This is one of the key symbols of Madrid. A visit to the Rastro flea market is a must for any visitor's first Sunday in Madrid, and a usual strolling ground for Madrileños on public holiday mornings.
Located around the Ribera de Curtidores, this market encompasses a large, almost triangular block marked by Calle de Toledo, Calle Embajadores and Ronda de Toledo, and spreads into various streets in the area, such as San Cayetano, Fray Ceferino González, Carlos Arniches, Mira el Río or Plaza de General Vara del Rey and Plaza de Campillo del Mundo Nuevo.
This area, where in years gone by the pig abattoir and the nearby tanneries stood, and where bull skins were tanned, nowadays plays host to the world's most traditional street market. On Sundays and public holidays, over a thousand street sellers "open their doors" at around 9am much to the delight of locals and strangers avidly in search of a bargain.
At midday, the square popularly known as Plaza de Cascorro - where the statue of Eloy Gonzalo stands, a soldier from Madrid who in 1897 heroically set fire to the houses of the Cuban community of Cascorro - swarms with people. A stream of tourists and Madrileños observe the tradition of the majority, emerging from the Metro at Tirso de Molina station and wandering through the street market from top to bottom. From Cascorro to the Puerta de Toledo Market.
Hiding place for rogues and villains
Times have changed since the Rastro was home to rogues and crooks, and the items on sale have also changed, although the essence of a market where anything can be bought and sold remains, as described by the nineteenth century writers Hilario Peñasco and Carlos Cambronero: "There, in muddled heaps, appear side by side a militia uniform and a chipped crockery set, a portrait of the Duke of La Victoria and a carnival cape, a mantilla and an 18th century swordsman; therefore, the father of the household, the amateur actor, the industrious wife and the antiquarian will always find at the Rastro something that answers their need to satisfy their pastimes".
From Cascorro it is possible to take home anything imaginable. From first and second hand clothes, jewellery or any typical souvenir of Madrid, to old coins and antiques on display in some of the small squares and galleries. But also with items you would never expect to see on sale: a small piece of plastic that, when placed under the tongue, makes the sound of birdsong; the internal mechanism of an old door lock; or a part for a radio that stopped being made almost before this wonderful contraption arrived in Spain.
There are also themed streets in the Rastro, such as Calle de San Cayetano, known as Painters' Street, awash with oil paintings, water colours or reproductions of great works of art.
And now´s the time to have some tapas
After this hectic stroll, and with the search for bargains satisfied, you cannot leave Cascorro without consolidating this typically Madrilenian activity of purchasing at the Rastro with a decent aperitif in one of the crowded bars located all over this area. The traditional custom of going for beers has its own paradise. A glass of wine, a beer or an on-tap vermouth would not be the same without the priceless company of a 'tapa-sized' portion of paella or a squid ring sandwich, on offer in the bars that line the Ribera de Curtidores and nearby streets. Good atmosphere, clamour, the urge to buy, and far more so to sell, abound.