For the past few centuries, Spaniards from all over the country have been packing their bags, saying adios to their towns and villages and setting sail for the big city. When they arrive in Madrid, they disperse into many different lines of work, but there’s one business over any other that harks back to the most recent migration boom. You guessed it: Madrid’s no-frills bars.
The sun pours through the smokey windows of this upstairs diner and is intercepted by half a dozen coconut palms, casting exotic shadows on the terrazzo floor. Everything – and I mean everything – is a shade of brown, as it has been since its last refurb a few decades ago.
Unless you live on this quiet, narrow street in Lavapiés, there’s almost no reason for you to walk down it – that is, unless you’re going to the Duck Church. Nestled into the ground floor of a centenarian building lives a tiny temple devoted to the rubber duck, and its priest is Leo Bassi, a 66-year-old clown who was born on tour.
Much like a municipal bin, a no-frills bar is never more than 50 metres away from you in the centre of Madrid. Going for an impromptu caña was never easier, be it at a train station, on a train, in a hospital or even next to a funeral parlour.
In the thick of bustling Indian restaurants and foreign food stores, a jazzy facade with bold retro lettering stands out from the crowd. This neighbourhood veteran is Bar El Jamón, the Godfather of Lavapiés.
One of the best things about this accidentally retro bar is how much fun it is to explore. There are secret, time-bending portals connecting the endless labyrinth of dining rooms… or so it seems. When the same short, middle-aged waiter in a waistcoat kept appearing every time we entered a new room, we wondered how else he could have got there so quickly.
This small collections of Spanish vintage Christmas cards celebrate Spain’s traditional occupations, but look closely at the design details of each card. These beautifully ornate illustrations give us a fascinating insight into the bygone era of these time-honoured professions, especially into those that are now obsolete.
Sergio is the 4th generation of his family to run this kiosk by Opera, and just as his ancestors did, he stocks every national newspaper. There are no echo-chamber algorithms here – not even the positioning of each newspaper is strategic. At Sergio’s news stand, you can see how the rest of the world thinks.
Vallecas is a working-class neighbourhood with an unstoppable fire in its belly. It emerged out of a slum, only to be beaten back to the bones again by the most brutal pummelling the Spanish Civil War could give. Since then, this hard-left barrio has become a close-knit community and home to thousands of immigrants from all around the world, making it one of the most mesmerising corners of Madrid.
Suddenly the pace picks up. Stacks of hot churros and porras rush out of the kitchen while the waiters frantically steam chocolate and place together dozens of cups and saucers. In this churrería, the staff know their customers’ routines well: suddenly hordes of classy old ladies walk in, order vast amounts of chocolate and churros and kick off their Friday evening with a bit of scandalous family gossip.
In the depths of the financial crisis, biologists Guillermo and Laura took over the neglected family olive grove and embarked on a risky project: to make farming a sustainable way of life once again.
We’ve already declared our love for Bar Lozano but, after spending some time there recently, we noticed that its popularity seems to be waning once again. It might seem like we’re fighting a losing battle at times, but I for one refuse to give up.
There are few better ways to spend a Sunday in Madrid than strolling around El Rastro, but if you don’t have time to explore this 400-year-old market as many times as we have (possibly into three figures), then let us help you hit the ground running with seven of our most eccentric finds.
Meet Laye. He was once one of the young black men you’d see running from the police with a big white bag slung over his shoulders. Perhaps you were there, and maybe even stepped aside to let him run past.
Manuel Moreno de Valle, the owner of Cervecería La Carpa, has fallen asleep on shift again. It’s an unusually hot afternoon and the 69-year-old waiter is perched on a bar stool outside…