After a brief hiatus in the Friday guest post series, we are back again this week for a stroll around Madrid’s Lavapiés neighborhood. Shehani of Shutterbug Scribbler, a Canadian expat who’s been calling Madrid her home for the last three years and blogging about her life in the Spanish capital, takes us on a tour of her adopted barrio, where old and new Europe dwell together and multiculturalism thrives.
A RAMBLE AROUND LAVAPIÉS
Whether you pop out of the underground metro or walk down the hill, you’ll notice such a diverse mix of cultures here that you’ll wonder if you’re still in Spain. Welcome to Lavapiés! Lavapiés literally means “wash feet” but I prefer to think of it as Lava Pies – a hot molten patty of old and new Europe. This barrio was the former Jewish quarter of the city until the expulsion of the Jews in 1492. Nowadays it’s the most multi-ethnic barrio in Madrid with more than 50% of its population of foreign origin. I love the variety of faces I can see here.
When I first told people I was moving into the barrio, I got a few gasps, worried looks and warnings of danger. Lavapiés gets bad press because it’s home to most of Madrid’s immigrants and there’s a brisk trade in hash and pick pocketing. But it’s also the most vibrant and interesting of Madrid’s barrios. I’ve been living in Lavapiés for three years now and I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in Madrid. Typically, the people who pooh pooh it and exaggerate its dangerous aspects the most are the very people who haven’t actually set foot here.
Of course, Lavapiés has its dark side of petty crime and drugs but the media seems only interested in promoting these aspects of the barrio, which is a distortion of reality. The truth is, daily life goes on here quite safely. In fact, there are plenty of Spanish abuelas (grannies) who live in the barrio and they seem quite unconcerned as they shuffle around and go about their business. Of course you need to keep an eye on your valuables but that’s true for all parts of Madrid.
This is probably the only barrio in the Spanish capital where you can see a mix of Moroccan, Chinese, Latin American, Bangladeshi and Senegalese people sitting around a plaza bench chatting together amicably. There seems to be a fine balance here, in which no one racial group is dominant so everyone simply lives together as a community. Beyond the diverse immigrant population, the Gypsies and the Spanish abuelos, Lavapiés is also home to tons of artists and musicians. I once saw a cheeky artist spray paint some of the ubiquitous dog poop gold then stick it with a toothpick sign that read: 5/1000, as if it were a part of an art series.
Many of my friends live here and we all feel passion for the barrio. There’s a wonderful bohemian village atmosphere and there’s always something going on. From outdoor concerts in the plazas, to multi-ethnic religious processions, to Little Bollywood to the barrio Fiesta de San Lorenzo every summer, Lavapiés puts the life into lively.
And there’s also a huge selection of ethnic food here. There are Chinese grocers, Indian spices, Arab sweets, shisha teashops, kebabs, a plethora of curry houses, Spanish tapas, boho trendy bars (all along Argumosa and Ave Maria), Astorian roast meats, Senegalese cuisine (like Touba Lamp Fall, C/ Amparo), tons of fruit and veggie shops, Spanish markets, halal butchers, old-man bars (such as Bar FM, C/ Olmo 35), bodegas, mesons and a lesbian tea/sex shop (Los Placeres de Lola, C/ Doctor Fourquet 34).
For those craving a different type of cultural offering, Lavapiés also has an open university (UNED) with a gorgeous rooftop terrace and restaurant (Gaudeamus, C/ Tribulete 14); an old cinema (Cine Dore, C/ Santa Isabel 3); a fresh urban street art scene; an interfaith church (C/ La Fe); the Reina Sofia contemporary art museum; small local art galleries scattered about the barrio; and the Teatro Valle-Inclán, a venue for Centro Dramático Nacional.
After trotting up and down the narrow, labyrinth-like streets, you’ll probably be thirsty. There’s no shortage of bars and patios where you can replenish with a caña (small beer), tinto de verano, sangria, vino, mojito, or coca cola.
What follows is the list of spots to check out.
PLACES I LIKE TO HAVE A DRINK OR THREE Inquilina (C/ Ave Maria 37) Awesome bohemian decor with a featured wine of the month for 2 euros a glass. I always bring visiting friends here. Aguardiente Café (C/ La Fe 1) Cozy environment with a chess table next to the window and inexpensive wine. Viva Chapata (C/ Ave Maria 43) Delicious chicken chapata sandwiches to accompany your beer. El Mojito (C/ Olmo 6) Good mojitos but it’s the decor that’s wicked – naked barbies in saucy positions line the wall – a sight to behold. Gato Verde (C/ Torrecilla del Leal 15) Comfy couches upstairs. Bar FM (C/ Olmo 35) I adore Paco, his dog Luna, his eclectic decor and his jamon serrano. Bodegas Lo Máximo (C/ San Carlos 6) The decor is a strange mixture of old Spanish and 60s retro chic.
TYPICAL SPANISH MESONS WITH GREAT PORTIONS OF TAPAS Ryma (C/ Embajadores near Plaza Agustin Lara) Fabulous free authentic tapas (like potatoes smothered in mayonnaise, torreznos, croquettas) are served with your drinks. Meson (C/ Valencia near Plaza Lavapiés) An authentic meson with delicious raciones. The croquettas are divine.
WHERE I GO TO DANCE El Juglar (C/ Lavapiés 37) I love to dance here. There’s a diverse ethnic mix of clients and funky music. Candela (C/ Olmo 2) Best after 2 am. This is the place to go if you want to see spontaneous eruptions of flamenco.
My list is by no means comprehensive. There are great little spots around every corner. It’s really best to come down and wander around this ancient section of Madrid. This is a fascinating, culturally rich barrio that doesn’t deserve the bad press it gets from the mainstream, sheltered, prissy, “immigrants = dangerous” types. So don’t believe the hype. Discover Lavapiés for yourself. This is where you’ll see, in the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the changing face of Spain.