Madrilenos flock to traditional terrazas

MADRID — Terrazas, or outdoor bars, in Spain fill squares and line sidewalks one after another in the summer. Some cater to the thirsty all day with umbrellas and a constant mist, while others fill up as daytime temperatures — often above 100 degrees Farenheit — cool into night. Traffic congestion and noise in the streets don't deter patrons, nor does the economic crisis that has left many Madrilenos with no place else to go this vacation season.

“Spaniards need this. Getting together with friends to have a drink and chat is as important as getting up in the morning to go to work. It’s a way of life, regardless of the crisis,” explained Maria Jose Espinosa, 42, sitting at an outdoor cafe in a Madrid square, with her friend Alicia Huerta.

Walking the Madrid streets on a summer night, one would never imagine there is an economic crisis — outdoor cafes are so packed that people stand over full tables, waiting for one to clear. Spain’s 18-percent unemployment rate, which is the highest in the European Union, is motivating Madrid residents to shorten their holiday trips or to simply stay put, but they aren’t about to give up their terrazas. “To give up our custom of having a beer with friends, there has to be a catastrophe,” Espinosa said. Her friend Alicia Huerta, 44, agrees. She said she is not going on holiday this year because of the crisis, but she enjoys the terrazas at least four nights a week. “There are so many people in Madrid this summer. Last year there was only one terraza in this square, and it was never full in August. This year there are two more, and it’s difficult to get a seat,” she said.

Madrid terraza-owners are counting precisely on people like Espinosa and Huerta to help them through a difficult year. Antonio Cosmen is a member of the board of directors at La Vina, a Madrid business association of bars and restaurants. He reported that sales in the sector have decreased an average of 9 percent so far this year.

August is the traditional vacation month in Spain, and not so long ago it was difficult to find an open restaurant and bar in Madrid. That is changing, as it is becomes more common for employees to spread out their vacation time over the course of the summer. This year, the economic crisis is prompting bar and restaurant owners to stay open for the entire month. “Many have not closed for holidays. It’s impossible,” Cosmen said.

Some even dare to launch a business in this habitually slow period of the year. Miguel Marino inaugurated his new terraza, Las Tres Manolas, in downtown Madrid in mid-August. Owner of three other restaurant businesses, he has witnessed Spaniards’ consumption patterns go from carefree to careful. People continue to go out, he said, but, “customers that used to order cured ham now have a beer and leave to eat at home.”

Sitting in another terraza with two friends, Guillermo Vizcaino, 35, recalled: “People used to have three rounds of beer with a tapa and then dinner, but not any more.”

At La Esquinita, Lydia Reinoso waited on a full terraza where her customers paid little attention to the menu posted outdoors. “People come for drinks, but they don’t order food. They go home for dinner,” she said. The 32,000 establishments in the region of Madrid, including bars, restaurants, cafeterias, terrazas and pubs, provide 140,000 jobs. The sector’s business volume in the region is 7 billion euros (about $9.9 billion) a year, according to La Vina.

“Bars and terrazas are part of our culture. It’s the way we socialize,” said Cosmen. Normally, businesses are open until 1:30 a.m. during the week and until 2:30 a.m. on weekends. People stay up late even if they have to get up early the next morning for work; so rooted is the practice in society, that children sitting with their parents or grandparents in a terraza at midnight is a common sight.

“We cannot lose the terraza tradition, no matter how bad the economy gets,” said David Moreno, 30. An audio and video technician enjoying a beer and fries with a friend, he has been unemployed for eight months. He said chatting with pals helps him hang on, in spite of his economic problems. He went to the beach seven summers in a row, but this year he is staying home. Now, he said he watches how much he spends, but still manages to go out with his friends once a week. “Things have to be really bad for someone not to spend 5 euros [$7] on a Friday night with friends,” he stated.

Outdoor bars are hoping it never gets that bad. They are counting on Madrilenos stuck at home to keep their businesses afloat.