum


  1. […] assertion to dispute or to prove, kind of like the “Hemmingway drank here” claim that many old bars in Spain make. Nevertheless, the Saumur’s château looks like it could have inspired Disney, which is […]

    Pingback by France: Saumur and the Château de Saumur | Another Header — January 18, 2019 @ 5:28 pm

  2. Hey it is good read, I learnt about Palacio Real in my Spanish class.

    Comment by raastha — March 25, 2019 @ 5:29 pm

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