April 26, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

Exhibit A

Spanish fans, stinky cheeses, fanny packs (see exhibit A), fresh fruit, wine by the glass and of course antiques. Madrid’s markets have something for everyone – and a market for everyone. Not all markets here are created equally, however, so here’s a run down of the different kinds that you will find in the Spanish capital. Grab your wallets (but watch them closely, people – this is Spain!) – let’s go shopping!

The Rastro
Madrid’s most famous market, and supposedly the largest in Europe, takes place every Sunday in the rowdy La Latina barrio. Starting around 9am, people and up to 3500 stalls fill the narrow, winding streets of Madrid’s oldest neighborhood. Think big flea market, not farmers market.

El Rastro is the place to find clothes, antiques, trinkets – you know, all that junk you might want to take home to your family as a souvenir. My personal favorite: the scarves. For 2-3 euros you can find light-weight scarves (called fulares) that are great to use year round. And since it’s located in La Latina – a hot spot for Sunday tapas hopping – it’s a great place to grab a caña (small glass of beer) afterward.

Madrid farmers(ish) markets
Not in the market for useless stuff (hehe, no pun intended!) – eh hem – finely crafted artisanal goods? No problem – there’s another market for you. In many of Spain’s larger cities, one massive indoor market serves as the city’s go-to place for fresh foods. In Madrid, however, several smaller (and some not so small) markets lie scattered throughout the center. These mercados are essentially a hybrid between grocery stores and farmers markets (a “permanent farmers market,” as my friend Heather calls them).

Separate stalls fill the closed space, each specializing in a variety of different goods from produce, to meat and fish, and even the occasional tapas bar for the hungry shopper. While tourists might not find much to buy (perhaps some cheese? or maybe olive oil?), passing through will certainly entertain. The gaping mouths and piercing eyes of fish stare back at you from atop blankets of ice. And brightly-colored produce is arranged artfully, putting that Whole Foods display that you’re used to to shame. One pass through a Madrid market will tell you volumes about Spanish cuisine. And also potentially make or break your appetite.

El Mercado de San Miguel
Hidden behind Plaza Mayor, El Mercado de San Miguel sits inside a small glass-encased building, appearing to be a mini version of some of Spain’s larger and more famous indoor markets (like those found in Valencia or Barcelona). As mentioned above, many big cities have a primary central market, typically housed in an antiquated, picturesque building that spans several blocks. Since Madrid is full of markets spread throughout the city, no single one serves as its primary (much less pretty) market. It does, however, have El Mercado de San Miguel.

The structure was originally built in 1916, and was renovated and reopened in 2009. Today’s mercado gives the tourist a taste of the other less fancy, but more functional markets described above. You will still get to see a stall or two overflowing with vibrantly-colored produce, and other stalls with fish you never knew even existed. But let’s be honest, that’s not why you came to Spain – a few stalls later you can have a glass of wine, enjoy a plate of cheese, and even take your pick from a vast selection of croqueta flavors. There’s a little something for everyone (and by everyone, I mean a lot of tourists).

I may miss my Whole Foods (painfully), and the outdoor farmers markets (what does a girl have to do to get a cantaloupe?), but in the end, I think I’ve got more than enough market action to keep me happy. Now if only I could say the same about things like sushi and guacamole.

*This post is a part of the Lonely Planet BlogSherpa carnival, hosted by Indian Bazaars, featuring marketplaces around the world. You can also read the blog carnival that I hosted on unique customs.

April 23, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Culture, Madrid, Spain, Traditions

Standing in Madrid’s Plaza de Cibeles, I was nearly alone, save for my friend, dozens of policemen and several reporters smoking their last cigarettes before going on air. There was an eerie quiet – surely the calm before the proverbial storm.

Just as the clock struck midnight, cheers broke out, seeping from windows, bars and cars across the city.

“They won,” I said to my friend.

Instantaneously, people started to flow like an avalanche into the round-about from all of its connecting streets.

Real Madrid had just won the Copa del Rey in a match against their biggest rival – Barcelona. It’s a rivalry that puts the likes of the Dodgers and the Giants to shame (go Giants!). We were standing in the heart of the soon-to-be fiesta, where Madrileños come after every Real Madrid win to celebrate and await the team’s arrival (and also where we went last June after the World Cup win).

As fans made their way from the far corners of the city, we watched as massive signs unravelled declaring Real Madrid as champions. Meanwhile, giant speaker structures began to blast the traditional Real Madrid Hymn. It was as if someone had given the thumbs up to flip on the switch at a traveling carnival – going from quiet and vacant, to loud, boisterous and full of energy.

My friend and I stood frozen as we watched the chaos unfold in front of us, and perplexed by what this would have been had they not won. Would these same signs be hauled to the dump? Would the press towers and scaffolding be dismantled and stored away for the next big game?

Soon the square overflowed with chanting teenage boys downing beers while wrapped in Spanish and Real Madrid flags. Some carried horns, others banged on drums, all reminding me that virtually any good news is reason to celebrate in this adopted country of mine.

Realizing we were far too old and far too American to stay up late enough to watch the soccer team’s reception, we headed back home. Like salmon swimming up stream, we fought a current of youngins partying while staggering their way to the festivities.

Arriving at my house, fat rain drops began to speckle the city sidewalks. Only moments later, curled cozily in bed, the incessant sound of rain falling and victory horn-honking would lull us to sleep. It turns out that proverbial storm wasn’t so proverbial after all.

*Pardon the lack of photos – I only had my cell phone!

April 15, 2011 - Posted by Erin in Madrid, Spain, Travel, Travels in Spain

Yesterday, I found myself surrounded once again by the congregation of kitties that infest the village of Patones de Arriba. Around every turn, you will see them hiding inside a dilapidated building, beneath the overgrown thicket, or peeking at you from the top of a crumbling wall. While I’ve seen my fair share of pussycat-infested pueblos, this one certainly takes the prize.

The miniature town of Patones de Arriba cozily nests in a mountainside crevice near the northern border of the community of Madrid. It’s a slate wonderland filled with slate roads, slate houses, and, well, cats, all which perch on layers of flakey rock that jet out from the earth.

The size of the village surely wouldn’t take up more than just a few Madrid city blocks, and its peculiar placement doesn’t make for the most modern of lifestyles. As a result, most of its inhabitants (kitties excluded) have relocated to the newer (and unfortunately far less charming) city on the valley floor, aptly named Patones de Abajo (Lower Patones).

Despite not being the most ideal of homes, Patones de Arriba (Upper Patones) makes for a mighty fine getaway – for Madrileños, in particular. Only about 45 minutes north of the city, and so entirely different than any other place you’ll find in Spain, it’s just the place to go for a heavy dose of fresh air and an equally heavy lunch. However, don’t expect to see many people there, and certainly not many foreigners. So few, in fact, that yesterday the bartender at El Rincón de Patones knew just who I was. “You’ve come here before, haven’t you?” she asked. Once again, my American-ness had no one fooled.

Like the amount of cats in this town, the number of times I’ve visited Patones is countless. And no trip ever feels the same. On scorching summer days, the hillsides are crispy and dry with shrubbery, and the slate sizzling like a skillet from the unforgiving Spanish sun. When fall arrives, the fresh colors of seasons past transform into shades of amber, ruby and gold. During winter, the pueblo’s ethereal quality will give you chills as its stone walls of grey, brown and rust, sweat dew from the moisture of hovering fog. And then, on a spring (primavera in Spanish) day like yesterday, the city comes alive with tangles of green vines, fragrant blossoms, and the buzz of insects elated by the nectar of a new year (and me not so elated by the bugs).

Just as the seasons change, so does the crowd. Some days the pueblo brims with Spaniards enjoying a day out of the city to fulfill their craving for mouth-watering cordero lechal (lamb fed only milk, which, my father proclaimed as one of his top five favorite meals EVER). On other days, like yesterday apparently, you will only find me, a couple of friends and some guys donning old school military uniforms while filming a movie about deep Spain. (We are hopeful that if you look closely in the final film, you might just see three Americans swatting at flies in the background.)

Then, occasionally, there are days when there’s not a soul around. Except for the cats – herds of cats – frolicking, napping and playing in their own private slate playground.