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.
Vallecas might feel like the Madrid of long-ago, but for Constantino Carral Sánchez, it’s changed a lot.
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.
When I asked Jose Luis Jiménez who the people in the photographs were, he spent the next half hour telling me stories from his childhood and showing me pictures taken by his friends from all over the world.
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.
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.
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.
Have you ever been walking along the street in Madrid and thought to yourself: ‘Quick caña and tortilla?’ Me too. If you happen to have that thought whilst on Calle de Fuencarral, you’re seconds away from making it a reality. But if you’re half way across the city, jump on a metro – it’s worth the ride.
Why are so many iconic no-frills Spanish bars closing, and what does this mean for the future of Spain?
Cervecería Azul y Blanco takes its name from everyone’s favourite Mediterranean colour combination, but as its bold colours fade to dark grey and dusty pink, this little corner bar slips into a bygone era and has become totally kitsch.
If simply wandering around the Rastro gives you a buzz, then a visit here will make you feel like you’ve plugged yourself straight into the national grid.
The tinned food craze is sweeping the hipster capitals of the world but Spain has long been aware of the treasure inside these little tins.