Madrid in August is a giant ghost town, except for the fraction of establishments that remain open for business (even the vending machines have closed for the holidays). But August is also the most curious month, with roadworks suddenly exposing a proliferation of ‘rabbit holes’ that lead to a forgotten era.
Construction works take advantage of the empty streets, and undocumented structures from centuries ago begin to reemerge. A digger recently struck the empty lift shaft of the old Gran Vía metro station, and other works revealed an 18th century sanitation tunnel.
The quiet streets also lure us back onto the tourist-beaten path, leading us to some very peculiar discoveries that had been hiding right under our nose. But first, back to that old tunnel…
1. THE 18TH CENTURY TUNNEL
An an old sanitation tunnel is currently being reburied after finally being written into the history books, three centuries later. Despite archaeologists being adamant of its historical significance, the city council has decided to rebury it anyway. At least whoever digs beneath the streets in the future knows that when they hit a layer of red brick, they have to stop.
2. THE SHRINE TO BULLFIGHTERS ON PLAZA MAYOR
This no-frills bar with a shrine to bullfighters (and maybe also the bulls they killed) can be found in one of Madrid’s most touristy enclaves. Upon entering, your gaze will quickly be drawn to the five stuffed bullheads mounted on the walls, and then hundreds of graphic photographs of bullfighters being gored. You can also spot a few photos of the owner posing with international celebs, mostly of the right-wing variety.
Location: Plaza Mayor, 26
3. THE GHOST LECHERÍA – NOW TATTOO REMOVAL PARLOUR
August works on this Lavapiés store revealed that it was once an old diary shop. It’s now a tattoo removal parlour.
Location: Calle de San Carlos, 4
4. THE FORGOTTEN GROOVES
Can you see two grooves at the bottom of the door? They were for the wheels of horse-drawn carriages that used to ride right the way inside this building to drop off its wealthy residents. This is still a very expensive building to live in, but now the modern-day carriages (4x4s) park outside.
Location: Calle San Marcos, 43
5. THE FORMER JAMONERÍA – NOW HALAL BUTCHERS
My Halal butcher shop used to be a jamonería! That’s why there are hooks allover the ceiling, and hooks all around the walls.
Location: Alam Carnicería, Calle Lavapiés, 60
6. THE SECRET SPIRAL STAIRCASE
We found another beautiful spiral staircase deep inside a forgotten galería. Only two shops still occupy the space, and there’s a quirky lift which will take you to the top.
Location: Calle Arenal, 9
7. THAT FONT
This gorgeous retro bar font can be found adorning recently opened Bar La Esperanza. I used to love coming to the Galician bar that used to reside in this spacious corner unit, but the slightly frilly bar and restaurant that’s taken its place continues to serve a similar crowd.
Location: Calle del Olmo, 30
8. THE LITTLE CORRALA
Hidden at the back of this antique furniture shop is a stunning example of 19th century residential architecture, the corrala. It was built to support an influx of Spanish migrants from rural areas and other cities. Despite its charm, the corrala is a very cramped place to live. Getting to know your neighbours is unavoidable in such intimate settings, but it means the community spirit of this neighbourhood is surprisingly strong.
Location: Calle de San Cayetano, 8
9. THE PULPO PLACE
Head out of the city centre to the quiet neighbourhood of Oporto and find melt-in-your-mouth pulpo in this fun, no-frills pulpería with no-frills prices.
Location: Calle de la Parra, 39
10. THE PINK FOUNTAIN
We found a beautiful pink fountain in Casa de Campo, built just after this park was finally opened up to the public, no longer being kept solely for use by the Royal family. It’s called Fuente de la Republica because it was built during the Second Republic – a brief glimpse of democracy before the Spanish Civil War just three years later.
Oh, and that’s an 18th century ghost aqueduct behind it, which is the 11th offbeat find.
Location: Paseo del Embarcadero, 6
Want to discover even more no-frills finds? We’ve got three more volumes! Here’s Volume III.