In Havana, not far from the small Alvear Square at the corner of Obispo and Montserrate streets, where once stood the old wall of Puerta de Montserrate, there is a very traditional and famous bar called El Floridita. Anybody visiting the capital of Cuba today will hear about this singular establishment famous for its daiquiris and for having been patronised often by Ernest Hemingway, a notorious drinker.
Nowadays, El Floridita is just as active as it always was and prepares cocktails for serious drinkers and curious visitors who, given a chance, might also find out a thing or two about the history of the place.
Early in the last Century the site was occupied by a traditional tavern named La Piña de Plata (The Silver Pineapple) but as time went by and due to Anglo-Saxon influences, it was modernised and transformed into a cocktail bar. Narcís Sala Parera, a prominent member of the “Centre Català de l’Havana” called it La Florida but soon after it became La Floridita because Cuban folk tend to give diminutive endings to many names.
It is not surprising that the person who named the bar had Catalan origins. Even after the beautiful and wealthy Spanish colony had gained its independence, many Catalan people retained prominent roles both in the capital city and in the provinces.
And as well as being the owner of the bar, Sala Parera was the cousin of one Miguel Boadas.
Miguel Boadas was familiar with La Piña de Plata. He was born in Havana in 1895 on Empedrado Street, not far from another bar La Bodeguita del Medio which would eventually become as equally renowned. His parents were Catalan, from Lloret de Mar, and like many other people from Catalonia they had gone to Cuba looking for El Dorado. They opened a café but they were unable to make the fortune they had intended to and so Miguel Boadas and his mother returned home to Lloret de Mar.
Up until the age of 13 Miguel -now Miquel in the Catalan tongue – lived in what was then a quiet fisherman’s village on what was already known as the Costa Brava by some. Initially he spoke Spanish with that soft accent so characteristic of Cuba but as time went by, he also learnt the melodious tonality of the Catalan language spoken in that coastal region.
But the adolescent left his home and mother behind in order to re-join his father across the Atlantic. He was a warrior in spirit, an alert young lad with a wiry constitution with very little left of those tropical influences he had received in his early years. He looked, in fact, like a child brought up amidst fishermen’s boats of which Joaquim Ruyra, the local poet, had written much about. Personally, I imagine him standing firmly on the deck of the ship that took him back to his birthplace, like the character Cadernera of “El rem de trenta-quatre”, or of “Pinya de rosa”, both written by that finest of all Catalan writers. According to the poet, he would have been “a poor ten year old lad, gaunt and tallish, with clothes not quite his size… but brought up amidst sea wolves, cursing and bad manners” and really proficient at handling the porró, that Catalan drinking vessel with two spouts: “he climbed on the chicken coop, turned his eyes upwards, threw his head back and very gently, let the wine dribble onto his forehead, run down on his cheeks and end up in his mouth while he kept his teeth clenched and his lips barely open.”
Be that as it may -and everybody knows that literary descriptions can be treacherous at times- , soon after he arrived in Havana, Miquel started working at La Floridita, his cousins’ bar. (By then his name had gone back to being Miguel, in Spanish.) And it was there, quite naturally, he discovered the drinks, the cocktails, that would become his life-long passion. And it was then that Miguel, once again, regained that spirit which characterizes the Cuban constitution, that salsa which slowly, erased any traces of his Cadernera adolescence spent in Lloret. His gaze mellowed and became almost melancholy.
Narcis Sala Parera had not just given a name to El Florida. He went there often and took along the drinking artistic elite as well as any visiting Spaniard who happened to land up in Havana and that’s how the bar’s reputation grew and where Miguel Boadas was destined to embark upon his life’s quest. El Floridita was the soul of Havana and Miguel soon became the soul of El Floridita. In the 1920s, when Hemingway announced that Paris was “A moveable feast”, Havana too was counted amongst the cities where partying never ceased, where jazz music was played at all times and cocktail drinks were mandatory. Years later, the relentless writer would add: “My mojito at La Bodeguita and my daiquiri in El Floridita.”
Clearly, destiny had established a path for Miguel Boadas but there was yet another challenge he had to overcome. Just when he thought that he’d settled on the other side of the Atlantic working for his cousins, a series of circumstances, mostly financial, forced our barman to return to his parents’ homeland despite the fact that by then, in 1922, he had already built up a solid reputation. Back in Barcelona, he first landed a small job in the splendid Maison Dorée, in Catalonia Square and later, a better one in Nuria, at the top of the Ramblas. His fully-fledged job as a barman would finally arrive when he joined the Canaletas team. Many people -including my father- still remember him there, rattling the cocktail shaker with gusto. That bar was virtually built specially for him but unfortunately today, it has given way to an empire of multinational sandwiches.
In 1927 he met a young woman from Lloret and a passionate love affair followed. In 1933 they found a place, not far from the other bars where he had worked, which was perfect for them despite its tiny size. The address was 1 Tallers Street, on a corner of the Ramblas. He had it decorated in the style of La Florida, following the trend of many other Catalan bars which had a certain Cuban flair and flavour. He was now his own master and as Sala Parera was not at hand to give it a name, he called it Boadas. All of this was happening while the Republican government ruled and Barcelona hadn’t until then been used to American-style bars with, among other things, high stools. The rather sensible Catalan folk, not prone to squandering their money, believed that the Canaletas, being a more traditional coffee bar would last but not so Boadas.
Not only did the bar survive, and by then their daughter Maria Dolores had been born, but also their clientele had increased and popular characters such as Sagarra the poet, Jacinto Benavente the prolific playwright and author of a couple of good comedies, and Opisso, the extraordinary cartoonist, were regular customers. The place filled up with “modern” punters whom Carles Soldevila described so fittingly in his novels and also with many other personalities of the social, political and cultural worlds of republican Barcelona. Boadas survived the Spanish Civil War of which George Orwell wrote about in Homage to Catalonia, emerging at the other end into the dark and restrictive postwar days. And it was then that Boadas was able to enlarge his business space by a few square metres and it thus became the triangular space that it is today and which also provided a bit more room for comfort, while their daughter was growing and playing in a corner.
The place hasn’t changed since but it has grown to become a very lively and prestigious venue which the famous and their friends have turned into a “must visit” destination.
Miquel Boadas’ gaze had changed from the old days when he grew up among the fishermen and then later in Cuba. It was now somewhat melancholy but at the same time vivacious, as can be seen in the portrait by Germán Monzón which presides over the bar, where he is dressed in his white French jacket. In that painting one can appreciate the bright qualities of someone who has succesfully turned his passion into a lifelong devotion. Boadas was a good man who was influenced by Havana, Lloret, Barcelona and his family. He combined faith, for he was a religious person, with hope because he believed that his business would not die after his death, and charity for he was a generous man – an inconspicuous humanitarian type of person.
It is said that he looked after students in a special way and that he charged them less, or even gave them drinks for free, because Boadas had a penchant for culture and intellectuals. Also, when he deemed it fit, he skimped on the amount of alcohol he poured into the glass of someone who had already had a bit too much to drink. He trusted his friends as much as they trusted him and if by any chance he couldn’t tend the bar, they relieved him there with such total enthusiasm that the till filled up even faster. This, however, would not happen often because Boadas lived a mere fifty meters away from the bar, in Tallers Street, very close to his beloved Canaletas fountain on the Ramblas. On very hot summer days, he went to stay in the nearby village of La Floresta from where he commuted because he couldn’t stay too long away from his clients. He needed to talk with them and be present when Pruna or Miró, the painters, or the broadcasters from nearby Radio España, or singers such as Marcos Redondo, La Capsir or Machín arrived. Other regular patrons were theatre actors such as Esteban Polls and Paco Melgares or the writers Ignacio Agustí and Josep M de Sagarra, to name but a few. At one stage or another they had all been there and some still do.
The most moving proof of his passion, however, was to be witnessed in the days just before his demise when he suffered greatly. Up until a week before his death he asked to be taken to the bar and as he sat on a couch at the far end, he savoured those last minutes of joy that his achievement had provided. He was delighted with the realisation that so many happy relationships had been formed thanks to the drinks he had prepared for his friends over the years even though soon he would no longer be among them. But he was also certain that his good work would continue on and although he had to spend his last days in bed, depite his throat cancer, he still accepted a cigarrette from a friend. On his very last day, wide awake, with his bright cheerful eyes, he had a vision: he saw his room filled up with all his friends, despite the fact that no one had been allowed in. Addressing María Dolores, his daughter, he announced, “We must make a cocktail for all these people”, and obligingly, she took the glass mixer and prepared a drink just as Mozart’s friend had played for him until his very last minute of life.
Boadas took the glass mixer with his own hands and shook it, as he had done so many thousands of times. Then, he handed it back to his daughter María Dolores and said: “Here you are, my work is now in your hands”.
María Dolores told me that the bar was like “an obsessive venom” and that once she had told an actor that what he did on stage she did behind the cocktail counter. Her destiny had come neither by chance nor surprise because she had grown up there. Her mother had brought her up there, she had learnt to walk there. She played and did her school work in the evenings hearing the murmur of the clientele downstairs. She recalls that during the Spanish Civil War her father, who held Cuban nationality, had hung a Cuban flag on the wall and also, that during that period, he served breakfasts as if it were just an ordinary coffee bar. María Dolores left school early to help her parents through those difficult post-war times and from then on, the bar had become her world, just as had happened to her father.
Xavier Olivé, one of the best connoisseurs of fine bars in this rather coarse Barcelona of today told me that, behind the bar, María Dolores was “like a show”. Not a spectacular number but a highly professional person. One must observe her at work to understand this. As if in a trance, she concentrates deeply, ignoring what is going on around her until when she’s ready to pour the cocktails into the stemmed glasses, she comes to. It’s as if while she’s rattling the shaker, she’s followed the conversations around her but has left them in suspense and only when she’s ready and recovers her smile, she returns to being the naturally communicative and affable person that she has learnt to be down the years. She draws her experience from all the people she has been looking after and who are such an incredibly mixed bag.
According to her, “The best teachers are always the clients who, after the second sip of their drink, show approval or disapproval on their faces”. Nevertheless, one can tell that María Dolores knows what her clients need the minute they walk through the door. She is both an extremely attentive and practical person. To observe her at work, to know her, makes you feel as if you are also in the presence of her father, not only because they look similar but because she’s certainly learnt to follow in his footsteps.
The best time of every single day for an aperitif given that María Dolores has created an atmosphere that suits her, is when her best clients arrive and give her a chance to prepare some special drinks. Not that she does anything too radical but, rather, she has more time to concentrate on the formulae. Hers is a subtle act and it takes a while to become aware of it. One could say it’s not unlike the charming Opisso reproductions of the Canaletas behind the bar, which replaced the originals stolen long ago, and that slowly emerge from the darkness after you’ve been sitting there for a while.
One day in 1956, a young man who was then working for a prestigious publishing house, decided to have a drink at Boadas after watching a horror film at the nearby Alcázar cinema. He was taken aback by the magic of that triangular space which by then was already being taken care of by Miguel the father and his daughter María Dolores. The young man would soon join the Boadas team because he fell in love with the young woman and would often give them a hand in the evenings. Miguel Boadas called him “the man with the pipe” given that José Luis Maruenda always had one either in his hand or in his mouth. That rather academic man was bewitched by Boada’s daughter and also by the atmosphere of the place which is precisely what I shared with him: a passion with, if you like, a tinge of naughtiness. I am talking about the lesser known Barcelona, where there are no panoramic views to be had but which deserves equal attention. After their marriage José Luis was able to fill their house with a substantial collection of books about his city and, above all, with a specialised section devoted to cocktail drinks. In 1962, at the Boadas, he founded the “Club del Barman Asociación de Barmen de España” and Miguel Boadas, always a practical man, became its first president. José Luis, the intellectual, became his natural successor.
I am no expert in cocktails and I merely describe what I see; write about what I am able to personally grasp and value (or dislike) of Barcelona. This is where I feel most confident and satisfied. And so, my chronicle compells me to describe the celebrations that take place every 15th of September, when the magic triangle is filled with flowers sent by friends, in order to commemorate María Dolores’ birthday, and the event transcends beyond the bar because the Boadas is a true institution of the city. And I like to add that it is so because, despite its tiny size, its high level of professionality is beyond question and the charm of María Dolores, Miguel and José Luis have turned the three-cornered venue into true representations of Havana, Lloret and Barcelona, their past, present and future.