Oldest Mexican cantina, closes down

A classic drinking dive patronised by dozens of past presidents and Cuban leader Fidel Castro has closed its doors after more than 150 years.

by: Chris Aspin | 21 Jan 2008

Nestled in a side street between the National Palace and Mexico City's cathedral, the door of El Nivel (The Level) is now padlocked.

El Nivel's owner, Ruben Aguirre, is looking for new premises after losing a long legal battle against the owners of the building, the National Autonomous University of Mexico.

"We are seeing where we can move to," Aguirre, who inherited the cantina from his father, told Mexican radio after losing the 17-year lawsuit.

A paper sign above the cantina's metal shutters says: "Closed for renovation until further notice."

El Nivel, a dim watering hole, opened in 1855 after being handed the first cantina license a few years after the US-Mexican war. It was named The Level because authorities used to measure the height of the city's flood waters in the building.

Aguirre said that several years ago the original No. 1 license was kept in a safe at the central bank because it is a valuable historical document.

A framed copy of the license hung on one wall of the cantina when it was open, alongside eclectic art, old maps, drawings and faded photos of the cathedral, Mexico City's main Zocalo square and the bar itself.

El Nivel was the haunt of writers, artists, activists, journalists and other bohemian Mexicans. It also became a favourite for tourists, too. One special house drink was a mixture of vodka, anis and orange flavoured liquor.

Aguirre said around 30 presidents from Sebastian Lerdo de Tejada in the 19th century to Ernesto Zedillo (1994-2000) had all called in for a drink while in office. Mexican presidents used to work out of the nearby National Palace.

When Cuba's Castro lived in Mexico in the 1950s he too frequented the bar with guerrilla icon Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, according to Aguirre. Castro set out on his Cuban revolution from Mexico.

Aguirre said the legal case to stop the university taking over the premises became impossible to sustain because all the documents were in the name of his dead father, Jesus Aguirre, who bought the cantina more than 40 years ago.

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