I’ve always been curious to see inside the Casa de Baños in Lavapiés, and the opportunity finally arose when we returned to our flat after a week away to find that the boiler had exploded. As you’d imagine, very little gets done over the Christmas period, so we were to embark on yet another fascinating no-frills adventure, and what an insight it’s been.
ONCE UPON A TIME…
Dozens of public bathhouses served almost every neighbourhood in Madrid. Many people lived in corralas – basic housing quickly erected around 400 years ago to house an influx of migrant workers – and these small apartments weren’t equipped with bathrooms until a few decades ago.
Many people also lived in slums, one of which was a few streets away from the bathhouse in Lavapiés.
The need for public bathhouses has fallen with the introduction of bathrooms in each home, but two still survive in Lavapiés and Tetuán – two of central Madrid’s poorer neighbourhoods.
Perhaps you’re familiar with hammams, the communal bathing facilities found all over the Middle East. The similarity in style between a Middle Eastern hammam and the white marble interior of the Casa de Baños doesn’t go unnoticed.
CASA DE BAÑOS TODAY
Two showers, please.
– I asked the woman at the ticket desk. She took our 50 cents each and gave us our laminated tickets, directing us to the men’s bathroom upstairs and the women’s downstairs.
Around 90% of those coming here to shower are men, and peak time begins at 8.30 am when the baths open. It gets even busier in the mornings over winter, with people keen to warm up after a cold night on the streets.
Agua en la cinco, por favor!
– I shout, and the shower gurgles into action. I’ve got 20 minutes of hot water – far more than I need.
In the week we spent at the Casa de Baños, we encountered a variety of clientele. There were young travellers passing through Madrid for a day, and many would use the mirrors to do their make-up. An elderly lady came in wearing her pyjamas and slippers – she seemed to know the staff well. There were also groups of women coming in together, and some of them had large suitcases.
The men’s bathroom was often busy, and after showering, some would head to the sinks to shave in front of the mirror.
I’d read that some people use the cubicles to take drugs, and that knives and syringes have been recovered from the showers on a few occasions. During the week we spent there, at no point did we feel unsafe. Everyone we saw was pleasant, kept themselves to themselves and followed the rules. The showers are also extremely clean – far cleaner than those at most swimming pools or gyms.
The staff were friendly, non-judgemental and clearly aware of the important service they provide for the more vulnerable groups in society.
Some people using the Casa de Baños every morning will have jobs. On average, people are said to lose their jobs just two weeks after becoming homeless, often because they’re unable to maintain their health and wellbeing. The Casa de Baños may alleviate some of the struggles of living on the streets, but Madrid still has a long way to go.
UNDER ONE ROOF
In the Casa de Baños, everyone is united by a basic human need. I hope you never find yourself in the predicament that we did, but if you do, I’m sure you’ll agree with me that this place is not only a godsend, but also shows us that the homeless of Madrid have not been entirely forgotten.
- Address: Calle Miguel Servet, 2
- Nearest metro: Embajadores, L3
- Opening hours: Mon–Sat 8.30 am – 6.30 pm / Sun 8.30 am – 2.30 pm
- Price per shower: 50 cents