In this, the second episode of the When in Spain show I take you for a wander around La Latina, the neighbourhood where I live and one of the oldest and most famous in Madrid.
Don’t forget if you haven’t already listened to this episode it’s right at the top of the page. Just hit play!
What’s La Latina like?
I’d say it’s still a pretty authentic barrio as far as central Madrid neighbourhoods go. It’s bustling, noisy, beautiful and gritty. It’s an everyday working neighbourhood that still manages to retain its own Spanish, Madrileñan and Castizo* identity despite a growing influx of tourists, immigrants and international students. All seem to rub shoulders fairly oblivious to each other’s existence – so far.
However, the clank of plastic wheels from ‘carry-on’ suitcases as they’re dragged across the barrio’s maze of cobbled streets is becoming an increasingly common sound and one that often wakes me up and 6am. As abuelos pass away their apartments are being sold on and devoured by gangs of Airbnb-ers. This has pushed up rents and house prices in the last couple of years and, in turn gradually transforming La Latina into one of the more expensive areas in the Spanish capital. That said, this ain’t no Barceloneta or Bario Gotico, two of Barcelona’s most tourist-plagued, once-traditional neighbourhoods.
On a daily basis for me it looks and feels like this. You’ll see a couple of octogenarians propping up a bar, grunting to each other as they pick at a slab of tortilla and sip thimbles of beer, their bespectacled eyes glued to a bulky TV clamped to the wall. Outside two elderly and perfectly coiffured Madrileñas will be conversing with each other at shouting volume, both clutching bags of fruit and veg from the greengrocer. As they stand directly in the middle of the pavement, knowingly blocking everybody’s passage, they’ll be comparing the price, quality and texture of said produce before moving on to comparing their seasonal ailments. Suddenly, Horns will start blaring. (The car horn is a favoured means of communication in Spain, it’s loud you see.) Half a dozen drivers are suddenly and furiously punching and pumping the steering wheel of their Seat Ibiza because two kids have run into oncoming traffic, chasing a rat-like dog, who in turn is chasing a ball. Cries will ring out from drivers and passersby ¡¡Ostia!! and ¡¡Joderrrr!!
The thing I love about La Latina and Madrid and Spain in general, is that people still value and remain loyal to independent shops. The neighbourhood is home to dozens and dozens of independent greengrocer, butchers, bakers, grocery shops, pharmacies and ironmongers, all of which add character. It reminds me of growing up in England in my childhood. Some of these places are reminiscent of the 1950s. La Latina is also home to El Rastro Madrid’s biggest flea market. An amazing assault on the senses (Especially on a Sunday morning) and a treasure trove of antiques, clothes, bric-a-brac, art, music, household goods, plants and flowers.
“La Latina, is very Castizo, and you’re gonna love it”. That’s what my old flatmate Laura told me when I first moved into the barrio. I’ve since been trying to work out what Castizo means. It’s a word that gets bandied around a lot.
Castizo (Spanish: [kasˈtiθo] or [kasˈtiso]) is a Spanish word with a general meaning of “pure”, “genuine” or representative of its race (from the Spanish: “casta”). The feminine form is castiza.
So, anything can be castizo – but you only really know it when you see it, feel it, smell it, or hear it. It’s hard to explain.
Despite all its antiquated charm La Latina has tonnes of modern, ‘trendy’ bars and restaurants. It’s definitely a place where people come to go out. Out out. You could easily drink and dine in a different venue every night for weeks, maybe months on end without leaving the neighbourhood. Old ‘tasca’ bars like the one I go to in episode 2, stand cheek by jowl with hip craft beer ‘socials’, there’s the traditional and modern in abundance.
Ah, one small detail. The name ‘La Latina’ where does it come from? The neighbourhood was named after an old hospital, long since gone, founded in 1499 by Beatriz Galindo ‘La Latina’ 1465 – 1534. She was a writer and teacher of Queen Isabella of Castile and was viewed as one of the most educated women of her time. She was nicknamed La Latina for her skill in Latin and wrote poetry a commentary on Aristotle.
Onwards around the neighbourhood…
Some of the places where I went in episode 2…
I had a quick Vermú in El Camarote, Plaza de La Puerta de Moros A fairly traditional and basic bar/cafe for cheap food and drink. Open all day for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night drinks.
Then on to two bustling and pretty squares, Plaza de los Carros and though to Plaza de la Paja.
Next stop El Jardín del Príncipe de Anglona. One of my favourite quiet corners of Madrid to sit and contemplate. The former private walled garden of a house belonging to the Prince of Anglona. The house is still there overlooking the garden.
El Mercado de la Cebada – An everyday indoor market where many of the barrio’s locals go to do their shopping. It’s a bit of a carbuncle in my opinion, brutal 50s/60s architecture. La Latina deserves better. But it’s a great place to wander around. There are a couple of hole-in-the-wall bars, a watch/clock repairer who has a cigar permanently wedged between his fingers. There are plans to tear the current market down and replace it. But as yet, there’s no money in the ayuntamiento’s pot to do so. As you can see, it’s seen better days.
Calle Santa Ana – The street where I used to live, right in the heart of the neighbourhood. This street and the adjoining Calle de la Ruda have become quite gentrified and hipsterfied over the last few years.
The final stop Plaza de Cascorro. The beginnings of the Embajadores barrio, the main hub of El Rastro market and home to a statue of Spanish soldier, Eloy Gonzalo commemorating the Spanish-American War over the independence of Cuba. Cascorro was poor garrison town in Cuba which became one of the battlefields.