A tickle in your nose says you’ve arrived – it’s the distinctive smell of thousands of rope-soled alpargatas (espadrilles) in one of Madrid’s traditional stores.
What could be simpler? The classic alpargata is just a coiled rope sole and a cotton canvas upper. Nothing more than that – but this simple shoe is Spain’s favorite summer footwear.
Some history: The true origin of the alpargata is unclear. Some souces say Rome, some say Egypt, some say the Middle East – in any case, the most likely origin is somewhere in the Mediterreanean area, a very long time ago. What does seem clear is that here in Iberia, this simple footwear was already known in 14th century Cataluña.
Checking the origin of the word alpargata also shows differing opinions. The Real Academia dictionary (Spain’s equivalent of Oxford) shows the Basque word abarca as origin for alpargata – rather odd as this shoe doesn’t do well in wet climates like northern Spain, but interesting for the name similarity to the Menorcan sandal called abarca or albarca. People who know Spanish will have noticed the “al” that often indicates Arabic word origin; one source suggests alpargatas were adopted by Arabic speakers during the Middle Ages, and the original Spanish word changed through that contact to alpargata. The same source noted that there are dialectal variations of apargata and even pargata, without the “al”.
Originally alpargatas were worn mainly by country people, valued as inexpensive, lightweight, comfortable and for good traction on uneven surfaces. Today most country people wear modern shoes, but now and then you can still see shepherds wearing alpargatas. The rural tradition of using alpargatas survives in regional dance groups – many use this footwear as a colorful and authentic part of their costumes.
Today alpargatas can be found on many different kinds of feet all over the world. The styles have evolved as well – though the ever-popular classic style is still a solid-color cotton upper and a coiled rope sole. That sole is now made of jute instead of hemp, though Maxi in Casa Crespo remembers alpargata manufacturs with plantations of hemp to make the rope for the soles. For traditional alpargatas, the rope sole is hand-sewn to the two parts of the cotton upper but industrial models are creeping in. Laces can be decorative or functional depending on the style – some traditional styles are open at the sides and the laces keep the alpargatas in place.
Classic alpargatas can go just about anywhere – from the beach to most low-key social occasions, but if something dressier is needed, newer “fashion” styles take over where the classics leave off. Casa Crespo and Hernanz coincide that the classics sell well most of the year, with a boom between May and September, and the fashion models sell mainly in spring and summer. Both stores get new models every spring (usually in April) – different heel heights, different laces, different materials like leather or silk, patterned cloth, decorated with sequins or embroidery – the variations are endless.
Once you’ve tried these shoes yourself you’ll probably become an alpargata fan as well – and at the amazingly low price for the flat classic model, you can get a whole rainbow of colors to match all your summer clothes.
Tips on alpargatas
If you go to a traditional store in alpargata season, try to go off-hours (weekday mornings usually best) and be patient. It may take a while to get what you want. Be flexible, the shopkeepers might have suggestions.
Try on both shoes, and if the first pair doesn’t fit, try another pair in the same size. Since they’re made by hand, there may be size difference between pairs.
If you’re between sizes, get one that’s a little snug as they stretch, some styles more than others – the shopkeepers can tell you how much stretch you can expect in the model you want.
First wearing: For cotton canvas styles, to help your alpargatas mold to your feet, lightly spray the cloth uppers with a plant spritzer after putting them on – especially if they’re a little snug. If you got a classic style with no initial difference between right and left, you can use a marking pen inside one shoe to indicate right or left – after a few wearings they’ll take the shape of your feet.
Try not to get the rope bottoms wet as they may swell and disintegrate. If you get caught in rain, stuff them with newspaper, turn them soles up to dry and hope for the best.
To clean the cloth uppers, hand wash using nail brush, keeping the rope bottoms as dry as possible (this is easier than it sounds). Stuff with newspaper and let dry.
Where to buy: Getting alpargatas is almost a ritual, best done at one of the traditional stores. Both of Madrid’s traditional stores talk about multi-generational families who come together to get their summer shoes, or about people who first came to the store with grampa or gramma – and say that the place has barely changed in all those years. These stores are also a great place to people-watch – and of course to have an authentic Madrid experience.
Antigua Casa Crespo, calle Divino Pastor 29, Metro Bilbao. Classic alpargata store, founded 1863, family business in the fourth generation. Very crowded in season. Open Saturdays only May – September.
Casa Hernanz, calle Toledo 18, Metro Sol y La Latina. Classic alpargata store, founded 1845, family business. Also sells rope, baskets and many kinds of string for macrame. Very crowded in season.
Lobo, calle Toledo 30, Metro Sol y La Latina. Not a specialist in alpargatas, though that kind of shoe is one of their biggest lines (this is my own favorite). Also has Menorcan abarcas, flamenco shoes and desert boots. Very crowded in season, get your number and wait your turn.
Looking for something fancy or cannot manage the traditional stores? Go Fashion at Castañer (Claudio Coello, 51), or check out two stores just east of the Plaza Mayor (one on calle Zaragoza, another on calle Sal/Postas).
Thanks to the friends who suggested the idea for this post. You know who you are.