No frills, nostalgia and resistance at Madrid’s summer Fiestas

An elderly woman dressed in all black is straddling the wrong side of a first-floor balcony. Standing up there with her is another elderly woman wearing a floral smock, bellowing unsolicited advice about how her friend should tie up the bunting. Fierce high-rise arguing descends into laughing, and I watch on in horror yet reassurance that, somehow, these ladies have got it handled. After all, it’s quite possibly their 80th year of decorating the streets.

For a few weeks leading up to this hair-raising spectacle, groups of elderly women have been gathering on the stone doorsteps of Calle del Oso knitting paper flowers and tying shawls together. And now, as the neighbourhood festivals of San Cayetano, San Lorenzo and Paloma roll into their third century, an ancient instinct in every resident of Madrid kicks in, and the pilgrimage to the streets of La Latina and Lavapiés begins.

The heart of the first festival is Calle del Oso, where you’ll find those same fearless women serving homemade limonada to passers-by. They ask for small donations for their drink and add a little conversation as a side orderwith our ‘Security Abuelas’ keeping a lookout for fiesta thieves (keep your belongings safe).

For the bars in the neighbourhood that haven’t closed for August, this is the time of year they’ve been waiting for. Stools, tables and chairs are stowed away, and every inch of floor space becomes storage for barrels of beer. Popup bars wrap around facades, the tunes are turned up, and the botellón ban is lifted. And it’s all so no-frills.

Walkways and pavements are converted into no-frills terraces of white (and green and red) plastic chairs and tables.

Streets are transformed into something more reminiscent of Las Ramblas…

But why sit on a terrace when there’s the floor?

Botellón on Plaza Cascorro during Fiesta San Cayetano

Fiesta food is as Castizo as it gets, from deep fried intestines (entresijos)…

…to giant sandwiches…

Roll up, roll up and be transported back to your childhood of balloon popping, hook-a-duck, bingo, sweets and cuddly toys. It’s polychromatic heaven…

If you’re ever in doubt, Madrid’s August fiestas will confirm to you that this city is one giant village with community at its core. These week-long street parties are not organised by the city council, but by the neighbours themselves. Local groups and associations plan the whole thing, with the city’s approval, and anyone can help organise it. This is the undeniable spirit of the neighbourhood fiestas, but this year, the new right-wing city administration are hindering that.

Every year, the street festivals are opened by a traditional saludo de las fiestas. Last year, the opening speech was given by Serigne Mbaye, a migrant rights activist from the Sindicato de Manteros y Lateros, alongside Rossy de Palma, one of Spain’s most iconic actors. But this year, the town hall prohibited the saludo, saying that these speeches were “political and vindictive”. Clearly feeling threatened by outspoken activists and feminists, Madrid mayor José Luis Martínez-Almeida appears to be doing what the right knows how to do best: curtailing freedom of speech. As a revolt against this, the neighbours of Lavapiés are going ahead and doing the speech anyway.

To see it, head to the building above NuBel (to Auditorio 200) at 8.30 pm, where the ‘forbidden film’ will be played. It’s a film that gives a voice to the neighbourhood workers, including the Tabacalera’s erstwhile ‘cigarette ladies’. At 10.30 pm, too, there’ll be a gathering on Plaza de Arturo Barea for a collective viewing of the film, streamed to mobile devices of anyone who attends, kind of like a silent disco/flash mob…

Update: the film is now open for us all to see! Watch it here…


The fiestas of San Lorenzo, 1983 (source: Alfoz).

Go to the fiestas, eat giant bocadillos, drink limonada and chat to those fierce, elderly women. Sit on the ground or, better still, a curb, and enjoy all the colourful nostalgia and charming lack of frills. And keep fighting for freedom of speech until we’ve won, and then some more.


  • The Rastro fiestas of San Cayetano are officially from 7 until 10 August.
  • The fiestas of San Lorenzo are from 10 to 13, centred around Plaza de Lavapiés.
  • The La Latina fiestas Paloma overlap with the others, running from 8 to 14 August.
  • The brochure of all workshops, specific events and parades can be found here.
  • Screening of the ‘forbidden film’ at 8.30 pm, August 10 at edificio Nouvel (auditorio 200)
  • A second screening will be at 10 pm, August 10 on Plaza de Arturo Barea (charge up your phone battery)

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