El Rastro – Part One
After my second year in Spain – once I was no longer penniless and living in a closet (it was a big closet) – I discovered the world of discount airlines. For less than 100€, I could fly to a dozen weekend getaways and be home in time to give Monday morning English classes. Or at least be awake for them.
The only downside of these trips was the sleepy pace of city life on Sundays. Non-touristy shops and markets were closed, most locals were hiding at home, and for someone in need of social contact, the trip’s Sunday portion was always a bit somber.
If you find yourself in Madrid on a Sunday, you might feel the same way. That is, until you come across El Rastro…
El Rastro is Madrid’s famous flea market, sitting at the western edge of the neighborhood of Lavapiés, held every Sunday of the year, rain or shine.
According to historians, El Rastro got its start roughly 500 years ago, when the Ropavejeros first moved in, the second-hand clothes dealers of their day and the originators of vintage no doubt…
Along with the Ropavejeros, Madrid’s first slaughterhouses were also set up, while several tanneries operated nearby. For waste disposal, everyone used the stream that flowed down the same calle or street the Rastro market occupies today, Ribera de Curtidores (literally, the Riverbank of Tanners).
It’s from these last two trades that the market gets its name. Rastro can mean trace or sign of something, but it can also mean a trail, as in the inevitable trail of blood that came from dragging an animal’s remains from the slaughterhouse to the tannery… Unsurprisingly, the market has yet to promote itself with this heartwarming image.
Over the centuries, other leather-related businesses moved into the area, such as makers of shoes, belts, saddles, as well as products derived from tallow, a rendered form of beef fat used to make candles, which romanced your partner and aroused her appetite at the same time.
It wasn’t until the early 19th century, under French occupation, that city authorities finally gained control over the number of stands by requiring vendors to purchase licenses. Later in the century, vendors started selling on Sunday mornings as well, and El Rastro soon became a festive event to attend in addition to Sunday mass.
The market is now a Madrid institution and an integral part of the city’s weekend social scene. It is not for the crowd-shy however. According to the El Rastro website (in Spanish), an estimated 100,000 people show up every Sunday to rummage through the wares of over 1000 vendors, around half of which don’t sell much more than the odd trinket, used CD or cheap item of clothing.
Local artists such as Isabel Oliver are now the minority. She’s spent the last 34 years at El Rastro, selling her hand-painted Spanish fans to visitors year round, even if locals only buy them in summer she admits.
Another long-term vendor is José Manuel, who flies to India once a year to pick out the stones that he’ll work into sterling silver pieces, known as Plata 1° Ley in Spanish. He’s also one of the market’s more colorful personalities, and gets as much pleasure out of teasing customers as selling to them. When someone asked how much for a ring, his response was “Less than the Jamón Ibérico you had for dinner.”
And although there’s nothing wrong with seeking out specific stands like these, hardly anyone here has any real agenda. Most have yet to wake up from that sleepy Sunday fog, so it’s easier to just wander and people watch, letting the shuffling crowds drag you along as they head downhill, then bracing yourself to smile and push through when you see a stand you like. Floating somewhere above the chatter, there’s background music provided by the CD vendors who all play the same song over and over and over and… Does Paco de Lucía know that the unofficial Rastro theme song is his very own?
Perhaps lulled into a false sense of security by that same melody, some of us fall prey to the strange and
unexpected unnecessary purchase that later gets stuffed into a dark corner of the closet. And since the size of our closet isn’t as big as the one I used to live in, a certain someone has put a stop to that.
In the side streets leading away from calle Ribera de Curtidores, this working class neighborhood, which has attracted a flood of diverse immigrant groups over the past two decades, has started to see slight hints of gentrification. In a way, it’s surprising that it’s taken as long as it has, given the typical formula of being centrally located, with historic buildings and cheap rents, not to mention being neighbors with La Latina, one of the city’s hippest barrios.
In this evolution towards a cleaner, more stylish Lavapiés, the market’s surrounding businesses have formed an association to attract people to the area outside the peak Sunday market hours. The association mixes together the crumbling-facades of life-long antique shops and almonedas (i.e. junk shops, though “junk” seems unfairly cruel)…
…with a handful of upmarket vintage stores.
And although some of the anti-sistema residents of Lavapiés are horrified by this “invasion” of higher-end vintage shops, most residents seem quite happy to see a more polished version of the area, adding diversity to what is already Madrid’s most unique neighborhood.
These side streets and their shops have started attracting almost as many people as El Rastro itself, with calle Mira el Río Alta offering a good starting point. On Sundays, the almonedas roll out a smattering of items on to the streets, and the selection runs from mini robot-figurines…
to 60 year-old copies of the tantalizing insurance magazine, The Weekly Underwriter,
to a pair of 50 Euro irons that look like they’d inflict that amount of damage.
Or perhaps you’ll come across that little bit of love you’ve been searching for…
If you want to know what Summer-of-Love Spaniards drove (my in-laws included), stop by Recova for a glimpse of a Seat 600.
For something a bit easier to fit into your suitcase, and for those vintage clothes addicts, Underground has probably the best selection in the area. The store is run by the extremely communicative Rosa, who may resort to the phone should you not provide enough conversation.
Rosa supplies outfits to the ever popular, decade-long Spanish TV series Cuéntame. Ask her to break out the studly crocodile-skin trench coat (la trinchera de cocodrilo), guaranteed to make the ladies melt.
Even empty handed, you can’t leave El Rastro without enjoying a caña of beer and tapas at one of the overflowing bar/restaurants that are spread throughout the neighborhood. But to read more on that, you’ll have to check out El Rastro – Part Two.
El Rastro – Plaza de Cascorro and calle Ribera de Curtidores, 9am to 3pm, Sundays (Public Holidays as well, though with fewer stalls and people). Get their early to avoid crowds, and do be careful with your belongings. Many vendors set up as early as 8am. Metro La Latina (Line #5) or Metro Tirso de Molina (Line #1).
Websites of some of the photos seen above:
Vintage 4P at calle Bastero 4
Underground at calle Bastero 16B
Recova at Plaza General Vara de Rey 7 – Recova also hosts photo and painting exhibitions every month. Pop in even if it’s only to see the Seat 600 car.
As El Rastro’s vendors themselves don’t have actual addresses, the easiest way to find them is by using the closest street address. Olivia’s hand-painted fans can be found roughly in front of #18 in Plaza de Cascorro. José Manuel’s jewelry stand is across the street from #13 in the same plaza, just before calle Ribera de Curtidores begins.
El Nuevo Rastro Association – Although this site is in Spanish, the tab Directorio de Comercios offers links to all the businesses grouped within the association. Most links show some helpful photos to give you an idea of the wares for sale, as well as address and usually store hours.
Last update: March 7, 2014