January 31, 2013 - Posted by Erin in Food and wine, Madrid, Spain

I found a hidden wonderland here in Madrid, but I’m a little hesitant to tell anyone about it. I know I’m not the only one who’s discovered it, but I’m certain most tourists never make it there. So promise me you’ll keep it our little secret and not tell a soul?

I’d heard whispers about this mystical place before, but, until recently, I never knew where it was. And that’s because it basically hides inside a city block, like a parallel universe revealed behind a magic closet door. In fact, having recently moved to this secret spot’s neighborhood, I’d actually walked by it for months, not even realizing it was there. It’s that secret.

But then one day last autumn, I peered down an alleyway from which I regularly saw Spanish grandmas depart with grocery trolleys brimming with fresh vegetables. There was a certain hustle-and-bustle that indicated the alley was more than just a breezeway, but rather a tunnel to awesome, unexpected things.

So I wandered down it like Alice in a fantastical Wonderland adventure (and if you know me, then you know that the discovery of fresh and exotic foodstuffs is nothing short of Wonderland). And there it was: the most beautiful market in Madrid, Mercado de la Paz!!! I almost shed a full, proper, drip-able tear (not even close to exaggerating). One kiosk after another glowed with expertly arranged fruits and vegetables, fish that gawked at me with blank-but-tasty stares, and mountains of round, square and triangle blocks of cheese that tempted to timber into my mouth (these things are possible in Wonderland, you know).

The Art Nouveau-style market was constructed in 1879 in the residential/shopping neighborhood of Salamanca, and has around 60 kiosks. And while I’ve noticed a couple of the them are closed (a sad and probable outcome of la crisis), you’ll still come across almost every goody your market-loving heart could desire: vegetable sellers, butchers, fish stands, an herbal shop, a cobbler, dry cleaner, hair salon, bakeries, a couple cheese Meccas, gourmet products, and even a few tapas bars for good measure. Basically it’s heaven crammed into a small Spanish city block.

You’ll discover my hidden market paradise concealed between the streets Claudio Coello, Hermosilla, Ayala and Lagasca, with entrances on Lagasca, Ayala and Claudio Coello (the last being the most discreet of the three, despite its fat “MERCADO DE LA PAZ” sign, which I somehow managed to initially miss).

Now go find your market bliss amongst the La Paz kiosks, but just don’t go telling anyone about it. It’s our little secret, remember?

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.