Dublin, London, Edinburgh and Paris draw bookworms from all over the world. They are Western Europe's time-honoured cities of literature; centres of learning and publishing; rainy yet radiant hubs of enlightened thought. The latter in particular still trades on its historic, romantic reputation as a playground and graveyard for absinthe-addled Belle Epoch poets and drunken, doomed American novelists reeling from World War I.
Madrid is rarely mentioned in the same company, or visited for the same reasons. Perhaps the Spanish capital is considered too sunny for such bookishness, but hard light makes for long shadows, and the city is filled with dark, quiet corners where the written word has flourished over the centuries. It was the heart of Spain's own Golden Age, and home to great authors of that period, including Miguel de Cervantes and Lope de Vega.
Their houses, now monuments and museums, stand streets apart in the district now known as Barrio De Las Letras, or "the neighbourhood of letters". The Madrid of the present is no less devoted to writing and reading. Subway passengers borrow from Bibliometro library kiosks installed at various underground stations. Old and new bookshops are tucked deep into crooked lanes and passages around the Royal Palace.
The pedestrian walkway of Cuesta de Moyano is lined with well-stocked wooden stalls and shelves like the bouquinistes along quays of the Seine. The city itself sometimes feels like work of fiction – elaborate, mysterious, filled with cryptic symbols and sub-plots. Not always easy to read, but great for getting lost in. Here's a brief guide for literary pilgrims:
THE HEMINGWAY TRAIL
Lover, fighter, drinker, writer – Ernest Hemingway's legacy is more closely linked to Paris, but "Papa" loved Madrid too, and his old haunts continue to do well by association. These include his favourite beer hall, Cervecería Alemana (cerveceriaalemana.com), the cave-like literary tavern, Las Cuevas De Sesamo cuevassesamo.es.
While reporting on the Spanish Civil War, Hemingway also hung out with anti-Franco Republicans at the vintage sherry bar, La Venencia (Calle Echegaray, 7), where patrons still hold their glasses by the stem to show that they are not fascist spies. Readers of The Sun Also Rises can dine on cochinillo, or suckling pig, at El Botin botin.es/en, as the characters do in the last scene of that novel. First opened in 1725, it's officially the oldest restaurant in the world. Just up the street, a much younger establishment goes its own way, proudly advertising outside: "Hemingway never ate here."
Almost 100 years ago, speakers and writers of English formed an anglophone society in Paris around the storied bookshop Shakespeare & Company. The Madrid equivalent is Desperate Literature desperateliterature.com, run by several former "tumbleweeds" who learned their trade at that French institution.
Terry Craven, the most hands-on of those owners, says he's focused on "bridging the gap between buying, selling, shucking, diving, and literature itself, which has nothing to do with any of that". While amassing what he calls "a respectable stock", they've also been building a community by way of regular readings and movies, offering tea, wine, and even drams of whisky to late-night browsers of titles by Charles Bukowski or Cormac McCarthy.
It's a lively, friendly store, and nigh-on impossible to leave without a wobbling pile of books as tall as a Scooby Doo sandwich. But the city's most serious "bookshop for bibliophiles", Librería Bardón libreriabardon.com, is a few streets away. Now almost 70 years old, its interior is hushed, hallowed and stacked to the rafters with beautiful, leather-bound first editions, like the library in a fairytale castle.
Elsewhere across Madrid are dedicated sellers specialising in titles by women (Librería Mujeres, libreriamujeres.com); books about cinema (Ocho Y Medio, www.ochoymedio.es); travel and adventure writing (Librería Desnivel, libreriadesnivel.com). Pasajes pasajeslibros.com is a world-class international bookshop beloved by local novelists like Antonio Munoz Molina.
FOOD AND THINK
A few of Madrid's old tertulias – gorgeously ornate literary salons and coffee houses from the late 19th century – are still providing atmospheric backdrops for quiet reading and intense book-chat. Cafe Gijon (cafegijon.com) and El Espejo (restauranteelespejo.com) stand close together on Paseo de Recoletos, both resembling rich and detailed settings for aristocratic novels written back in 1888.
Over in Malasana, J&J (jandjbooksandcoffee.es) is a combined English-language bookshop and bar with a super-sociable events program – pub quizzes, language exchange sessions and regular happy hours. On weekends it draws a scholarly, multicultural crowd to hang out, drink cheap mimosas, and eat phenomenal homemade jalapeno bagels, fresh-baked by the owner's girlfriend.
Tipos Infames (tiposinfames.com) is a bookshop with an in-house wine bodega, and a highly convivial live music session on Sundays. The stock is Spanish only, but you get a free glass of quality vermouth with every purchase.
And La Central (lacentral.com) is a tastefully curated chain store with a decent bistro. You can pick distractedly at platters of Iberian ham and manchego cheese while reading something from the excellent selection of translated fiction. On my own last visit I made myself very happy with a copy of Antonio de Benedetti's lost masterpiece Zama in one hand, and a red tuna burger in the other.