Shopping is a fun part of any trip, yet sometimes it’s hard to find something truly unique, something that tells a bit about the culture but stands out from what 10,000 other tourists bought that year. Finding a good souvenir can be a real problem.
In Madrid, you’ll never have that problem. At El Rastro, a giant open-air market that happens every Sunday from about 7am to 2:30pm, you can find pretty much anything. Part swap meet, part flea market, part bargain emporium for cheap imports, El Rastro has something for everyone, and piles of things you’d think nobody would ever buy.
Take this fish-shaped candle holder, for example. It’s hard to imagine someone taking this home, but it’s got a certain lure that made me almost cave in, because it’s so bizarre it deserves a home. Then there’s that collection of door locks behind it. The box contains about thirty of them, and only one still has its key. Is there a market for locks with no key? I do know someone who collects antique keys, so is this just the flip side? Do these people meet somewhere and try to reunite old locks with their long-lost keys?
It’s hard to get out of El Rastro without buying something and just the experience of wandering through the crowd looking at all the cultural detritus is a great way to learn about Spain. El Rastro has been voted by Gadling as one of the ten great markets of the world. Gadling also named it as one of the top ten places to have your pocket picked, so be careful. Madrid’s pickpockets are some of the best in the world, and they loooooove El Rastro.
Armed with a camera, a small amount of cash stuffed deep into a buttoned-down pocket, and no other valuables whatsoever, I headed out to explore, accompanied by Madrid’s leading ghost story writer. Somehow that felt appropriate.
%Gallery-96401%The most popular way for madrileños to visit El Rastro is to go to Metro stop Tirso de Molina and head downhill. This Sunday the square was filled with communist, socialist, and anarchist tables selling mementos of Spain’s Second Republic, as well as books, punk CDs, and lots of pins, stickers, patches, etc. to help you flash your leftist identity. Working our way downhill we ran a gauntlet of cheap imported kitchenware, tools, jeans, and heavy metal t-shirts. Not a bad hunting ground if you need to pick up some disposable clothes to wear on your trip, but nothing that really screams “Spain.” Except for the Chinese-made and very flammable-looking flamenco costumes for little girls.
El Rastro has no core and no real boundaries. Stalls sprawl along side streets and antique/junk shops line both sides of some avenues. Our path was the usual madrileño meander with no set course except a general direction downhill. The further you go down, the more interesting it becomes. Soon the open-air Walmart is replaced by sketches by local artists, handmade crafts, dusty old toys, and tattered movie posters. A circle of old men rummaged through a table of battered VHS tapes. A long table filled with old carpenter’s tools tempted for DIY fans. People selling stamp collections stood next to stalls piled high with used porn and old martial arts magazines.
The pop culture stuff is some of the most interesting. Here you can see what those old men with the VHS tapes consumed when they were kids–comic books with gaudy covers, Mexican pulp novels, and pennants for half-forgotten football (soccer) championships. There’s something very revealing about rummaging through another culture’s nostalgia. Forty years ago Spain was a fascist dictatorship with a struggling economy. Yet Spain was still Spain, and people liked to have a good time. The paper might be cheap, the print a bit blurry, but I could imagine Spanish kids devouring the latest issue of Coyote or Esther as eagerly as we read Superman or Archie. Come summer they’d head to the beach blaring Spanish pop music on that bright green plastic transistor radio, kicking that old soccer ball in the days when it was still inflated.
Now we had reached the bottom of the hill, where some real antiques (and a whole lot of junk) was being peddled. A cluster of stalls did a brisk trade selling ten year-old laptops with cigarette burns, rickety old chairs, and a collection of fine mirrors and glassware that had graced a some stately home a century ago but now were in desperate need of some love and attention. Every price is open to haggling. The prices for cheaper stuff tend to be less flexible, but it’s always worth a try and haggling is part of the fun. Some people get quite animated, showing Spain’s Arab heritage. At times it felt like I was in the bazaar of Cairo or Damascus.
So what did we buy? Remarkably neither of us spent more than 12 euros ($15), although we could have easily spent ten times that.
A collection of three classic films on DVD that was originally part of a newspaper promotion
La sangrientas battallas de Montecasino (part of a WWII series that came every week in a newspaper back in the Eighties)
Buffalo Bill contra Los Fumadores de Opio (a translation of an c.1900 American dime novel, translated & reprinted c.1930)
An imitation Zippo adorned with a symbol of the Spanish Republic
Two dirty old lampshades he plans to use for an art project.
What better way to spend a lazy Sunday morning?