There is a corner of Valencia that is forever Hemingway; in fact there is more than one, but the only place where you can see and feel the presence of the great man is at the seaside restaurant La Pepica at the Arenas beach.
It was here that Hemingway would come with his bullfighting friends after the bullfights of the July Fair, and here that he felt like one of the family.
Today many tourists come to La Pepica looking for traces of Hemingway, and a good meal. Many ask to be seated at Hemingway’s table, but Hemingway didn’t have a table; all the tables were his, as he wandered from one to another chatting and playing the clown.
Pepe even remembers an occasion when the Nobel Prize winner swapped clothes with his father and amused the diners by taking their orders.
He would often be found in the kitchen mixing his own Sangria, or, as a photo in the restaurant shows, serving paella to his entourage for as long as he could keep still at one table.
Pepe, grandson of the restaurant’s founders, runs Pepica now, and has worked there all his life. His first memory of Hemingway was of a man, quite different from the rest, who filled a room with his personality.
Pepe’s first job at the restaurant, when he was only ten, was to sit at the table reserved for Hemingway’s party and to make sure that nobody occupied it until ‘Papa’ arrived.
Today, he and his cousin Enrique (who is one of the waiters in the photo of Hemingway and the paella) are the only ones left who knew Hemingway, and La Pepica has been in some ways too successful, as the restaurant has paid for Pepe’s children’s education, and allowed them to aspire to better things. In fact Pepe’s son is currently working in London as a comic designer.
La Pepica’s history dates back to 1898 when Pepe’s grandparents, Francisco Balaguer Aranda from Sagunto and his wife Josefa Marqués Sanchis, started selling snacks to the port workers of Valencia.
The origins of the present day Pepica however date back to King Alfonso XIII, who granted Francisco Balaguer, and forty-four others, permission to set up wooden eating houses on the beach drawing lots each year at the Town Hall for the privilege.
It is perhaps appropriate then that among the many photographs on display in the restaurant is one recording the visit of Alfonso’s descendant King Juan Carlos, and Queen Sofia.
The wooden huts eventually gave way to the existing constructions, a golden mile (well, about a hundred and fifty yards really) of some of the finest seafood to be found on the Mediterranean coast, crammed into a row of restaurants.
La Pepica offers a sunny terrace or, for the mild winters, a spacious dining room splashed with bright Mediterranean light.
In the old days the family would turn up at the fish market at 4 in the morning to get the best shellfish and seafood, although today the best is brought to them by a distributor who buys straight from the fishermen.
Among Hemingway’ favourites were the octopus, which he said, and wrote, tasted like lobster, and the local mussels called clochinas.
Hemingway’s work has many references to Valencia, especially in For Whom the Bell Tolls, and he started writing his first novel here on one of his many visits.
In his treatise on bullfighting, The Dangerous Summer he wrote three glowing pages on the evenings suppering at La Pepica, listening to the waves beating against the shore, while enjoying one of several visits with Cayetano Ordoñez the bullfighter, to whom he was especially close.
“Dinner at Pepica’s was wonderful. It was a big clean open-air place and everything was cooked in plain sight.”
Hemingway loved to learn new things and would often disappear into the kitchen, where, for example, he learnt how to make the stock for the Pepica Paella, using crayfish.
The Pepica paella involves another artist who frequented La Pepica, Valencia’s most international painter Joaquin Sorrolla.
In later years Sorrolla would dine at the restaurant and struggle to shell the prawns with his old hands. Attentive as ever, when they knew he was coming, the staff would serve his paella with the prawns ready shelled, which became the trademark of the house paella.
The walls at the far end of the restaurant are cluttered with photos of the many distinguished people who have eaten at La Pepica; and there are photos of politicians too.
Among the stars are Ava Gardner, Antonio Banderas, Melanie Griffith, Richard Chamberlain, Lauren Bacal, Jacqeline Bisset, Michael York and, Hemingway’s favourite partner in misbehaviour, Orson Welles, who along with Hemingway, was thrown out of the Hotel Metropol once for an incident with a pistol.
La Pepica is in Paseo Neptuno 6, near Las Arenas 5 star hotel.