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Bogotá’s Classic Cafés: Life around a Table

In the past, they were a setting for the writing of newspapers, poems, manifestos, suicide letters and love letters, and even presidential speeches. The classic cafés of Colombia’s capital city are steeped in exquisite and revealing history. A few years ago they seemed to be on the decline, but now they are back in force thanks to the efforts of the Mayor’s Institute of Cultural Heritage. The conversation resumes.

By: Iván Beltrán Castillo
Photos: Lisa Palomino

 

A strange smile lit the man’s face as he walked slowly through downtown Bogotá about five months ago, trailing a strangely intense air of the dance and, perhaps, a farewell. Dressed in the colors of high plains and rainstorms, he wore the pointy shoes of a silent film star and his speech mimicked the linguistic constructions of a different era.

Here and there he asked after a former politician, a tenacious lawyer, or inquired as to the whereabouts of an operetta singer, an avant-garde architect, or a failed boxer. At one point he retold old jokes, puns, and riddles featuring public figures long since disappeared and transformed into history.

As he wandered along like a friendly ghost, engaging in conversation with waiters and the occasional café companion, his interest centered above all on Bogotá’s downtown cafés, emblems of the monastic city’s spirit and pulse. He said his name was Alfonso Cadavid Ceballos, that he was seventy-seven years old and considered himself a diehard “Llerista,” nearly two decades after the death of the liberal leaders who went by that name, and that thanks to a lifetime of disciplined employment in a bank he had acquired the right to a modest but comforting pension and was proud to espouse, like subjective relics, his peculiar ideas regarding the world and the history of man. He was, without a doubt, a walking classic.

Dressed in celebratory fashion, he visited Café Pasaje on the Avenida Jimenez; Saint Moritz on the corner of Calle 16 and Carrera 8 —where he lamented the disappearance of the old billiard halls and their ubiquitous players; Salon La Fontana on the way up to Bogotá’s La Candelaria neighborhood; the pool halls along Carrera 5, where a number of championships in this taciturn sport have taken place recently; and returned time and again to El Florida at Carrera 7 and Calle 21, not a café exactly, but the place to go for hot chocolate, and part of this enclave of memorable antiques.

This illustrious visit, however, was only in passing. Alfonso spent just five days drinking endless cups of tinto (as Colombians refer to their black coffee), copious shots of aguardiente, and the occasional steaming hot chocolate, and enlightened more than one listener on the splendor of the capital’s cafés. According to those who saw and heard him, he had been sick and nearly died, closeted in his old house in the Teusaquillo neighborhood, but he managed to overcome the pain that followed years of insomnia and many feverish days. So when he heard on the news that the Mayor was launching an ambitious project to restore the city center and revive its classic cafés, he decided to don his finest attire, dab on a bit of English cologne, and set out in search of lucidity and intelligent communion.

He knew the exact location of the tables and chairs of the great figures that had written history. As he looked around, those present heard him say: “In that corner León de Greiff, the great poet from Antioquia, wrote ‘La balada de los búhos estáticos’ (‘The Ballad of the Static Owls’), one of his greatest works and the one that best describes his world; over by that door the cartoonist Chapete, eternally employed by the El Tiempo newspaper, drew his scathing, venomous caricatures, eviscerating Colombia’s ultraconservative dictator General Gustavo Rojas Pinilla in the 1950s, and at that table, he planned his exodus from Colombia before the 1970 elections, when the despot seemed on the verge of returning to power and threatened Chapete and his hands with a bloody fate. Over there, Juan Lozano y Lozano wrote his column ‘Jardín de Cándido’ (‘Candide’s Garden’) for the same newspaper. Avant-garde philosopher Nicolás Gómez Dávila, or Colacho as he was known, used to sit in front of that window; he shut himself in a house on Bogotá’s north side, working on a book that no one at the time understood, but that, over time, has grown powerful and is now famous in Colombia, Italy, and throughout the world. The Liberal Revolutionary Movement (MRL) was founded at a table in this café, by leader Alfonso López Michelsen, who dreamed of a truly emancipating vanguard ideology. Over there at Café Windsor, the best cartoonist of all time, the great Ricardo Rendón, went into the bathroom and shot himself in the head before a single wrinkle ever furrowed his brow.”

He visited Café Pasaje, and spoke as they served him continuous cups of black coffee with mathematical punctuality. It was here that he made the friends he misses so dearly now; he used to converse with Jorge Vázquez, founder of the café, his children, who inherited the legacy, and once joked with Bertha Morales, the woman who, according to urban legend, served Jorge Eliécer Gaitán a glass of water before his death.

A change of scenery. Next, Cadavid Ceballos appeared in Saint Moritz, the iconic hideaway founded seventy years ago by German Guillermo Wills. The cafe evokes a shining Swiss city surrounded by mountains, like Bogotá. The former banker in a state of delicate health continued his marvelous trip down memory lane: “Actors from the Todelar and Caracol radio soap operas used to rehearse here, alongside theater people from Bernardo Romero Lozano, the founders of the Teatro Popular de Bogotá, and painters who exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art. The Nadaísta poets would sit at that table with their leader, the boy genius iconoclast Gonzalo Arango.”

 

“Students from the Gimansio Moderno used to drink coffee and sip their first shots of aguardiente over there. Their ranks included the most famous among them and those who later published the classic El Aguilucho newspaper. That corner over there was for the bullfighting people; bullfighters would sit and write letters to their wives and mistresses. In other words, my young friends, life danced its subtle dance around the tables of these venerable cafés.”

Alfonso Cadavid strolled freely through this devilishly eclectic array of topics. He never attended university, and one might suspect he never even finished high school, but the hours spent chatting, debating, arguing, and reading in these downtown cafés transformed him into a self-taught prodigy, one of the hundreds schooled in twentieth-century Bogotá.

A Historic Novel 

Bogotá, now modern and tempestuous, contradictory and cruel, opened its first cafés as the nineteenth century was dying. Botella de Oro, Cantina Guaraní, Cantina La Poesía, La Cuna de Venus, La Gata Golosa, La Gran Vía, Victoria, and El Automático were just a few of the melodious and suggestive names. These teeming centers of social and cultural activity mirrored what was happening in the country and the world at the time.

“Those lucky enough to travel abroad returned laden with news, like emissaries from the world beyond the mountains and the ocean. And the great conversationalists sat at these tables to discuss, for the first time, art deco and surrealism, Europe’s appalling fascist movements, Salvador Dalí and Greta Garbo, Federico Fellini, and Mahatma Gandhi or Winston Churchill. Art, poetry, beautiful women, the cinema, politics, and even the scientific struggles against new dark and ferocious diseases occupied the hours, filling them with light,” recalled Santiago Merino, another strolling classic, while drinking a tinto cerrero at Café Pasaje.

“Look, right here, in this exact spot, our passion for sports was born one afternoon, many decades ago, when the Independiente Santa Fe soccer team was founded over at that table. The team inspired real passion and idolatry on Sundays at the stadium, and it now has a legion of fans,” Merino added.

“Those who fell under the influence of coffee became thoughtful, critical, and reflective, metaphysical you might say,” mused the great Colombian poet Antonio Correa, while attacking a cup of the magical hot chocolate served at a table in El Florida. The poet spent his late nights in downtown Bogotá alongside the Bohemian icons of the creative insurrection, until his voluntary and happy exile in Quito.

“According to diligent researchers and the hopelessly nostalgic, Bogotá’s downtown cafés, like so many others, have fallen victim to the storm of history,” affirmed the poet Correa. “These centers of culture, as I like to call them, were caught in the bitter nets of worldly exploits, brutal changes, and caustic occurrences. The most nostalgic and radical believe that the first death of these epicenters of ingenuity occurred on April 9, 1948, followed by a series of blows, many terrible nights, and countless criminal businesses making a killing in the city. Fear took root in the streets and of course, the peaceful conversationalists began to stay home.”

Reinventing the City

 

Nobody knows what became of Alfonso Ceballos Cadavid. After methodically visiting the classic cafés in Bogotá that have survived the turmoil of the years, he disappeared without a trace. One of the waiters who served him tried to locate the house in Teusaquillo where he claimed he lived but failed to find the slightest trace of the masterful Bohemian. It was as if the asphalt jungle had swallowed him up.

“It seems more sensible and real to assume that what we saw was a ghost, an incarnation, the sum of many men who loved, reflected, enjoyed, and suffered at the tables of the cafés in downtown Bogotá. He was most certainly retracing his steps and celebrating the reinvention of this city,” surmised the poet Correa before concluding: “Now I’d like to offer you a cup of the wonderful hot chocolate they serve here at El Florida. It’s a secret formula with the same exact aroma as memories and time.”

Acknowledgements: Café Pasaje, Florida, Salón La Fontana, Saint Moritz, Pandebono, Café Eldorado, and Billares Aretino.