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Public Works: La Venencia’s Charming Grit

When it comes to tourist initiatives, does profit trump preservation?

Public Works looks at public space, urban design, and city-building innovations from around the world, and considers what Toronto might learn from them.

La Venencia does not allow photography inside. Or whispering. Photo by Roxanne Hathway-Baxter.

It’s not strictly fair to call La Venencia a Hemingway place.

The sherry bar on Madrid’s alley-like Calle de Echegaray was a comunistas place during the civil war, and Hemingway merely, allegedly, came there to be with them.

Thanks to its inclusion in articles like New York Times’ “Hemingway’s Madrid,” though, La Venencia has landed itself on the tourists’ to-do route. And no one there seems particularly thrilled about that.

Unlike just about any other bar with ghosts of Hemingway and old Spain, La Venencia resists English menus, high prices, and Jack Daniels as the drink of choice.

An order of sherry, a light dry Fino say, or a rich dark Amontillado, prompts the bartender sporting a Che Guevara t-shirt to uncork a labelless brown bottle and fill to the brim a sizeable stemmed glass. When the bootlegger-style bottles are empty, they get refilled at giant barrels mounted behind bar.

Under the barrel racks lie two scruffy dogs who quietly watch after plates of free tapas stacked with hunks of spiced chorizo, wide wedges of manchego cheese, and firm, chubby green olives.

There’s an ancient rotary phone screwed into the wood on the lower half of the wall and the plaster that starts at chest height and runs up and along the ceiling is stained a rich, streaky golden tobacco brown.

Despite being just a 15 minute walk from the big art museums, and five minutes from any number of junk stores selling knock-off Real Madrid shirts and flamenco dancer postcards, there is nothing about La Venecia that panders to tourists.

And that puts it rather out of step with the city’s recent “hooray for tourism” jag.

There’s an app being developed by Madrid’s local government, the national tourism board and the United Nations World Tourism Organization to connect affluent short-term tourists to sites they might otherwise miss. Called Madrid Precious Time the tool will, in the words of the press release, provide “instant, privileged and personalized information, depending on his or her location.”

You can watch the slick, if not particularly informative, promo video for more.

It’s not a bad idea—making sure that people get off the beaten track, especially if those people happen to be big spenders. But Spain has a conflicted relationship with tourists.

A growing number of Barcelonans are getting tired of their visitors. British media in particular has picked up on resentment in Barcelona over the invasion of tourists, not all of whom are polite guests.

So while Madrid has had to deal with sometimes disappointing tourism numbers in the last few years, growing number of foreign visitors may be a greater cause for concern in some corners.

“Coming from Florida, we’re used to [Hemingway’s house in] Key West, and of course it’s got the t-shirts with Hemingway’s face on them, and all the souvenirs,” says Scott, a young linen-suited engineer from Jacksonville, leaning against La Venencia’s bar. “We expected that here, but it really doesn’t have it.”

Indeed, there are no pictures of Papa, no direct references to the bar’s Civil War history in the entire place. Nor is it a destination welcoming of excited tourists looking for keepsakes or snapshots.

Scott and his wife couple got a harsh tsk from a female bartender for trying to take pictures.

Photography is one of three nefarious activities banned by the owners of La Venencia, a relic of the paranoia that comes from living under the threat of Fascist informants. Whispering is strictly off-limits for similar reasons. The third big rule, against spitting, is odd though, given the Madrillaino custom of hucking olive pits, napkins and any other refuse on barroom floors.

Another major-league faux pas is ordering any drink other than sherry, a violation committed even by those visitors who claim to have read up on the place.

On anecdotal evidence, tourists are scolded for ordering something other than sherry at a rate of two or three parties per night.

“Great service, hey?” sassed an American chaperoning his teenage daughter and her friend. The middle-aged copywriter, a self-described seasoned traveller who “learns about leadership” by travelling the world and experiencing new cultures, had slapped his palm hard on the bar and called for sangria. He was summarily ignored.

And maybe that’s not the way to run a successful business. After all, uncouth tourists have fistfuls of cash, even if they do want to spend it on Budweiser.

It’s a tricky balance.

There’s still a rich sheen of Old Spain about Madrid, from the royal palace to the botanical gardens, to the city squares.

But, with a TGI Fridays on the main drag, and husky-voiced men in Mickey Mouse costumes milling around the big city squares, it’s the dark bars in small back streets that remain most authentic. That seems worth preserving, even if it means being a little strict with the patrons.

The key for the booming holiday destination is to strike a balance a balance between heritage and profitability—to keep the wonderfully crusty and forbidding ways of the old bars, but keep those bars in business too. Avoid the tourist-driven gentrification, that favours cheese-laden glitz over real historical, locally loved sites.

Let that be a warning to all tourist towns, from Madrid to Paris, Toronto to Berlin.

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