Out of the Mainstream in Madrid
We’ve managed to reach the neighborhood of La Latina, right at the Rastro’s peak. El Rastro is a giant-sized market in downtown Madrid where you can buy everything from thong underwear and tapestries to rusty bolts and broken chairs.
But this place is more than just a market. It sprawls the neighborhood like a spider stretching its spindly legs out from its writhing core. Strolling down one of the spidery legs, we make our way into the market’s heart, all the while taking in the merchandise, the people and the bustling ambience. There is middle-eastern music pouring from a loud speaker up ahead. As we get closer, I see that it’s serving as a soundtrack for a frightened-looking goat perched delicately on top of a six-foot wooden ladder. The goat is on a leash that’s attached at the opposite end to the wrist of a man wearing turban. He yanks the goat violently from his roost when he sees a passer-by reach for a camera without tossing any money in his direction.
Further into the Rastro’s depths we see a man preaching through a megaphone and waving vibrant blue bibles in the air. A few others stand around him, waving flags and signs and singing hymns. Just a few meters away, a bearded underwear merchant yells, “Tres tangas, seis euros!” informing shoppers they can get three thongs for only six euros at his booth. He illustrates his point by motioning at lacy-red and leopard-print thongs stretched onto metal hoops that look like scandalous versions of dream catchers. Other merchants try to attract passing customers by shouting prices above the dull roar of the crowd. People pour in and out of nearby bars, munching on tapas and ordering cañas. Others sit and play music, while most just lounge around to listen and observe.
It’s only my second time here at El Rastro. The first time, I wondered up and down the market streets gripping my purse, making my way intimidated through the sea of people. That was only my second day in Madrid. The first day I went to the Museo del Prado, walked through the Plaza del Sol and had my token view of the Plaza Mayor and the Palacio Real along with a million other tourists. After spending three days in Spain’s largest city I felt nothing but overwhelmed.
This time was different. I’d already made several trips back to Madrid and figured out by this time that while the Museo del Prado and the Plaza Mayor get all the press in guidebooks, it’s Madrid’s quirky parks, markets and hangouts that leave the biggest impression. Sure, seeing Velasquez’s Las Meninas from 10 feet away is incredible, and I’d recommend it (the Prado Museum is free on Saturdays), but you can read about all of that somewhere else. What you’ll find here is a guide to some quirky Madrid hangouts that have absolutely nothing to do with the Museo del Prado or Plaza del Sol.
The above-mentioned Rastro is the absolute king of lazy Sunday events. There’s actually a younger crowd of people that does a sort of Rastro “crawl” every Sunday around the neighborhood of La Latina. This usually involves some litros (liters of beer) and slow strolling from plaza to plaza. The crawl is not organized, but typically follows a similar pattern every weekend and there are usually some of the same faces there almost every Sunday.
To get to El Rastro, take the metro to La Latina. Once you’re above ground you should be able to see the crowds of people or even some vendors so you’ll know where the action is. Calle de Embajadores is the market’s main drag where most of the crowds are. Right on the main drag before it descends for an infinite stretch, there is a set of wide steps usually covered with groups of people. These are the steps to the old ayuntamiento, or government building. This is a great place to stop and just observe for a while, maybe even crack open one of those litros. Make your way through the market at some point and make some purchases if you like; it’s a great place to get some bargains on unique items.
Things usually start to clear out here around 2:30 or 3:00 p.m., and that’s when you know it’s time to move west toward Plaza San Andrés and eventually make the rounds to Plaza Los Pájaros if things start to die down there. The idea is just to enjoy yourself, listen to some music, and maybe even play your own while getting to know the city and the people.
Parque Retiro is the perfect place to take a break from a hectic travel schedule, throw a Frisbee, read a book, plan a trip or take a siesta. To get there take the metro to the Retiro stop. The park is gigantic, and there’s almost always some sort of event taking place. Once, passing through the park I saw people waiting in line to get their hair cut by barbers who had set up a makeshift barbershop at a row of benches. There are street performers and vendors here too, puppeteers, artists and spiritual healers among them. But the great thing about Retiro is that even with all of this activity you can almost always find an isolated spot for yourself.
Casa de Campo is another park located just outside the city at metro stops Lago or Batán. Probably the best and most entertaining way to get there, however, is to take the teleférico (gondola) from Rosales. The gondola will take you right over the park and give you an awesome view of both the city and the park. Inside Casa de Campo, you can find refreshments at chiringitos (small bars), go paddle boating, kayaking, bicycling, or even go to an amusement park. The park is fairly family-oriented except that there are problems in a few areas with prostitution (mostly along the road that passes through the park). At the very least, it makes for an interesting way to pass the day.
While the Prado may be the most famous museum, there are several others scattered throughout Madrid that are worth a look. Centro de Arte Reina Sofï¿½a (Calle Santa Isabel, 52) stands at the top of the list, but El Museo Thyssen-Bornoemisza (Paseo del Prado, 8) is not far behind. The Thyssen displays an awesome collection of pieces dating back seven centuries including El Greco, Monet, Picasso and Dalí. The best way to view the collection is by starting on the third floor with the oldest pieces and spiraling your way down into the 20th century.
Las Cuevas de Sésamo is famous in Madrid for its sangria and cave-like ambience. The bar is located at Príncipe, 7, close to the Sevilla metro stop. Las Cuevas (the caves) is almost always crowded, but you won’t see anyone inside from the street. That’s because in order to reach the bar you have to go inside and head down some narrow steps. It can get a little stuffy inside, but the sangria is tasty and you will be endlessly entertained reading the quotes painted all over the bar’s walls.
If you happen to be in Madrid for Gay Pride Day in the spring, don’t miss the Gay Pride Parade. This only happens once a year, but beats out most events in the amount of people it attracts (about 50,000 people last year). The parade starts at the Puerta de Alcalï¿½ in the evening (around 7 p.m.) and continues to the Puerta del Sol. These areas are usually covered with bumper-to-bumper traffic, but the parade transforms it all into a traffic jam of faces, colors and music. It’s a continuous stream of performers, floats and people carrying positive messages to everyone in the crowd. The parade day is usually preceded by a few days of partying and activities in Chueca, an area in Madrid’s city center, and Parque Retiro.
La Champagnerï¿½a Gala (Maratï¿½n, 22) is an incredible paella restaurant unlike any other in Madrid. The black, rod-iron entrance from the street is a misleading precursor to the beautiful, sunny patio that you’ll find once you go inside the restaurant. But the greenhouse-like atmosphere is only the beginning. The paella is delicious, no matter which you decide on (they have vegetarian options) and the meal comes with bread, salad, dessert and dessert wine. The dessert wine is served in a porrón, a Spanish-style carafe designed to skip the formality of the wine glass and allow you to pour the wine into your mouth directly from the source. For the inexperienced porrón handler, this part could get a little messy. If you want to look at a restaurant menu check out www.paellas-gala.com. If you’re already sold, make sure to call and make a reservation before you go (91 429 25 62) in order to prevent a painfully long wait.
If you’re traveling in Spain, it doesn’t take too long to figure out that the tortilla española is a Spanish food staple. This Spanish-style omelet made with eggs and potatoes is served in almost every restaurant, but there’s one restaurant in Madrid that calls itself the king of this typical dish. El Rey de la Tortilla (literally, “the tortilla king”) cooks up tortilla in its many varieties and other tapa-like food for prices that will fit nicely into any budget. You can also order meter-long tubes of beer or sangria to share. There’s nothing special about the atmosphere, but the food is always good and it’s a great way to start out the night. El Rey is located on Blasco de Garay near the metro stop Arguelles.
Madrid is a giant-sized city with so many hidden treasures that it is impossible to see it all, but throwing a few loops into a schedule of museums and palaces can add a little zing to a tiresome traveling day. If you check out any of the above-mentioned places you’ll be doing more than just seeing the sights of Madrid. If nothing else, these options provide you with an alternative way to “get away from it all” even while in the depths of Spain’s largest metropolis.