With almost 300 years of history — early mentions of it date back to 1740 — El Rastro is probably the oldest flea market in all of Spain. Loved and visited by locals and tourists alike, El Rastro is as much an experience as it is a market. Everything has a price here, even a few things that really, _really_ shouldn’t.
Back in 1740, El Rastro grew organically around Matadero de la Villa, one of the local slaughterhouses. “Rastro” is the Spanish word for “trail”, and references the blood trail that was left on the streets when transporting cattle from the slaughterhouse to the tanneries of Ribera de Curtidores, the street where most of the stalls in El Rastro are located.
Today, however, that trail is little more than a distant memory confined in the history books. The modern incarnation of El Rastro is one of incredibly busy streets, tourists and locals haggling for deals in every little stall, street performers trying to capitalize on the many pairs of available eyeballs, and intrepid photographers like yours truly, risking life, limb and camera to capture the magic of it all.
However you look at it, El Rastro is definitely a unique way to spend your Sunday morning.
The ideal place to start your visit from is Plaza de Cascorro. That way you’ll be walking down the street, instead of fighting the steep slopes of La Latina. Walking around El Rastro is pretty tiring, and every bit of effort adds up. The statue of Eloy Gonzalo, a Spanish soldier who fought in the Cuban War of Independence, marks the beginning of the stalls, which go on to spread the entire length of Ribera de Curtidores and the many adjacent streets.
If you’re actually interested in buying something and not just visiting, you should probably be there as early as 9 or 10 a.m., before the streets get so busy that simply walking becomes a struggle.
It’s worth keeping in mind that a visit to El Rastro is not something you rush. Even if your only intention is to walk down Ribera de Curtidores without ever stopping to buy anything, it will probably take you over an hour. Considering the street is only 600 meters long, that should give you an idea of just how many people will be there with you.
Along the way, you’ll encounter opportunities to buy almost anything your imagination can conjure up, both new items and used. If you can think about it, you can most likely find it in El Rastro. New clothes? Check. Old clothes? Of course. Handmade leather goods? You got it. Knives? Absolutely. Creepy old, discarded mannequins? You get the idea.
If you want to play it safe and stick to new items, you’ll find most of them along Ribera de Curtidores. Everything from clothes to ceramics, and of course the much-renowned leather works that represent the heritage of the street’s name. “Curtidores” is the Spanish word for leather workers, and the street still houses a few permanent tanneries that open every day of the week.
However, the most authentic experience in el Rastro can be found in the smaller adjacent streets, where the used goods stalls are located. It is there that you’ll get a taste of this strange parallel universe where the mundane and the bizarre coexist in impossible ways.
It’ll all be pretty disconcerting at first, and that’s to be expected. However, there’s a moment when something just clicks in your head, and everything around you starts to feel weirdly familiar, maybe even normal. “Well of course those are used reading glasses. Why would people buy them new anyway?” That’s when you know El Rastro has you firmly in its grasp.
It’s important to remain grounded in reality, though. If you start wondering whether you should buy a used cowbell to go with those lovely horse shoes you saw in the previous stall, perhaps it’s time to call it a day and just walk away.
Another important aspect of El Rastro is how it revitalizes neighboring businesses. Ribera de Curtidores is home to many antique and fine art shops, all of which remain open for the duration of El Rastro. Now that vintage items are all the rage, these shops offer an opportunity to find some really exotic — and, you know, actually vintage — items for your home, instead of their fake modern counterparts. Best of all, you’ll still be paying only a small fraction of what today’s imitations would cost you.
Naturally, surrounding bars also have a share in the party, especially during summer, when the heat becomes nearly unbearable. Between stall and stall, many people flock to nearby watering holes with the anxiousness of a pilgrim in the desert. Luckily, beer always runs cold in these places, and traditional bocatas de calamares (squid sandwiches) are readily available to keep everyone sated and able to keep going.
Street performers deserve their own separate mention, because they really are something else. Every week you’ll see these artists come up with new and original ideas to grab the attention of as many passersby as they possibly can. Mimes usually settle down near Plaza de Cascorro, with incredibly intricate costumes and disguises specifically designed to entice the crowd. These men and women endure the rigors of winter and the extreme heat of summer with the same stoic disposition, which is pretty impressive to watch.
And last but not least, there’s the visitors. A market as bizarre as this one is bound to attract some very peculiar characters, and boy does El Rastro deliver. If you’re observant, you’ll get a chance to meet some really interesting people along the way, all of whom will be perfectly happy to talk to you about whatever tickles your fancy that day. Philosophers, eccentric artists and even ex-soldiers are just a few examples of the types of people you’re likely to meet there on any given Sunday.
At the end of the day, El Rastro is something bigger than a market: it is a place where everyone is welcome. For a few fleeting hours, visitors are free to forget about the troubles of everyday life and play the unique game the city proposes them, a game where actual needs are irrelevant and all that matters is finding the elusive deals that await those who know how to look.
If that sounds like something you’d enjoy, come visit and I guarantee you’ll have one hell of a day. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you about those horse shoes.