Madrid’s famous flea market, the Rastro, is open every Sunday and public holiday from about 10.30 in the morning until around 2.00 p.m. It is one of Madrid’s great attractions, particularly in the spring and early summer – allow something like two hours. You will like the Rastro if you enjoy flea markets or bargain hunting, and you will hate it if you have a real aversion to crowds. Like Madrileņos you will probably want to combine a visit to the Rastro with a serious morning’s tapeo – the bars and taverns around it are packed to the gills.
Some say the word “rastro” refers to the trail of blood that used to flow out of the slaughterhouses that stood here, others that it was an old jurisdictional division, but all agree that the area has always been home to the lawless and the picaresque. Not long ago, if your house was burgled or your car radio stolen, you had a fair chance of finding your property somewhere in the Rastro, though this is less the case these days. The thieves, fences, gypsies, tinkers, sharpsters and wideboys who used to rule the Rastro have largely been displaced by hippy craftsmen and entrepeneurs, but you should watch your pockets and bags with great care, and it is still not uncommon for shifty-looking men to sidle up and attempt to engage your interest in their watches or gold chains of dubious provenance and improbably low prices.
Nowadays, a disproportionate number of the Rastro’s stalls seem to sell clothes, from jazzy t-shirts or jeans to practical shoes or tremendously old-fashioned underwear, but there are enough goods of other kinds to maintain your interest if you are not looking to renovate your wardrobe. The clothes stalls are particularly prolific around the Plaza de Cascorro towards the top of the Rastro, near the metro station of La Latina, though even here they are interspersed with all kinds of other merchandise – hippy craftwork, novelty goods from the Far East or South America, fabrics, quaint children’s toys… You will probably begin your visit here, and many casual visitors get no further than this part of the Rastro, mistakenly thinking that they have seen it all. If this is your first time you will think it is very crowded, but you will soon change your mind.
The backbone and mainstreet of the Rastro is the Calle Ribera de Curtidores, a name which speaks of the Rastro’s historic origins – it means “Street of the Tanners’ Stream” (of what, given the traditional tanning methods using horses’ urine, we prefer not to think). If you arrive on the metro and get off at La Latina (your other option is the next station, Puerta de Toledo, but that means climbing up the Rastro instead of descending), you can enter Ribera de Curtidores right at the top, from Calle San Millan which connects the Plaza de la Cebada with Tirso de Molina, or by Calle Maldonadas, which is part of the Rastro and lined with stalls and runs to the Plaza de Cascorro. This is named for the statue of Eloy Gonzalo, known as the heroe de Cascorro, an action during the Spanish-American War, which Spaniards call the guerra de Cuba. It is a highly narrative statue, depicting a common soldier, rifle on his shoulder and carrying a rope or a fuse and a can of petrol.
From the Plaza Cascorra, Ribera de Curtidores descends almost exactly southwards, past the Calle Ruda on the right, and opens up into what looks like another square (but is not called as such) between the statue of Eloy Gonzalo and Calle Amazonas, again to the right. In this part of the Rastro, most of the shops half-hidden behind the stalls sell furniture, especially of wickerwork or other cheapish materials popular with young people. The Calle Amazonas takes you to the Plaza de General Vara del Rey, named after another Spanish-American war hero (to Spaniards). This is my own favourite part of the Rastro because it is the most flea market-like. In addition to the country-market footwear and other clothing on sale, you can find minerals and shells, coins and banknotes for collectionists, and the most interesting junk stalls in the Rastro, with vases, swords, pictures, plates, ornaments and lamps. Haggling is not the norm in the Rastro, but the junk stallkeepers are old-style gypsies, who ask for incredibly inflated prices then insist on a counteroffer when the browser unsurprisingly declines.
Back on the Ribera de Curtidores, still heading down the slope, you will find something of a pedestrian traffic bottleneck. This opens up where the stalls begin to sell CDs, tapes and records (actual vinyl records), and many of the shops on either side are dedicated to antiques. Be careful here. There are some real finds to be made, but even the shops that look like junk shops are real antique shops, or at least are owned by real dealers, and your chances of getting a bargain are minimum: in fact you are very likely to end up paying over the odds.
A sidestreet to the left, San Cayetano, is dedicated to particularly chocolate-boxy pictures and is always referred to as the “painters’ street.” Another, Fray Ceferino Gonzalo, is called the “street of the birds,” though cages and other pet accessories have now replaced what used to be a real menagerie until someone in the city council decided that perhaps it was not in the best interests of the animals to allow their trade in the Rastro (because many of the Rastro’s stallholders and streetsellers make their living at it, or at best spend some of the rest of the week going to other markets, in other words have no premises. So where were these pets being kept? In their owner’s bedroom? Or in his car boot?).
Near the bottom of the hill, the street continues, as indeed does the Rastro, but for our purposes, it turns right along the oddly named Calle Mira el Sol (Look At The Sun Street), as the stalls begin to specialise in ironmongery, tools and electrical goods. Mira el Sol opens up into the Plaza Campillo del Nuevo Mundo, a grandiose name for a large, open space, which is another of the Rastro’s high points. The goods on sale are varied, but there are a large number of second-hand stalls offering books, magazines (including porn, you have been warned), records and videos (including porn, ibidem). The centre of the square is a large pedestrian area, where children hold their own exchange market, swapping cromos (similar to bubble-gum cards) and the like. In the far, northern part of the square, you will find gypsy patriarcos selling second-hand furniture and other items too large to be easily transported into the hub of the Rastro.
There are traces of the Rastro on the other side of the main road here (and a police station, should you need it, though the flea market is well patrolled), but the Ronda de Toledo really marks the Rastro’s southern edge. Follow the Ronda round to the left, and you will come to where a semi-clandestine second-hand car market is held on Saturdays. Or walk up the hill towards the Puerta de Toledo, past the large block which overlooks the Rastro, or would except no-one can see out of its windows, which are too high. This is the failed Mercado Puerta de Toledo, the Rastro’s snootier, foredoomed neighbour, converted by political whim from a 19th century fish market into a glossy-magazine inspired commercial centre, with a heavy concentration of design, crafts and antiques shops, and a large number of echoing, ghost-like corridors whose tenants have fled. It is well worth strolling around, especially for the antiques, but its atmosphere of desolation is a total contrast to the constant, spicey vitality of the Rastro