The Rastro is an enormous outdoor flea market that takes place weekly on Ribera de Curtidores street and surrounding plazas. It’s situated between the Lavapies and La Latina neighborhoods, a couple of the oldest barrios in the city. Everyone is selling everything there, from clothes to furniture to food to items gotten by extralegal means, antiques and more.
The market “opens” unofficially at 10:00 a.m. every Sunday. At that time there are relatively few people out, as the weekends generally press no one to rise early. By noon, the throngs march shoulder-to-shoulder in channels up and down the street, through the side streets and circulate through the various plazas. This state of affairs continues until 2:00 p.m., when the vendors start breaking down their stalls. If you want to practice close-quarters street photography, there is no better occasion in Madrid to do so.
The Rastro runs north along Ribera de Curtidores, up to the Plaza de Cascorro and spills a little beyond, into proper La Latina. To the east along Ribera there are side-streets devoted to selling specific products; for example, one street is devoted to picture frames, and another the art itself. To the west, deeper into La Latina, the ratio of gypsy tents to storefront stalls rises dramatically in favor the former. Africa and India seep in to the mix.
It is easy to get lost in the Rastro your first few times there. Bring a little compass if you must. Outdoor flea markets in Europe are notorious for the prevalence of pickpockets, although a tourist is just as likely to have their goods lifted in Sol as they would be at the Rastro.
Light falls in one of two ways in the Rastro: it cuts obliquely early in the morning and later, it dapples through leaves. To keep the light on the oncoming subjects’ faces, let it be recommended to walk the Rastro in circuits from South to North and from East to West. For example:
- Start at the southern end of Ribera de Curtidores and walk north to the Plaza de Cascorro.
- Double back to the first westward street and turn right, toward La Latina. Check your settings, as the buildings are tall and the streets narrow there.
- Do a lap or two around the first plaza you arrive to, and then take any street southward.
- Mill around the large, open plaza that borders on Ronda de Toledo and later, make your way back east to Ribera de Curtidores.
La Latina is another of Madrid’s oldest neighborhoods, and with Lavapies is one of the most often-mentioned places in los chotis, the city’s traditional music. It is a clean and regal neighborhood, and a weekend destination for going out and tapeando: going from bar to bar or restaurant to restaurant for rounds of tapas.
With its proximity to Sol and to Arganzuela, La Latina hosts a range of visitors and occupants. Closer to the center you’ll have a more diverse, temporal crowd while further south many of the pedestrians would be permanent residents. Generally, the street photographer will find a pliant, relaxed public but of course, if a person feels that their personal space is being invaded they won’t hesitate to react. In northeastern La Latina, closer to the Plaza Mayor where tourists are omnipresent, one more person wearing a camera isn’t going to attract much attention. Further south, in the more residential part of the neighborhood, a face nearly eclipsed by a camera may cause folks to take notice.
La Latina is home to some lovely sights, and touches many more. Tall, neo-classical apartment buildings stand shoulder-to-shoulder along the neighborhood’s old narrow streets. Huge churches appear now and again, and the wandering photographer will find that terrace life is ubiquitous here, hard to avoid even. The Mercado de la Cebada is a busy local food market, with much to see in the day-to-day. Closer to the Plaza Mayor one finds the “oldest restaurant in the world”, against a backdrop of hole-in-the-wall shops and seething tourist hordes. Technically, La Latina is also home to the Rastro.
There is good light in La Latina in the mornings and in the mid-afternoons. Later, when the light has turned that lovely orange that makes so much sense to us visually, it is largely blocked by the tall and densely packed buildings that populate the neighborhood. Start at the La Lainta metro and choose a direction; north and east on Calle Toledo will take you to the Plaza Mayor and the center, and south and west toward Arganzuela and the river. Stop anywhere for a tapa or a drink, and play with the light filtering through the windows or doorways.
La Latina is must-see neighborhood if the photographer wishes to get to know the heart of Madrid.
Lavapies is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Madrid, and has always been home to the city’s immigrant population. Its name reportedly comes from its early days as Madrid’s Sephardic quarter, where it is said the locals would come daily to a fountain therein and wash their feet. Makes sense, because this neighborhood is by far central Madrid’s grittiest.
Lavapies is a true melting pot of world populations. Eastern Europeans work with South Americans, who live next to West Africans in buildings owned by Spaniards, Portuguese, Bangladeshis or Chinese. A stroll through the Plaza de Lavapies and along its communicating streets would have the ear treated to a host of foreign languages and cultural touches. The class range here runs from “low” to “upper middle” class, with few exceptions on either extreme.
Tourists venture down into Lavapies, the lowest-elevated part of the city center, so the residents aren’t strangers to cameras. However, due to the heavy immigrant population, a photographer can’t ever be sure who is in the country legally, or which other reasons an immigrant may have for not wanting to appear in a picture on the Internet, for example. Common sense is the rule of the day; if you aren’t sure about a subject, ask.
Being an old neighborhood, Lavapies’ streets are narrow and its buildings regal and as a bonus, painted variously. A rose-colored building may sit next to a pastel-yellow one, which itself is next to a light blue one, for example. The Plaza de Lavapies is arguably the beating heart of the neighborhood, and is always busy or having been busy the night before, looking like all the party animals feel the morning after. The Reina Sofia museum is there, with its fabulously modern architecture. The Mercado de San Fernando is a lively place all through the week, but especially on the weekends, where dance troupes come through and hold large group dances in the market’s central plaza. With the Rastro bordering on the west, the Letras neighborhood bordering on the north, the Prado and other museums to the east, Lavapies is a neighborhood where things are happening, life is happening non-stop all year round.
In the mornings, Lavapies is still sleepy and thus ripe for good street photography. The neighborhood receives a good deal of morning light slanting in, cut by the old rooftops. Let it be recommended that a visiting photographer start in the plaza, emerging from the metro stop a little after sunrise. From there, head north up to Anton Martin, northwest to Tirso de Molina, and back south through the smaller streets, or perhaps Calle Embajadores. Around sunset, the Embajadores metro stop on the northeast side of the “glorieta de Embajadores” (roundabout) receives some wonderful golden light.