El Rastro Market, Madrid: An Antique Adventure

On my third night in Madrid, some “flat mates” and I split a cab home. It provided the perfect opportunity to chat up a native, asking our cab driver for advice on where to go and what to see in Madrid.

She recommended that we visit El Rastro, (a surprising first choice, according to some natives we met at a fiesta the following evening,) as it’s bustling collection of outdoor shops, which line the streets of “el Barrio de Embajadores” every Sunday morning, are occupied principally by those in-the-know who can be found searching for custom items or for an incredible lively experience filled with colorful antiques and handmade merchandise.

Scene from El Rastro Market
Scene from El Rastro Market

But we were an adventurous group, and set out for the market that Sunday, where we discovered the streets were crowded with tourists and natives, alike, browsing antique books, jewelry, paintings, cameras, clothing, and handmade leather items.

Leather Items on Display
Leather Items on Display

Shopkeepers were proud of their inventories, and encouraged you to try on a sweater for size, or a bag to see how it matched your jacket. If you were brave you could even try for a bargain–we got little more than 5 Euros of a discount, which nevertheless made the purchase worthwhile!

Crowded Street of El Rastro
Crowded Street of El Rastro

For lunch, we discovered a lovely (though expensive on account of prime location) cafe, MartinaCocina, where we introduced ourselves to some women eating next to us who happened to be travelers as well.

My experience thus far with strangers has been that if you speak the same language, you are automatically amigos. Of course, us Americans have an advantage, since most Europeans learn English either in school, or watch English programs that are dubbed/displayed with subtitles.

Passing Outdoor Stands At El Rastro
Passing Outdoor Stands At El Rastro

In Madrid, however, it’s impossible to get around without a bit of Spanish. Luckily, I spent eight years trying to learn this language, and while I’ve far from mastered it, I was certainly able to have some casual conversations at the market and practice the language with some Madrileños.

Learn Spanish: ¿Cuanto vale? [KWAN-toh BA-le] – How much does it cost?

Wandering through the streets, we passed a stand of guitars, where a man was playing flamenco on a stool beside the antique instruments. I approached him to ask if he gave flamenco lessons.

“I play poorly,” he told me, “but Manuel is a professional, he will teach you how to play!”

The natural course of action seemed to be to buy a guitar and to ask the man to introduce me to Manuel, who was essentially a real-life-version of how I’d always pictured Cervantes. Manuel played us a few bars, gave us the address of a cheap flamenco performance space (can’t wait to check it out), as well as his number (he charges 20 an hour for lessons!!).

“Profesor Manuel” is also known by his street name, “El Tachuela (lit: ‘thumbtack’),” and yes I found him on YouTube to give you the full experience.

Street Performance at El Rastro
Street Performance at El Rastro

Appropriately, as we were leaving the market, we passed a live street performance on the walk home.

So far, Madrid seems to be full of life and adventure at every corner. I look forward to exploring its different neighborhoods and encourage you to stay posted to hear more about my experience with “culture shock” to come.

Annie Rubin

Annie proudly knows all the lyrics to Joni Mitchell's album Blue. When she's not writing, you can find her reading about intersectionality, drinking Lorelai-Gilmore-levels of coffee, and exploring the world.

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