JACOB BARBA- I mentioned to my wonderful host family that I had bought a few shirts on calle Gran Vía, a street full of huge department stores and also a pretty good McDonalds. When they asked how much I paid for the shirts, they scoffed. “You could get ten shirts for that much in El Rastro,” they said. Only, you know, in Spanish. El Rastro, they told me, was a flea market held every Sunday. They also stressed the fact that I should really look out for pickpockets while I was there. They spoke at length about the pickpockets.
I took their advice to heart. First, I made the effort to look as little like a tourist as possible. To do this I bought clothing specifically from Spanish sources, and that only cost me twice what I paid for the shirts that started this whole adventure. Then, I attached my wallet to my belt with a thick chain. A potential thief would need bolt cutters to get through it. Of course, I’d want to direct attention away from my wallet, so I bought a second decoy wallet and placed it ever-so enticingly in my back pocket. Then, for a laugh, I only filled it with American money, so the thief who stole it would find it completely useless and then curse their luck for going after such a crafty mark. To complete the ensemble, I put emergency money in both my socks (because they never expect the second sock). All that done, I felt secure enough to start my journey.
I got off at the metro stop Acacias and walked up the calle Ribera de Curtidores, and beyond that, I don’t think I can give an accurate map of the place. People clump together in between the stalls like molasses, and move down the street slightly slower. At several points, I found myself standing on the street on one foot, waiting for the people in front of me to move so that I had enough room to take a step forward. They absolutely do have cheap shirts, as well as plenty of other sundries, but I wasn’t really interested in buying anything. The real draw of the place was the people. I saw one man with a half mullet. For those of you that have a hard time picturing that, imagine an almost entirely normal haircut, except that one side of it reached down past his shoulders. It wasn’t a rat tail. It was definitely creepy, though. I saw a bent-back old woman winding up a music box as big as a cart across from a booth that sold only knives. I saw a group of men hawking soccer cards (like baseball cards, but for soccer) in a plaza whose name I couldn’t find. Every single restaurant on and around El Rastro advertised the best Spanish food in Madrid. Since they all advertised that in English, I have my doubts about those claims.
El Rastro isn’t just one street. It curves and extends all around, and it changes from one corner to the next. You’ll be looking at some workmen’s tools on one street and then find yourself among piles of antiques after a turn or two. I sincerely recommend El Rastro to anyone visiting Madrid, because it is cheap and there are plenty of touristy accoutrements to look at and buy. It also has a great atmosphere. Definitely a good Sunday activity.