Bernardo Vaquer started working at the bar in 1972 and has spent half a century handing out coffees and smiles.
It is safe to say that the Club de Mar has been his life. Bernardo Vaquer has spent almost his entire life at Bar La Marina, half a century to be exact. He is one of those people who make the club much more than just a club and, as he likes to say, you can tell he ‘feels the colours’. He started working as an apprentice waiter in 1972, when both the club and the bar began to operate, and has now said goodbye to his active working life after taking early retirement last year. Bernardo has seen each and every moment of the Club de Mar’s history pass before his eyes and he himself has become part of that history.
We chatted with him at a table on the terrace of his bar. He has lost none of that bonhomie and capacity for communication that is well known and recognised by all.
-When did you start working at the Club de Mar?
-It was in 1972. I was 14 years old but I was already working in a restaurant, the Celler Catalán. A cousin of mine told me there was work here and I came here. I had been paid 4,000 pesetas for twelve hours of work without being insured, and when I came here, I began by being paid 6,500 pesetas for eight hours and insured. The difference was big. I thought I was going to join the Hotel Fénix as a bellboy, because I thought my cousin worked there. At first we spent three months cleaning and tidying up the premises to organise everything and that’s when we finally opened the bar.
-What was the club like when you knew it?
-When I arrived at the club there were four boats: the Coronado, the Mono Blanco and little else. Then there was a ship’s effects shop, a hairdresser’s, a supermarket, a women’s clothing boutique and Camper&Nicholsons, which has been around forever and whose director was the brother of the famous Tita Cervera. There was also a lot of catering: two restaurants and a discotheque. They wanted to open a casino downstairs. The equipment, roulette and Black Jack tables were brought by a yacht from France, the Artemis, which later sank. The president was Javier de la Rosa, father of the current president, and the port captain was Eugenio Jáudenes. A year later, Mr. Arrom, also the father of the current director, arrived and took charge of the club.
-Has the bar always been in the same place?
-The bar has always been in the same place, but the first year there were four of us working, plus one person who worked as a auxiliar waiter. Then, in 1973 we were hired by a company that took over the business. They brought in Rafael Lladó as the bar manager. He was the one who turned the establishment around and managed to turn it into a reference point. More than a bar, it was the home of all seafarers. There were as many as 16 people working here. Don Rafael was there until 1999 when he had to leave due to a health problem and then I took over the bar.
-But the bar became something that went beyond what is expected of such an establishment.
-All those years we managed to create a unique atmosphere in the bar. For the customers it was their home. They often left without paying. But it didn’t matter, everyone had their name or nickname, we kept the tickets and when they came back they paid. I remember one of them was a very hairy man. So we knew him as Werewolf and we put ‘HL’ (Hombre Lobo) on the bill. When he asked us what HL meant we told him Long Man (Hombre Largo). We gave everyone a nickname.
-Was language a problem?
-At that time there was only one person here who spoke English, Rafael Lladó, but we understood each other. More than customers, they were like friends. It was something very special. As we already knew the tastes of each customer, they didn’t even have to ask for anything. We served them directly as soon as we saw them sitting down. Each one with his or her own characteristics. One German lady, from the Gipsy boat, liked her coffee with foam, which is very common nowadays, but not before. As soon as we saw her, we would prepare her coffee with foam before she asked for it.
-What has been the key to achieving this good atmosphere?
-I’ve always said: I don’t think you’ll find a better staff in the world than the one the bar has had. We were all on the same page. In the summer we had to open the bar at nine in the morning, although the last drink was served at two in the morning, but then we had to clean up, refill cameras and we had to have dinner. It would take for us until four or five in the morning. During the year, we would close at midnight, but always some customer would stay there much longer, and no one would tell them to leave. They told their stories and we were there to listen to them.
-Who was the public in the bar back then?
-Most of them were regular customers, ship captains, many families. Some famous people also passed through here, but most of them went to the club. This was the sailors’ bar and whatever they asked for, we took care of them like gold.
-But a lot of celebrities must have passed through here, right?
-Of course. I know that, for example, Julio Iglesias, among many others, was here on a boat, but nobody knew about it. It was totally private. It wasn’t like in other places, where the media quickly find out about it and people go to see them or they appear on television. If you want privacy, this is the ideal place.
-Things were very different then.
-Yes, we had a book in which we wrote down what each client owed. Even me, when I left the bar, I left a book with old debts from old customers, in case one of them came back to pay something. Things worked differently. There was trust and if someone had a problem, we left it at that because if not, we were the ones who lost out.
-Haven’t you ever been tempted to try working somewhere else?
-Very often people have come looking for us to work in other places, sometimes offering me, in my case, more than double the pay in a place on the Paseo Marítimo, but I’ve always preferred to stay here. They have never let me down in fifty years.
-At the see you soon party of the bar due to the works in the main building, someone said that there was a drink missing that you prepared for the hangover back then?
-Yes, we used to make Bloody Marys and also something we called Bullshot, which was like a Bloody Mary, but instead of tomato juice we added an English beef broth, the famous Campbell’s soup, which is no longer made. It worked very well.
-After all these years, there must have been a few parties here…
-Yes. When the club opened, Lola Flores came. It was a big party with lots of food and drink. That day I went to work at seven in the morning and left the next day at eight. Every New Year’s Eve we closed the bar at 10 p.m., and we came back at 2 a.m. and there were already a lot of people waiting for us to open. There was always a big party on the last night of the year. Also every year, with the end of the season, we had a herring party on 1 September. One customer, Simon, would order the smoked herring. We would bring the cava, orange juice, bread and butter and at half past eight or nine in the morning, that was the breakfast to ‘celebrate’ the tourists leaving.
-How has everything changed over the years?
-Yes, it has changed. Before it was more familiar. It was a different way of seeing things. Now I like the way they run the bar. I would have loved it if a couple of decades ago there were the things there are today.
-Have things changed in the bar itself?
-Well, I think it’s the one thing that has changed the least. The bar is still the same as when we opened. It’s true that there was no terrace before. The first time we had a terrace was for the wedding between María Salas and Prince Tchkotoua. The bar was what we called the ‘golden mile’. That’s where all the people congregated and some even had a fixed place at the bar.
-There were real mythical characters that have marked the history of the bar, weren’t there?
Of course there were. Joanna Tringham, who was the life and soul of all the parties, a beautiful woman, ‘Captain Nemo’, who even has a plaque in the bar and who had a fixed place. He was an older man, with a beard and a sailor’s cap, who appeared as an actor in the film Moby Dick starring Gregory Peck. Every day we kept two ensaimadas and a shandy for him at lunchtime. Another customer had a fixed place at the corner of the bar. He even brought a stool to make it clear that that was his place. In the end it caused me conflict with other customers and I had to sneakily get rid of the stool to avoid trouble and told him it had been stolen in the night. There was another character, John Dalmedo, a very funny Gibraltarian who always came with surreal stories and was always joking.
-There must have been good times and bad times, but it seems that the Club de Mar has been your life, a complete fulfilment on a personal and professional level.
– I’ve spent practically my whole life here. It’s not a job. It has been much more. Here I have been an apprentice, assistant, sub waiter, waiter, sector manager and bar manager. For me it has been my home for half a century.