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.
A 30-MINUTE WALK FROM ATOCHA
From Atocha, you can walk south-east to the frontier of Vallecas, at Puente de Vallecas, in around 30 minutes; alternatively, it’s 10 minutes by metro. You’ll know you’ve arrived when you emerge from beneath a roaring eight-lane overpass to see old houses, multicultural street life, and thriving no-frills bars everywhere you look.
Underneath your feet runs an old stream, the Arroyo Abroñigal, which flows into the Manzanares. The Puente de Vallecas (the bridge of Vallecas) used to take you out of the municipality of Madrid, over the river and into the old, independent town of Vallecas.
A HEAVILY BOMBED BARRIO
During the Civil War of 1936-39, Vallecas’s south-western position made it Madrid’s gateway to Valencia, Spain’s second most-important Republican city after Madrid. Franco’s army strategically focussed its attacks on Vallecas, leaving it pocked with shrapnel scars, some of which can still be seen today.
When Franco won the war, the fiercely left-wing barrio of Vallecas resumed its life as a slum for migrant workers, gypsies and locals struggling with poverty, crime and drugs. It had been a slum for generations, and even until very recently, Vallecas looked like this:
And so, the neighbours fought. They fought for paving slabs, sewage systems and basic amenities, and for their voices to be heard.
These reasonable demands may have been fulfilled, but modern-day requests to bring the neighbourhood up to the standards of surrounding areas are still being pushed around a desk.
STREETS OF GHOST BUILDINGS
Vallecas is still a relatively poor neighbourhood, one that’s undergoing change at a much slower pace than the centre of Madrid. Buildings are being demolished and nothing is being built in their place.
The village-style streets of Vallecas shot to fame in Pedro Almodóvar’s 2006 film, Volver. In the shot below, we see Penelope Cruz walking up Calle Garganta de Aisa in the north of Vallecas. All of these casas bajas (bungalows) have since been demolished, and a dense bed of weeds grows in their place.
Many people, both old and young, still live in casas bajas, which, despite their beauty and nostalgia, are increasingly falling below modern standards of living. The residents are very much aware that they’re living in a neglected corner of Madrid, with the progress of the rest of the city visible in the near distance…
Vallecas “disappeared” on 22 December 1950 when Madrid’s billowing conurbation swallowed it whole. It may technically belong to Madrid, but I get the feeling walking around that it still doesn’t; it belongs only to the people who live here.
Vallecas sticks up for itself because it was forced to. Though poor and sketchy in parts, it has a rebellious and unbreakable spirit. One street can be eerily quiet, with anarchist squats, crack dens and brothels occupying abandoned buildings, but then turn a corner onto a small square and the sound of around 50 children playing is almost deafening.
Turn another corner following the smell of fresh mint coming from the Moroccan restaurant two doors down. It has a tiled façade indicating its former use as a bar, with a no-frills Al Baraka banner stuck onto the wall above.
Right across the road, spot a century-old dairy store worthy of its own article. It used to be the neighbourhood’s fresh milk store and, wait for it: they even kept cows inside for milking.
Sanitation was appalling back then, and lecherías suddenly found themselves on a new hygiene hit-list, but instead of closing, the dairy store was converted into a regular deli that also sold milk. Remaining open until 2004, it is now an apartment but retains its original façade, which was lovingly maintained by its former owner. For years, he washed those tiles with just warm water, and either he’s still alive today (he’d be 95, apparently) or someone has continued his legacy, because the tiles are still immaculate.
Continue meandering deeper into the barrio and pass a number of anarchist squats, including La 13-14 Squat: a large community space with workshops, classes, a library and an inextinguishable passion to fight the capitalist system we live in.
Just around the corner from this okupa, stumble across a tiny survivor trembling in a corner, clinging to its supporting walls in the hope that it won’t be demolished like its ghost neighbour, which was once a casa baja bar. As far as I can tell, there’s still someone living upstairs – their pot plants are thriving, they have a satellite dish, and the premises is surrounded by a secure fence with a locked gate.
Address: Avenida de San Diego, 59, Vallecas
THE WORKING-CLASS HEROES
According to Robbie Dunn, author of Working Class Heroes, football in Vallecas is like a social outlet for the struggles that Vallecanos suffered for years and still suffer to this day.
The supporters of football team Rayo Vallecano are a community whose unity is characteristic of the spirit of Vallecas – it’s a close-knit town with a thriving network of neighbourhood associations. Engaged in a constant fight with the incumbent right-wing government, they are campaigning to bring investment and visitors to the area.
LA RUTA DE TAPAS DE VALLECAS
In one such campaign, the neighbours have taken it upon themselves to bring new life to their barrio. This September, 49 bars took part in a tapas route around Vallecas, and suddenly people who had never even heard of this part of Madrid were filling the barrio’s bars.
Vallecas is doing a great job of putting itself on the foodie, culture and nightlife map, and it absolutely deserves its place there too. The barrio is packed with authentic eateries from all around the world – some of which cater so exclusively to the local immigrant community that there’s no trace of them on the internet.
Discover 49 incredible no-frills bars and restaurants by clicking on this map, which has no reason to ever expire:
Loyal Vallecanos – whether born or adopted – rebelliously spell Vallecas with a ‘k’ to express pride for their home and to show their community spirit. There’s no other place like it in Madrid; it’s a true rebel town with a fire that will burn for as long as it has to: until the fight for equality is over.
Love it. My barrio of Usera has a similar history. It started out as a shanty town on the wrong side of the river much of which was then knocked down in the 60s to make way for new developments. But some of the charming original houses still stand. I´ve heard that the entire community helped to put these houses up and they did it in double quick time so that the authorities wouldn´t have time to oppose the illegal construction work.
Thanks Felicity! That’s a wonderful story about Usera, which is absolutely next on my list of spotlight articles, so keep those stories coming!
What an excellent article, I’m here because I was looking at the history of the football team. for me, this is the part of spain that I find most interesting, the kind of place I could explore all weekend, meet and talk with locals and never see a brit abroad. After all this mither is over I shall nick over on the first available plane.
Thank you for this. My mum’s family is from Vallecas so it holds a special place for me. It has a charm that is unique and a beautiful history. Thank you for highlighting this vibrant neighbourhood.