Archive for Madrid

Buy by weight in Madrid

One of the best additions to Madrid’s commercial scene in recent years: stores where you can buy many kinds of non-perishables by weight. We’re talking different kinds of nuts and dried fruit, many kinds of beans, lentils, pasta, various grains including oddities like barley, and lots and lots of rice – one place has 15 kinds, and even then not the really odd stuff.

So why buy at these places? Well, most stores bag in paper, so you are doing your bit for the environment. You can also buy just about any quantity, which is good if you only need a little for a recipe and don’t want leftovers, whether to avoid temptation of extra chocolate chips, or due to space constraints. You can also get a small amount to try an oddity – green rice, black quinoa, chestnut-flour pasta – or get a mega amount of something you know you like a lot but can rarely find, so you want to stock up.

There are quite a few of these stores nowadays, here’s a selection with my admittedly subjective comments. (niceness is an important factor for choosing where to shop!). At any of these places there shouldn’t be a problem if you take your own bag, but you should definitely ask before assuming it’s ok.

A note on quantities:  many of us think more by volume than by weight. You can ask for a scoop (una pala), half scoop, or the weight you want.  When getting beans, grains or pasta, I usually ask for a quarter-kilo, which is a little more than a half-pound.

Casa Ruíz. This is my favorite, there’s a good selection and one store isn’t far from my apartment. Small chain with stores in Barcelona and four stores in Madrid center-city. Store employees bag, in paper. Large, good selection, well laid out. They do themed gift boxes, too. My opinion: employees at Santa Maria de la Cabeza store are nicer than Andrés Mellado – those are the two stores where I shop. More info at

Pepita y Grano. Another small chain, three stores in Madrid. Store employees bag, in paper. Good selection, including some really unusual rice. Have only shopped at their newish store on San Bernardo, really nice employees. More info at

Placeres A Granel. Medium size independent store (not a chain) near Argüelles metro. Super cute store, good selection, and very nice woman owner / manager. Store employees bag, in paper. Calle Guzman el Bueno 4. More info at

El Granero de la Corredera. Medium size store, two in Madrid, I’ve only seen the one near Noviciado metro. Clients bag, in paper. Good selection, though I prefer layout of other stores more. Corredera Baja de San Pablo 33. More info at

Casa Terra. Biggish store just off Gran Via. Nice layout and good selection.  Lots of unusual pasta, not wheat-based. Store employees bag, in paper. Nice people.  More info at

Granel Madrid. Smaller store in the upper Rastro area. In Covid-times you may need to wait if employees are waiting on other clients. Smaller so less selection, but still very worthwhile, this is where I go if need something in a hurry (it’s closer to my apartment than any other store). Generally nice, especially the woman. Employees bag, in paper. Calle Embajadores 12. More info at

Bio c’bon. General health food store that has some products by weight. French chain with three stores in Madrid. Clients bag, in paper, from plastic containers with levers. They used to have pretty good selection, but I was at the Princesa store recently and they were very low on stock on everything, not just products by weight. Check online before heading to any of their stores, I think the company has had some economic issues and may be closing at least the Princesa store. More info at

Salud Mediterranea. Another general health food store with some products by weight. The by-weight selection isn’t huge, but this is one of the best health food stores in Madrid, three stores, one near Atocha (the one I know), one near Chueca (which is mostly if not all cosmetics and supplements, not food), and another store in Salamanca neighborhood. Client bags, in paper, from plastic containers like previous place. More info at


Life in Time of Covid19




Balcony banner: We’re going to get through this. #I’m staying at home


Life in the Time of Covid-19

This is a personal account about Spain’s experience spring-summer 2020 with the COVID-19 virus.    As such, there are some personal stories, some opinion, and yes, some politics, though a lot of this is hard news with some minor interpretation. No apologies for the opinions or politics and please do not bother refuting here or on Facebook; I’m not starting an argument (dialogue always ok if respectful), just reporting what I saw and felt.

Yes, it’s long. Feel free to scroll / skip around.   Some of you know this story from having experienced firsthand, or having read my posts during lockdown.


The onset
Spain’s first detected case of COVID-19 was January 31 on island of La Gomera, a German tourist who most likely was infected in Germany before arrival. Nine days later there was another case on Balearic island of Mallorca, another tourist. Late in February the first cases were detected on the mainland (Madrid, Valencia and Catalonia).

It’s hard if not impossible to find patient “zero”, but some of the first mainland cases in Spain are probably connected to a soccer game between a Spanish team from Valencia and an Italian team from Bérgamo . That game was played in Milan mid-February, with around 40,000 Italian fans and 2,500 Spanish fans. Late in February there were several other soccer games in large stadiums and the traditional weeklong art fair (ARCO), with 93,000 visitors, many international. Then the weekend of March 7-8 saw more soccer games, a political rally for the newish far-right political party VOX, and the traditional Women’s Day demonstration-celebration. And in Madrid, a traditional and traditionally crowded farmers’ market on Saturday, with a lot of close contact and sharing yummy food.

All of those events were before the virus really became visible in Spain and all those events probably contributed to the spread of the virus. But with what we know now, it’s quite possible that the virus was circulating undetected, even before the first cases, and for sure before numbers exploded in later March.

Some politics (you can definitely skip this if not interested)

Quick summary on Spain’s political spectrum, since there are some implications for the virus management.

Spain has two big country-wide parties, the Partido Socialista Obrero Español (PSOE Spanish Socialist Workers’ Party, social-democrat, center to mid-left) and the Partido Popular (PP, Popular Party, starts right of center and goes a little farther right than mid-right). Both parties have had their share of fraud, mismanagement and in-party fighting, the PP issues are more recent.

There are three other major country-wide parties: left of the PSOE is Unidos Podemos (UP, United We Can), a newish coalition of an older coalition and the newish party Podemos that started ok but went south after party infighting and mismanagement. Squeezed between the PSOE and the PP is another newish party Ciudadanos (CC, Citizens) which overlaps both parties a little and does some swing voting; they grew quickly with previous voters from both parties, but lost a lot of votes in the last election due to some bad decisions. On the far (far, far) right of the spectrum is Vox (sort of like Voice), the newest party which I cannot even write about without some anxiety.

There are also a fair number of regional parties that do not have a lot of support outside their regions, spread across the political spectrum, and aligning when and where their interests lie.

Currently Spain’s government is a center – left coalition, made up of PSOE, UP and some regional parties, with PP and Voz firmly in the opposition and CC often but not always in the opposition. It’s a coalition government because with so many parties, now the only way to have a big enough majority to elect the Prime Minister (done in Congress after the popular vote) is usually to form a coalition with several parties; the current coalition was formed early in 2020 after prolonged wrangling behind closed doors. Spain’s Prime Minister (head of government) is Pedro Sanchez from the PSOE. Spain is a a Constitutional Monarchy, so King (Felipe VI) has no real political power but signs laws into effect.

State of Alarm
The Spanish Constitution (approved by referendum in 1978) sets out rules for different States of Exception, including the State of Alarm (SoA). The SoA is declared by the Prime Minister, must be approved by Congress and can only be for 14 days, extensible for same period with renewed approval of Congress. Spain’s first SoA started March 14 (see Errors for some comments on timing of this). It was pretty clear that the SoA would be declared from early in that week – schools closed different days depending on region, but generally before actual SoA, Madrid schools closed March 11. I tried to go to the gym on March 12, entrance and what I could see was unusually empty, people at front desk told me they were waiting for confirmation but they most likely would have to close that same day, perhaps within a few hours, dependent on news in official state bulletin.

The SoA (which we all called the lockdown or encierro/enclosure) was quite strict: we could only leave our homes to buy food or medicine or to go to the doctor. Dog owners could walk their dogs, but not excessively; joke was that people borrowed dogs from friends to have excuse to go out, though that may not have really happened. Theoretically we were supposed to food-shop at places closest to our homes, though surely I was not the only person going farther away just to get some exercise. Unlike other countries with lockdowns, we did not have any option for walking for exercise until early May.

And yes, the lockdown was fairly well enforced. For someone like me who remembers the extreme police presence of immediately post-Franco Spain, it was really disconcerting to see so many police in the street. And yes, I had a personal encounter with the police, having ventured to a market some distance from my apartment looking for unusual vegetables unavailable in my neighborhood (celeriac and sunchokes, if you’re curious). My market mission was unsuccessful, and I was headed up an absolutely empty Gran Via (main shopping street in center city, usually crowded) towards a big supermarket when two police stopped me and asked nicely if I was aware of the current mobility restrictions. Equally nicely I said that I was on a quest for a strange vegetable to boost immune system and now on my way to the supermarket, they asked where I live, asked to see my ID and let me go. They could have fined me since I was a little too far from my home, but between my age, gender, not-Spanish nationality and politeness they didn’t. And yes, channeling my mother, I thanked them before we parted ways (although did not use the “time and talent” phrase that she liked to use. That would have been over the top, the thank you surprised them enough).

My other almost-encounter was less direct but more scary. Early in our lockdown I left to go shopping, and saw two people in full haz-mat suits at the door of building next to mine, with several police nearby and two ambulances on the nearest cross-street (my street is pedestrian). When I came back from shopping, ambulances and haz-mat people were gone, but there were two police still at the door of the other building. They kept their eye on me until I unlocked my downstairs door. I did wonder if they would have stopped me from walking past the door of the other building, if I had been going that way.

Any kind of shopping was quite an adventure. The only stores open for first months were grocery stores; store selling office supplies; cell phone/supplies stores; cleaning supplies stores; and (get this) alcohol, as in wine, beer, gin, etc. Oh, and pastry shops / bakeries and some sweet-and-salties shops (snackies being necessities in time of lockdown, ya’know). All stores controlled number of people inside, so we had to line up everywhere to wait our turn to go in, sanitize hands and usually put on single-use gloves. Checkout lines had (and still have) lines on the floor to help people keep proper distance.

During this initial time, masks were not officially required though that changed fairly soon to being obligatory anywhere public indoors, soon extended to on public transportation and anywhere public where personal distance could not be maintained. I made my own masks fairly early on; Madrid health service gave everyone a nice KN95 style mask (the kind with shaped front), and also a surgical mask, which was distributed by local police outside train stations early in May when masks became required on public transportation.

While stuck at home, many of us started following an 8 PM ritual: standing on our balconies to clap in thanks, especially for health care workers but also for other essential workers risking their health and even their lives to take care of the ill and keep society moving (bus drivers. cashiers. cleaners. and a lot more). That started early on, and continued daily until well into May or early June. My balconies are onto a big patio; I was one of the regular “clappers”, and ended up with a waving relationship with other people looking onto the patio. (Some weeks after we stopped clapping, I connected with the most frequent clapper across the way: she wrote her cell number in big numbers on a big notepad, I texted her and we went out for coffee.) As a counterpart to the clapping, the opposition parties called for a daily pan-banging at 9 PM: standing on the balcony and bang a pan with a spoon in protest for the government’s virus management (according to them). This was not followed in my neighborhood, I think there was one person a street over on maybe two nights, while the clapping (and cheering) was enthusiastic and weeks-long. Other friends and acquaintances tell me that pan-banging was more frequent than clapping in their neighborhoods.

Our lockdown was super tight until late April. First group liberated were kids under 14 years old, who could go out for an hour a day for a walk after April 27 – though theoretically only with one parent, and not to play with friends. (anyway, all kid stuff taped off and parks closed). Next groups liberated: May 2 was the day HOORAY! We all got some freedom for exercise, though in slots of time and theoretically limited in distance to one kilometer from home for walking, though “sports” had no limits, so of course my power-walking became a sport and I never got stopped. (didn’t go too far out of my area, anyway). Parks were closed which placed some serious limitations on were to walk and together with time slots even created crowding, at least in the places I was walking. I usually walked 7.45-8AM to 10AM or a little later – technically my slot ended at 10AM (10-12 AM for over 70’s), but I usually used walking as prelude to any shopping, for necessities real or imagined – never has my pantry been so well-stocked! I went out after 8pm several times – that was other time slot for my age group – but it was really crowded, lots of people standing on corners socializing, understandable but probably risky. So I rarely went out in that time slot.

The State of Alarm was renewed seven times times, each time with Congress’ approval. The last two renewals were especially problematic, with opposition from PP and Vox. If I remember correctly, both times CC voted for the extension. The State of Alarm ended on June 20, after more than three months of lockdown.

The last weeks of the SoA were the “de-escalation”, four two-week periods gradually loosening the lockdown, with parameters for moving from level 0 through levels to level 3: that was May 11 to June 20. The parameters for changing from one level to another included amount of contagion in a health-region, number of total hospital beds available, number of ICU beds available, level of testing, level of primary care. The two-week period for each level was to match the maximum incubation period, to be able to evaluate effects of increased mobility on contagion. Still under SoA, the decisions for allowing regions to move between levels were still being made at central government. If I remember correctly, at level 3 some of the health decisions returned to local health-region.

Since regions had different situations, parts of Spain where at different levels: lower-contagion Galicia and the two island provinces skipped level 0, going directly to level 1. Madrid and other areas stayed at level 0 longer; Madrid was still in level 2 at the end of lockdown so we went directly into the New Normal from level 2, with no intermediate level 3. Each level had gradually more movement allowed, regulating what kind of establishments could open and at what capacity: outdoor cafés were among the first to open (yay!), though indoor restaurants not until a later level, and in both cases with lower-than-normal capacity and strict-ish table distancing regulations.

Madrid entered phase 0 on May 11. That more or less was the end of our super-strict lockdown. We could go out for exercise without restrictions on time, though still could not leave our city / town. That was in later phase, though between one thing and another, I did not leave Madrid until mid-July. Yes, had my first social encounter early in phase 0 (coffee in Santa Ana square, people-watching and checking out waiters fulfilling new table wipe-down rules. People all seemed a little subdued, not usual Madrid vibe. Shortly after that met a different friend for a wine and again, it was different. Usually in Spain you can dawdle over your wine or beer, but with fewer tables available due to new spacing rules, the waiter and clients were glaring at us when we stayed on a bit after second wine. About a month later with same friend we had another wine (Verdejo white, in case you are interested), that time we stayed on and waitstaff was very welcoming, even invited us to a round.

Spain is in the New Normal as of June 21. We’ll see where it goes – actually, we’re already seeing some of the new reality and it isn’t great – yet. Economically it has been huge, especially for hotels, bars, restaurants. Lots of places are closed in Madrid-center, some may not open again, others may open in September when locals come back from vacation and the bar/hotel/restaurant furlough period ends. Small stores seem less busy; I was looking in a shop window and the shopkeeper called out a greeting to come on in to his empty shop, which has never happened to me in the past. I haven’t been to the big stores in central Madrid (department store nor my beloved FNAC books and music nor Decathlon sports store) so cannot evaluate how they’re doing, but my general feeling is that a lot of people are still hunkering down, evaluating what they have, what they need, what money they have, where in the past at least some of those places benefited from a fair amount of retail therapy, where now people are thinking more, whether from economics or from a mindset shift from the lockdown, which seems to have happened for a fair number of people. (a lot of us are still feeling fragile, and from comments of people online that is not just here in Spain).


Other comments.

Communication with citizens
One thing I really noticed in the management of COVID-19 is the importance of messaging. Health authorities and all levels of government need to work together to give clear, frequent, honest and consistent messages to citizens. The messages need to express the severity of the situation and at the same time emphasize that with everyone working together, the situation will eventually get better. Messages should also include compassion for the numerous and complicated emotional and economic issues of this pandemic.  If messaging is absent or off, it’s really hard to get citizens to follow health guidelines.

Spain’s main messenger was rather atypical: epidemiologist Fernando Simon is never seen in a suit and tie, frequently has messy hair and carries a backpack instead of a briefcase; the public has learned that he goes to work on a motorcycle and de-stresses with surfing or technical rock climbing. As unconventional a messenger as he is, his curriculum is impressive and his messaging must have been fabulous both in delivery and information shared, because he went from unknown to literally having a large fan club and his face on tee-shirts (when queried about that, he suggested that some of the profit go to a NGO). I don’t watch TV so only saw a few videos and can say personally that I’d be more likely to trust a message from someone like Fernando Simon than from most suits. Though yes, I am making an exception for Dr. Anthony Fauci, for whom I have a very high respect, even if he can’t pitch a baseball.

The errors
Like other countries, Spain’s government was a little slow setting out restrictions at the start of the pandemic. That is understandable: calling for restrictions is complicated both politically and economically, and it was hard to evaluate and really believe the impact the virus would have. Nevertheless, it’s clear that if the State of Alarm had been called just a week earlier, the situation would have been very different. Another error was closing schools several days before State of Alarm was called, giving kids two play days with friends, and giving families time to head to vacation homes. Both those situations probably helped spread the virus.

There have been questions about the length of the State of Alarm and about the parameters and timing of the de-escalation; the complaints were mainly from the opposition parties who wanted a faster un-winding, but also from some regions where contagion was lower, where they also wanted to get back to “normal” more quickly.

Spain’s Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez (PSOE) has publicly admitted to having made some mistakes – that kind of admission is rather rare for politicians. The opposition parties (PP and Vox) have criticized the government’s virus strategy, though they have not had a lot of really good alternative suggestions. Pedro Sanchez has asked the opposition to hold their criticism until the health crisis is closer to a solution.

At the end of July, the leader of far-right party VOX (Santiago Abascal) announced in Congress that in September he would present a vote of no-confidence against Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez, because it is important to “return the voice to the Spanish people”, calling Sanchez’ government illegitimate, and calling on the PP to support the censure (for now, the PP has said no). Sanchez’s ironic reply was to ask Abascal that if it was so important why wait? Or was he (Abascal) going on vacation in August?

Where now, early August 2020?

COVID-19 is going to be around for a while, probably a long while, even if we get a vaccine relatively soon, which is not 100% sure.

So…… to stop the virus spread, we all need to think personal responsibility and social responsibility, following health guidelines to stay safe ourselves, and to not endanger other people should we be or become infected. Yes, at very least that means masks, personal distance, lots of hand-washing, avoid face-touching, avoid touching surfaces outside your safe-zone (your home), sanitize high-touch areas in your home if you or others have been out.

But it also means evaluating risks and making good decisions. There are a multitude of charts to help you evaluate risks of different activities, but it’s easier than that. Indoors is higher risk than outdoors. More than 15 minutes encounter with a person at close proximity is a risk. Eating, drinking, talking, singing in close proximity is a risk. The last two are especially risky without masks. Alas, a lot of the recent contagion in Spain has been through social contacts: parties, family meals, bars, etc, which seems to indicate that some people are not making great decisions.

So where is travel on the risk spectrum? Yeah, this is especially important for me. My favorite kind of travel is walking and hiking, so as outdoors, not too risky. Hotels have new health guidelines, as do albergue pilgrim accomodations on the Camino (Road of St. James). The albergues are usually communal everything so their changes are more complicated and more important than hotels – as such, quite a few albergues have been unable to fulfill guidelines within a reasonable time frame and reasonable cost, so many have not opened yet and may not open this year. Alas, that is especially true for the traditional “donation” albergues that do not charge a fixed amount, rather whatever pilgrims can / want to pay. Which of course means some people who can pay do not, causing ongoing, on-edge finances for these traditional establishments (that dynamic has been going on for years, the new health guidelines make it even more complicated). The other part of travel is transportation: I feel ok on buses and trains in Spain where masks are required. Research shows that planes are not too risky if they are not at capacity, though of course there is a lot of conflicting information from different studies.


New Normal, going forward is not just going back

So now the philosophy. We’re all longing for our PV (pre-virus) life. Hugs, socializing, eating in restaurants, care-free travel, movies and theater and a lot more. It’s hard to even think how casual we were about all those things, just eight months ago.

And yes, a lot of those things will return, between herd immunity and whatever vaccine comes (when it comes). Although a lot of us will probably be at least a little wary for the foreseeable future, even when the virus is more or less under control.


The other part about going forward is contemplating what the virus has shown us about our society and our world. COVID-19 has really taught some lessons about a lot of things: health in general; economic inequality; access to health care; responsibility of governments on all levels to keep citizens informed ; responsibility of government to manage crisis for the health and well-being of their citizens; citizen responsibility to make the right decisions for themselves and for society in general. There have also been questions about climate change and human pressure on natural space creating more situations where virus can jump from animals to human.

Obviously I could go on or go into detail, but other people have already done that better than I can. This is just a reminder that this Great Pause is a huge crisis, an enormous tragedy, but also an opportunity for all of us to think honestly about what the Old Normal was like – not just the good things we miss, but the less-good things that need change. Some of those less-good things are out of our direct control, but at least we can be aware of things that need fixing and change our attitudes, if that will help.

And yes, we need to manage changes going forward, because going back to things obviously wrong or broken is not the way to have a better world.

And yes, those of us living in responsive democracies need to get together and tell our governments, on all levels, what needs to be changed.

Alpargatas, Spain’s rope-soled shoes


While August may seem late to think about alpargatas, most of Spain still has a month of nice weather – and the lines at the traditional shops are a lot shorter.

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. 

Bilingual Blips


Being bilingual is a blessing, and sometimes a curse. While doctors of various specialties extoll the benefits of knowing two languages, while cultural specialists sing the praises of people who can communicate fluently linguistically and culturally in more than the native language, the reality of living bilingual has some very odd side effects.

First, let me clarify. By my own very strict definition of bilingual, even after more than half my life in Spain, I’m not bilingual and never will be. My accent is way too obvious, though I’ve begun to suspect that’s a subconscious way of maintaining my original Anglo identity. But aside from that (and an occasional grammatical error) I’m totally fluent, including slang, puns and political rants in my second language. Most other people would consider me bilingual so let’s use that term here.

Usually I can switch between languages with ease – especially when listening I sometimes don’t even realize what language is spoken, it just goes to the processing center in my brain without going through any “oh, turn Spanish on/off”. This is mostly useful, though sometimes a word of the wrong language will sneak into a sentence. *

But sometimes that language switch gets stuck. That’s most noticeable when interpreting, when after a while I inevitably speak Spanish to the Anglo and English to the Spaniards.
Then there’s the written language. Again, usually this goes smoothly, but there are times when I cannot understand the English translation and must read the Spanish – alas, that can happen in museums or tourism sights, where the English translation is not very good (sad but true). When reading these English translations, it helps me to think in Spanish.

Menus are another confusing place. My restaurant English is not very good, so I almost always read the Spanish. Anyway, there are some very badly translated menus – one of my favorite bloopers is “steak in spit” (meat on a skewer).

Then there’s fast food. I really should collect all the ways to write “sandwich” in Spanish: sanwis (purely phonetical), samwis (phonetical plus grammar rule about mutating n to m), sandwhich (know-it-all who knows w always followed by h), and variations on these three (sandwis, samwich and the like). And my bilingual brain is still baffled at times by “hay sandwiches” which I’ve often tried to read as English (dried-grass sandwiches for horses) instead of part English and part Spanish, announcing the availability of bread slices with something in between.

Which brings us to my new favorite, seen when dashing through Madrid’s Cuatro Caminos rotunda-square: Low Cost Come. Hmmmm. We are not in the red light district of Amsterdam, and a second / third glance clarifies that we’re talking about food.

Translated, they’re talking about inexpensive food. Ungrammatical even in Spanish: using “low cost” like this seems to mean it describes the next word – but the noun is “comida”, not “come” which of course has a different meaning in English. One can only guess that small window space created a need to improvise – thus the command form “come” instead of the noun.

Better punctuation might help make this clear – or some indication that we are looking at two different languages. Anything else, in the situation, could lead to a bit of confusion, at least for anyone bilingual enough to notice the unusual combination of words.

And no, I do not have an especially dirty mind. Just a bilingual brain. Unless, of course, this is a supremely clever marketing strategy. Perhaps I should inquire?


*for a fun bilingual movie, look for Miguel y William (Michael and William), a 2007 romantic comedy about a fictitious meeting between contemporaneous writers Miguel de Cervantes and William Shakespeare and their rivalry for a lovely lady. It’s partly in Spanish and partly in English, with subtitles in whichever language is not being spoken. Not to be considered Great Cinema, but it’s entertaining and has some great Spanish scenery.






Madrid by Metro

Happy Hundredth, Metro de Madrid!

Well, sort of. Construction started in 1917, but the actual opening was two years later.

Getting the subway project started wasn’t easy. King Alfonso XIII (great grandfather of current King Felipe) added a million pesetas of his own fortune to the kitty to get things going – and cut the ribbon on the first 3.5 kilometers of Line 1 in 1919. It was a revolution: Sol – Cuatro Caminos in under ten minutes, instead of at least thirty minutes by tram. Line 1 was lengthened to Atocha almost immediately, and Line 2 (Sol – Ventas) followed shortly thereafter.

Of course the original subway was different: only four cars per train, train doors that opened by hand and fares that varied by distance travelled. Not to mention the stylish tile decoration in the stations, created by Antonio Palacios to help travellers over the claustrophobia of underground travel (this architect also designed Madrid’s Central Post Office, Bellas Artes and Maudes hospital).

Except for a few slow periods, the subway has continued to grow since those first kilometers. Since the 1980’s the growth has been constant – record-breaking in the late 1990’s – up to current track length of about 294 kilometers and 13 lines, second only to more populous London here in western Europe.

Veteran Line 1 isn’t the longest of Madrid’s subway lines, but it links train and bus stations, shopping areas, cinemas, restaurants, well-known sights and some fun lesser-known sights, so it has one of the highest user rates of all the lines: over 100 million people / year.


Read on to learn how the central part of line 1 can help you explore Madrid.

Chamartin, history: Originally a village north of Madrid where the wealthy “got away from Madrid”; village annexed by Madrid in 1948. Today: Train station for long distance and commuter lines.

Plaza Castilla, today: Underground commuter bus station for many points north, many city bus lines at stops on the surface; “leaning towers” just north of the roundabout-square.

Tetuán, history: This neighbourhood started in 1860 as a military camp for the victorious Spanish army after a war in Africa. The camp ended up being semi-permanent and infrastructure and population sprang up around it. The metro arrived in 1929, which helped consolidate the neighbourhood. Today: Tetuán is one of Madrid’s multi-cultural neighborhoods, this one mostly Latino; South American restaurants and shops abound just off main north-south street Bravo Murillo

Estrecho, today: Fun, almost unknown museum at calle La Coruña 18: Museo Tiflológico. Run by the Spanish Blind organization ONCE, this little gem has models of monuments from Spain and other countries, and an amazing section of artwork by the blind.

Cuatro Caminos, history: Ever wonder about the name of this square? The “four streets” are Santa Engracia, Bravo Murillo, Reina Victoria and Artistas, as Raimundo Fernández Villaverde was created after square was named. Today: important metro transfer – with endless escalators for line 6. Maravillas market on Bravo Murillo is one of the city’s best.

Rios Rosas, today: Old Canal de Isabel II water deposit (brick tower built 1865-1876) is an exhibit venue, worth visiting just to see how the space is used. Don’t miss the very top floor. Geology fans: Geominero museum at Rios Rosas 23 – exterior of the building is gorgeous.

Iglesia, history: Original name of this station: Martinez Campos. Today: Sorolla museum at General Martinez Campos 37. Excellent pastry shops near this stop!

Chamberi, history: Chamberí station was closed in 1966; after that, this “ghost station” was barely visible in the tunnel between Iglesia and Bilbao. Today: Now a mini-museum, with original decoration and advertising posters in ceramic tile. Guided visit (free, in Spanish), video and station visit with trains whizzing by behind a glass partition. Fun even without great Spanish. Access: glass structure on corner of Santa Engracia / Luchana. Open Thursday to Sunday, get current schedules by searching Metro Madrid Anden 0.

Bilbao, history: Site of one of the gates in the last line of city walls, called the “Snow Pit Gate” for the pre-refrigerator ice houses nearthe square. Today: best access for eating and drinking around Dos de Mayo, nearby cinemas, and one end of fashion street Fuencarral (other end is Gran Via).

Tribunal, history: San Fernando hospital was built to attend 3,000 patients and functioned until 1922; gave the subway stop its original name of Hospicio. The building is a Madrid history museum since 1929. Today: Interesting museum with good permanent collection and temporary exhibits (don’t miss the model of Madrid).

Gran Via, history: This emblematic street is fairly new, built 1910 – 1931. Subway stop Gran Via (original name Red San Luis) is right next to Madrid’s first skyscraper: Telefónica building on corner of Gran Vía / Fuencarral, completed in 1929. Today: The Telefónica building has excellent temporary exhibits, and a telecommunications. Gran Via is another shopper’s street – but watch out for pickpockets.

Sol, history: Although outside the medieval city, Sol has long been the bustling center for traffic, pedestrians, “Kilometer 0” for Spain’s radial highways, and the first major transfer point for the subway (lines 1,2,3). Remodelled and reorganized more than once over the centuries; site of all kinds of historic events. Today: Pedestrian shopping area on Carmen, Preciados and Monter north to Callao and west on Arenal to Opera. Best subway access for Plaza Mayor and for Real Academia de Bellas Artes de San Fernando (Alcala 13), also for Santa Ana tapa area and movies in English at Yelmo Ideal Cineplex.

Tirso de Molina, history: Original name Progreso (old name for Tirso de Molina square); the name of square and metro stop changed in 1939, shortly after dictator Francisco Franco’s victory in the Civil War. Madrid lore has two ghost stories for this station: one story claims that the bones of monks who lived in the convent that used to be in this square are under the subway platforms, placed there by the workers who built the station (and the other ghost story is too creepy to tell here). Today: The recent renovation of this square created a pleasant space with outdoor cafés and a flower market. Access to the Rastro flea market.

Anton Martin, today: One of Madrid’s first movie theaters (Cine Doré, Santa Isabel 3) is now the “Filmoteca”, running several sessions of different movies every day. Great prices and even cheaper with their ten-punch deal. Rooftop movies in the summer. A must-do for movie fans!

Atocha, history: The old part of Atocha train station was inaugurated in 1892, serving as a station for about 100 years until the new station took over. Today The old station is a greenhouse – a good place to relax before traveling or after a visit to the nearby art museums. New train station for long distance (including AVE) and commuter lines. NOTE: Direct-access metro stop Atocha RENFE better for the station, as old Atocha stop is across many lanes of traffic. Near Atocha / Atocha RENFE: Art museums Reina Sofia, Prado, Thyssen. Anthropology museum, Botanical Gardens, Cuesta Moyana bookstalls, Retiro Park.

Menéndez Pelayo, today: access for Tapestry factory and museum (Fuenterrabia 2)

Pacifico, history: Opened in the early 1920’s on the edge of the city. The “Nave de Motores” generating station, created to guarantee electricity for the subway via a combination of huge engines and transforming power from electrical companies is nearby. Today: The electrical station is newly open as a mini-museum (see Chamberi). Pacifico is an important metro transfer, one stop from Mendez Alvaro (South Bus Station/commuter train station).

La Latina Like a Local


The secret is out. La Latina is the best ‘hood in central Madrid.

Actually, the secret has been out for a while. La Latina Locals have known for a very long time, it’s just the non-locals who have discovered us recently. And while not native Spanish, as a thirty-two year resident of La Latina – and two additional years in nearby Tirso – I’m totally a La Latina Local. I’ve seen kids grow up; spry adults turn into creaky elders; and commerce appear and disappear, all in the heart of this fabulous neighborhood.

So what is so special about La Latina? Read on for the scoop from a local.

It’s super-central – about a ten minute walk from the Plaza Mayor – but mostly quiet, a village inside the city (except when non-locals arrive en masse to have fun).

It’s cool in temperature as well as vibe – we get cooler winds almost direct from the mountains by way of El Pardo, the Casa de Campo and Las Vistillas park.

It’s friendly – the locals know and greet each other on the street, in the stores and in the bar-cafés, striking up conversations on every imaginable topic.

It has everything that La Latina Locals need within easy walking distance, including access to Madrid Rio and Casa de Campo parks.


Visitors tend to stay in a few specific spots – so where do the La Latina Locals live their lives?

Bars / cafés: Muñiz (own churros in the morning, coffee, a quick beer and hanging out); old style Almacen de Vinos (Gerardo) and “Vinos” for beers and hanging out; all on Calatrava street. J.Blanco on Tabernillas street for aperitifs or beers. Paco on Humilladero is another traditional spot, now discovered by non-locals so in transition. All these spots are very authentic and very different from less-local spots around Plaza Humilladero – Tomas, Tomasa, El Viajero or designer tapa spot Juana La Loca which alas, took over the locale of a traditional tapa bar.

Food shopping: Best bread bakery in La Latina: Tahona del Capricho on Humilladero street. Best pastries at + Que Pan (More than Bread using plus symbol) on Plaza de los Carros (good bread, excellent pastries and cakes and a nice small coffee shop). Cheese and cold cuts at Los Andes on Toledo street (excellent selection of Spanish cheese, some foreign). Best wine and liquor shop: Vinomania on Humilladero, corner Sierpe (not huge but very good, varied selection of Spanish wine, including some nice surprises from places you would not expect). All the local mom-and-pop grocery stores have disappeared, but some of the Chinese, Latino or Moroccan-run places have strong La Latina Local support (Chino on Toledo corner Sierpe, Ay Madre la Fruta and two small supermarkets on Humilladero to name a few). And of course the La Cebada market: it’s ugly from the outside and a little sad inside with lots of empty stalls, but the overall quality and service is very good.

Other shopping: La Latina is not a destination for shopping-shopping, though there are two interesting jewelry stores (Ruda and Almendro streets) and some fun and useful traditional shops (candles, espadrilles, baskets), though many other traditional shops have disappeared (cork store, wine-barrel maker, etc).

Churches:  Three La Latina chures are special for the neighborhood and for the entire city: La Paloma (south end of La Paloma street). The real name is San Pedro el Real, but everyone knows this church as La Paloma, home to the image of the Virgin of the Dove (La Paloma), Madrid’s true if unofficial patron saint. This area is Where it Happens for the crazy fun La Paloma street party in mid August, and the church isstart and end point for procession on August 15. San Isidro (calle Toledo). Final resting place of Madrid’s male patron saint San Isidro; this is start and end place for May 15 procession and where the faithful can venerate San Isidro’s tomb. San Pedro El Viejo (Nuncio street). This church is home to the image Jesus Nazareno el Pobre, one of Madrid’s most beloved religious statues, used in the very popular Thursday procession during Easter week.

Other noteworthy La Latina churches: San Andres on square of same name and San Francisco el Grande on south end of Bailen street (see post on this church at

San Isidro museum (The Origins of Madrid) on Plaza de los Carros. While less local, this is a must-do for visitors to see the model and map of old Madrid (including most of today’s La Latina) and to learn about Madrid’s patron saint San Isidro, who was an 11th century La Latina Local.

The Barley Field: our empty lot. La Latina neighborhood has a huge empty lot between La Cebada market and Toledo street. It’s the site of the old sports complex, torn down in 2009 after several inoperative years. Theoretically the lot and the spectacularly ugly market next door are part of an urban renewal program (new market and leisure center) – but Madrid is still emerging from the Crisis and until there is more money we have….. a hole in the ground.

That’s the un-cool part. The cool part is that the hole in the ground is also the Campo de Cebada (The Barley Field), named for the surrounding “La Cebada” square and the market. Operating since 2010, it’s a citizen-run outdoor cultural project, with concerts, story-telling, basketball, occasional circuses or mini-markets; the concept is a shared space where people can get together, chat, have fun, share ideas. Oh, and sometimes have August “pool parties” in protest for the delay in creating our leisure center – wear your swimsuit, bring buckets of water, squirt-guns and your towel. City Hall has given its OK on the Campo de la Cebada for now, though probably no funding for activities. It’s not clear when / if the urban renewal project will happen or what will happen to the Barley Field when (if) the project happens (go to and “Agenda” to see upcoming events at The Barley Field).

Practical information:

Geographical limits: La Latina borders are more or less these: from Plaza Segovia Nueva (just south of Plaza Mayor) south along Toledo street, Estudios street and Ribera de Curtidores to Ronda de Toledo, then west to Glorieta Puerta de Toledo, north-northwest along Gran Via de San Francisco and Bailen to the Viaducto over Segovia street and Segovia street east back to Plaza Segovia Nueva. That’s the big picture: many locals would say that the part between Toledo and Ribera de Curtidores is Rastro, not La Latina, others would end the neighborhood at Cava Alta / Almendro in the north instead of Plaza Segovia Nueva. And take note: central Madrid La Latina neighborhood takes its name from the subway stop, and is completely different from City Hall administrative district La Latina, a southwest slice of the city, not in the center.

What’s in the name: La Latina metro stop takes its name from Beatriz Galindo, founder with her husband of Nuestra Señora de la Concepción convent. Beatriz was a writer and teacher, most notably to Isabel La Católica (who ruled 1474-1504) and Isabel’s children; Beatriz’s nickname was La Latina due to her skill in Latin from a very young age. The convent was founded in the early 16th century on Toledo street next to Plaza de la Cebada, outside the city center of that time and next to a small hospital. The original building was torn down in 1904 to widen Toledo, and shortly after that a new convent built in a neo-mudejar decorative brick style. Fiestas Paco party-ware store is at street level of the current convent, which bears a plaque explaining the founding of the original convent.

Metro stops: La Latina in the north, Puerta de Toledo in the south and Tirso de Molina a little out of neighborhood to the east.


Olive Oil, Always


Whether living in Spain or traveling in Spain, we all know that olive oil is king. Miles and miles of olive groves in the south, in the center, east and west; olive oil on almost every salad; as an option for breakfast toast; included in some form in almost every meal (if only a drizzle to do the fish); many meters of shelf space in most supermarkets…. yes, olive oil is very, very important in Spain.

Yet outside Spain, Spanish oil is only starting to be known for quality and quantity. How can this be? Let’s learn a little about olive oil in Spain.

Spain is the world’s largest producer of olive oil, by a large difference. In 2013-2014 world production of oil was around 3,252,000 tons, with Spain at 1,781,000 tons; Italy was second with 463,000 tons and Greece third with 132,000 tons. Most of the other top producers were around the Mediterranean and a few in the Americas – USA came in far down the list with around 12,000 tons.

Digging a little deeper, statistics show that in the same year Spain consumed about 525,000 tons, Italy 641,000 tons and Greece 140,000 tons (both more than their production). Those figures look odd, don’t they? Especially thinking of the amount of olive oil that Italy exports?

The answer lies in the imports: Italy imported 268,000 tons of oil from a variety of countries, mostly in bulk and a lot from Spain. Italy exported 233,000 tons of oil in the same year, so at least some of the oil that Italy exports is not Italian oil at all, only bottled in Italy, something obvious when reading labels carefully, and even by looking at a map – there’s just not enough land in Italy to produce enough oil for local and export markets.

Yes, Spain does import some oil – around 144.000 tons in the same year. But they export a lot more: almost 280,000 tons in the 2013-2014 season. Traditionally that export oil has been in bulk to countries unable to satisfy their own demand, but finally Spanish oil is starting to get a name for itself, selling more and more bottled oil and less bulk, reaching 140 countries including many countries in the EU and as far away as Asia (China, Japan, Australia, India). Alas, the USA market takes only 92,850 tons of Spanish oil (lots in bulk), while Italian oil sells around 150,000 tons, and mostly bottled for consumer use. Hopefully those numbers will improve in the future, the USA is a huge market and very appreciative of good olive oil.

But while we’re in Spain, and here we can enjoy a wide variety of Spanish olive oils, and help spread the word to the world. Let’s see (and taste!) what Spain has to offer.

Kinds of olives: There are more than 200 varieties of olives in Spain. Some are small production or very local; about 20 varieties are used frequently to make olive oil. Often these varieties are associated to a region: Cornicabra is usually south-central Spain, Arbequina is traditionally found in Catalonia though now also in the south and Picual is frequent in the south.

Of all those varieties, three are most important and easy to find in stores all over the country:
– Arbequina: mild flavor with a nice fragrance
– Picual: Stronger flavor and perfume, a little peppery.
– Hojiblanca: stronger flavor without the peppery taste. My favorite, excellent on salads.

Other olive oil varieties that are relatively frequent and easy to find: cornicabra, empeltre, picudo, lechin, manzanilla.

Kinds of oil: Olive oil can be mono-varietal (made of just one kind of olives) or a coupage or mixture of different kinds of oils. Coupage olive oils try to bring out the best in the different oils used, and try to compensate for seasonal variations in production or flavor.

That’s important to remember: like wine, olive oil is a natural product and can vary widely from season to season, or even within the same season: oil pressed on the same estate early in the harvest and late in the harvest can vary in flavor. Or regional differences, since oil from a specific variety (say, Arbequina) can be different if produced in Catalonia or in central Spain.

Kinds of oil, part two: Olive oil comes in many different qualities with different names. To get the best, you should always get Extra Virgin Olive Oil. This specific name indicates manufacturing process – just mushing the olives and filtering the oil, no heat, no chemical process – and should (but alas, doesn’t always) indicate specific parameters about acidity and fragrance. The label should say Aceite de Oliva Virgen Extra and “Aceite de Oliva de categoria superior obtenido directamente de aceitunas y solo mediante procedimientos mecánicos” (superior quality oil obtained directly from olives and only using mechanical procedures) – so really it’s olive juice with nothing added and nothing subtracted, except filtering the gunk left over after pressing the olives. Next step down is virgen oil – the manufacturing process is the same but it doesn’t quite meet the other parameters. Below that is just plain olive oil and other names. Don’t go there. Stay with Extra Virgin or if you cannot find it, Virgin olive oil. There really is a big difference.

Olive oil in cooking: A short note on the rumor that we should not use Extra Virgin olive oil for cooking: like all oils, olive oil breaks down if heated past the smoke point. But the smoke point is not really low: 160º-207º C (320-405ºF) for extra virgin, depending on quality, with virgin olive oil at a slightly higher smoke point. So it’s just a question of watching your pan to make sure temperature doesn’t get above that, or use a different oil if higher temperatures are needed. (oil with highest smoke point on my list? Avocado oil! Who knew?)

Eeek! So what should I get? All this may sound confusing, but it isn’t. Once you discover your favorite oils, you can have a lot of fun exploring the differences, or testing and tasting oils that are completely different from the one you usually use. Nowadays more and more manufacturers show the olive variety on the label, so if you know you like Arbequina you can go with that one (noticing what manufacturers you like best) until you are ready to try other kinds. Soon you’ll discover what kinds work best for different uses, and you may end up with several kinds of oil on hand, one for salads, another for doing fish and yet another for your morning toast.

My own choice? I always get mono-varietal, usually Hojiblanca. When really organized, I also have Arbequina for some uses. I’ve tried and like Empeltre, Alfafarenca, Cornicabra and Picudo. And yes, always always Extra Virgin. I use olive oil for almost everything, except a few odd recipes that need a no-taste oil to pull everything together.

Get more info at:
International Olive Oil Council: Headquarters in Madrid, logical after what we’ve seen. Lots of information on their website    Source for statistics used here for other countries


Architects that Made Madrid


Antonio Palacios building in Cibeles


Have you ever noticed a quirky detail under a balcony, a beautiful entranceway, an unusual shape building on a corner lot, and wondered who thought it up? Someone put it all together – an architect who by inspiration and planning created a building that was structurally sound, visually pleasing, with its own personality but also fitting in with its surroundings.

That’s the ideal situation and it’s a tall order, but it can be done. Madrid really does have a sort of architectural personality – or rather, as many personalities as neighborhoods – and lots of great buildings, especially in the older part of the city. Churches, convents, palaces, banks, all somehow fit together to make Madrid distinctively Madrid.

This article is a fast introduction to architecture in Madrid, highlighting several influential or prolific architects from 17th to 20th centuries. It’s interesting to note how architects first patrons were kings and nobility, later on City Hall, cultural organizations (Bellas Artes building by Antonio Palacios), real estate developers or occasionally wealthy people looking for a statement (Longoria Palace by Grases Riera).

Like most modern cities, Madrid has lost many beautiful buildings, torn down in the name of progress, destroyed by time, fire, or so altered by remodelling that they have lost their original character. But there’s still lots to enjoy! Take a walk in the city, look around you, become an architectural sleuth to see if you can identify buildings by these architects – or discover other architects who helped create the Madrid we can see today.

Juan de Herrera 1530? – 1597. Worked mainly for: King Felipe II. Work in Madrid: Bridge over the Manzanares at bottom of Segovia street. Important work outside Madrid: San Lorenzo de El Escorial Monastery (started by Juan Bautista de Toledo, altered and completed by Herrera); also worked on Aranjuez palace and Valladolid cathedral. Characteristic style, called herrerriano in his honor: symmetrical, geometric lines, very little decoration, sloped roofs usually in dark slate, square towers at corners of buildings with four-sided pyramidal roofs topped with tallish pinnacles. Quick summary: While only the Segovia bridge remains of his actual works, Herrera’s influence is visible in later buildings: Plaza Mayor (designed by Herrera, destroyed by fire late 18th century and rebuilt in same style), Old City Hall (Plaza de la Villa, Juan Gomez de Mora project, started around 1645), Foreign Ministry (Asuntos Exteriores, Plaza de las Provincias by Plaza Mayor, built as noble’s jail, Juan Gomez de Mora project started 1629), or the Escorial-like Air Force headquarters (Princesa street at Moncloa, built 1942-1951)

Pedro de Ribera 1681-1742. Worked mostly for: King Felipe V, nobles. His work in Madrid: Conde Duque barracks (Conde Duque street), Hospital for the poor (Fuencarral 78, now City History museum), various noblemen’s palaces around the city (current Chamber of Commerce on Huertas street, current Treasury building on Alcalá street, doorway of Filmoteca Institute on Magdalena street). Also worked on Montserrat monastery on San Bernardo street, San Cayetano church on Embajadores street, Mariblanca fountain (replica of statue now in Sol at start of Arenal street), urban planning for southwest side of city, Toledo bridge over the Manzanares river. Characteristic style: brick with stone decoration, very large, ornate carving around main entranceways. Quick summary: Though some buildings are fairly plain, Ribera is usually placed under the extreme rococo style called churrigueresco for a family of architects (brothers Jose, Alberto and Joaquin Churriguera) who were less favored by Kings and nobility.

Ventura Rodríguez 1717 – 1785. Worked for: Fernando VI, Carlos III. His work in Madrid: San Marcos church (San Leonardo street), interior of Encarnación monastery, various palaces for nobles (Liria palace on Princesa street, Altamira palace just off Gran Via, Boadilla del Monte palace). Designed important ornamental fountains like the Cibeles, Neptuno, Apolo, Alcachofa and others, all created by sculptors following his designs. Worked on Aranjuez palace, Royal Palace, San Francisco el Grande church. Important work outside Madrid: Santo Domingo de Silos monastery church, Pilar basilica in Zaragoza, Pamplona catedral facade, various city halls, jails, schools, urban planning and civil engineering projects around the country. Characteristic style: Baroque – neoclassic. A prolific and imaginative architect, but when Carlos III ascended the throne royal favor passed on to Francesco Sabatini.

Francesco Sabatini 1722-1797. Worked mainly for: King Carlos III, some for Carlos IV. His work in Madrid: Puerta de Alcalá city gate, Royal Customs house on Alcalá street, original layout of Botanical Garden, Marqués de Grimaldi Palace (Plaza Marina Española, also called Godoy Palace), rebuilt Comendadoras monastery. Participated in building of Royal Palace, San Francisco el Grande church (Bailén street), Hospital General (now Reina Sofia art museum), rebuilding Plaza Mayor after fire. Various projects for paving streets, creating and decorating promenades in south of city. Remodelled Cuesta de San Vicente (along one side of the Royal Palace), created waste water system. Characteristic style: Neoclassic, based mainly on Italian Renaissance instead of ancient Greece and Rome.



Jose Grases Riera 1850 – 1919 Best known for grand monuments and for modernist style (he knew Antoni Gaudi). In Madrid: Longoria Palace (Fernando VI street, now Spanish Society of Authors and Editors), monument to Alfonso XII by the lake in the Retiro, triangular building at Alcala 14, originally for the Equitativa insurance company and now under scaffolding as part of gigantic rehab project – but if you can peer around fence you can see the elephants under the balconies (shown at left) .

Antonio Palacios 1874-1945: His work in Madrid: Communications Palace (Plaza Cibeles, now City Hall, photo above), Day-Workers hospital (Maudes 17, now a Madrid government building), Rio de la Plata bank building (Alcalá 49, now Instituto Cervantes), Círculo de Bellas Artes (Alcalá 42), design of first Metro stations (all changed except Chamberi stop on line 1, now a Metro museum), remodelled Hotel Avenida on the Gran Vía, various other buildings and urban planning. Important works outside Madrid: quite a few in his native Galicia. Characteristic style: Lots of big spaces, public buildings, style varies from very classic (Rio de la Plata bank building) to very ornate (Communications Palace).



Madrid, morning of Ash Wednesday. Getting in the mood to bury the sardine


Carnival brings to mind elaborate Venetian masks, harlequin costumes, be-plumed and lightly-clad ladies, sambas, parades and roving kazoo bands. What’s really behind this colorful festival?

A bit of background: Carnival is usually described as a last wild fling before Lent, the 40-day period of fasting, prayer and introspection before Easter Sunday. Carnival celebrations started in Europe during the Middle Ages (13-14th c) and spread from there. In this definition, the word Carnival may come from late Latin or Italian words meaning removal of meat or farewell to meat or flesh (carne levare, or carne vale), a logical interpretation as fleshly pursuits were frowned upon and meat forbidden for Catholics during Lent.

But many scholars say that Carnival’s true origin is in the pagan festivals still celebrated in the early years of Christianity, later incorporated into the Christian calendar with new meanings. The most frequent theories suggest connections to the Roman Saturnalia festival, to late winter festivals celebrated in a number of cultures, or to Celtic and Germanic winter feasts. Saturnalia was celebrated in December, so the date is wrong for today’s Lent-related Carnival but the spirit is right: revelry, parades and society turned upside down. The late winter festivals celebrated the almost-end of winter – sometimes considered the start of the year – and the imminent start of sailing season. Under the pagan definition, the word Carnival may come from the words carrus navalis (naval car or ship) taking the pagan deity to the festival – like the Roman Isis festival where an image of the goddess was carried to the sea on a decorated wooden boat to bless the new season. Followed by masked revellers, this sounds a lot like the floats in modern-day Carnival parades.

Whatever the origin, Carnival is a huge party, a kind of ritualized chaos accepted for a few days every year. Masks and costumes are an important part of the celebrations – sometimes with ancient symbolism about the agricultural cycle or scaring off spooky, otherworldly spirits. Carnival celebrations can be mysterious and sensual or colourful and raucous; yet others include a “battle” between characters symbolizing the frenzy of Carnival and the austerity of Lent. Some Carnivals show oral history or political commentary in the costumes worn or in the rhyming stanzas composed to record events of the previous year.

The end of Carnival can be a feast where everything that cannot be eaten in the next 40 days is eaten in large quantities – that’s probably the origin of the name Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday, the last day before Lent, or the pancake suppers traditional in some Anglican or Episcopalian churches. Another frequent final ritual is some sort of death and funeral – perhaps burning a puppet or scarecrow symbolizing Carnival, or a ceremony like the Burial of the Sardine.

Frenzy, sensuality, political commentary, masks hiding faces….. Carnival’s excesses have not always been accepted by authorities. In the 16th century, Spain’s Carlos I and Felipe II both restricted some aspects of Carnival, though fun-loving Felipe IV later brought back the party. Even in the twentieth century both Italy and Spain officially outlawed Carnival for around 40 years – in both countries the celebration was legalized again in the late 1970’s – early 1980’s. Today, while recognized almost everywhere as a good way of letting off steam and attracting tourism, there’s sometimes an edgy undercurrent not present in other festivities.

Big fun for most of us, but perhaps not for the easily offended, the strictly moral, thin-skinned politicians or for the people in charge of keeping the festivities under control. So get out and enjoy – in costume or at least with mask, painted face or silly hat. You’ll have a lot more fun if you’re a participant instead of an observer.

Finding your Carnival:

When: Some Carnivals are in the late fall, others around January 6 (King’s Day or Epiphany), but the usual dates are 5-7 days before the beginning of Lent; that usually means February except when Easter is very late. Many places start Carnival on Thursday or Friday, with major celebrations on Saturday and the Burial of the Sardine or another closing ceremony on Tuesday or Wednesday. Dates vary from year to year and place to place, so it’s wise to check with a local city hall or tourism office to be sure of exact program. Tip: if you look on Internet, be sure you’re looking at dates for the correct year!

Where: Carnival is celebrated in some way in most Christian countries around the world. Areas with strong ties to Catholicism usually have stronger traditions, but Carnival is also celebrated in many Protestant countries and even in India, sometimes fusing with decidedly non-Christian local traditions.

In Spain the best-known Carnival celebrations are on the Canary Islands and Cadiz, but Madrid has a wild one, too. Here’s a selection of ideas to follow Spain’s Carnival trail:

Cadiz: One of Spain’s best-known Carnivals, street bands and choirs. Has a tradition of political commentary. More info

Canary Islands: Santa Cruz de Tenerife and Las Palmas de Gran Canaria. Both have a longer-than-usual Carnival. Santa Cruz: A classic, has child and golden-age Carnival queens. More information: . Las Palmas: Drag queen and lots of street bands and choirs. More information (at least partly in English):

Galicia: Carnival is also called Antroido or Entroido in this region. The southern part of Ourense province has several interesting Carnival celebrations in smaller towns: Verin, Xinzo de Limia, Viana do Bolo and Laza are all in more or less the same area. The Carnival costumes in all these towns are very elaborate, often including enormous masks, sheepskins and huge cowbells – and Laza’s Carnival is one of the oldest in Spain, if not in the world. Some of these villages have early Carnivals, others on traditional dates. More info:

Guadalajara: This province is just northeast of Madrid province, with many miniscule villages, some half deserted, and a lot of lovely countryside. Several villages have interesting Carnivals: one of the best is in Almiruete (near Tamajon), with colorful costumes and masks (best day is usually Saturday). The botarga is one of the traditional Carnival characters here. Learn more at Guadalajara’s tourism page   (alas, might not work except near Carnival time)  or other page, scroll down a little to find links about different areas of Guadalajara and cultural traditions in each area. This is a great resource for weekend getaways, once you are ready to get off the beaten path. Go to

Madrid: The official pregon (opening ceremony) is usually a humorous speech by an actor, singer or musician, possibly followed by an outdoor dance or concert. The big parade is Saturday night (usual route: Retiro – Cibeles), with an appearance by Mr. Carnival and Ms. Lent (Don Carnal and Dona Cuaresma), lots of floats and music groups and groups of people in costumes – sometimes scantily dressed or with Carnival-esque themes right on the edge of naughtiness. The Circulo de Bellas Artes (calle Alcala 42) organizes an elaborate costume ball on Saturday night, and there will probably be some activities for kids over the weekend. Madrid’s Carnival ends with the Burial of the Sardine on Ash Wednesday (technically the first day of Lent), when the Brotherhood of the Burial of the Sardine holds a mock burial in the evening, complete with a small coffin and mourners in black, sobbing tragically on their way to bury the dearly departed… sardine. This fun event starts near San Antonio de la Florida chapel on Paseo de la Florida (next to Casa Mingo chicken restaurant), with a burial procession to the edge of the Casa de Campo. If you’re in the city in the morning, you might find the Brotherhood wandering around the La Latina neighborhood, getting in the spirit of things for the evening event. Where and when: various venues around the city on classic pre-Lent Carnival dates.   Website:    check to be sure it’s showing the right year, they update quite late!

Tomato Toast



Breakfast in Spain used to be divided geographically between olive oil on toast and butter and jam on toast, with Madrid in butter territory. Knowing Spain’s geography and traditional rural products this makes perfect sense: olive oil in the south and east (Mediterranean Spain and where most of the oil is produced) and butter in the north, where dairy reigns.

But that has changed. Now you can get olive oil even in dairy-intensive Galicia – they might think you’re nuts, but it can be done. And in Madrid, ah bliss! Now we can get tomato toast. We can even get GOOD tomato toast: toast with olive oil and crushed tomato.

So what’s the perfect tomato-toast?   As any taste-test, this is rather subjective, but here are some guidelines.

When pondering your breakfast order look around, if lots of people are getting tomato toast, it’s good.

The toast must be bread-bread, not white loaf bread, usually called by brand name Bimbo (yes, really). The best bread is one with a moist, open crumb to better soak up the oil. Traditional white baguette style is ok if properly toasted on the “plancha” (iron grill), but rustic “chapata” type is better.

The tomato should be natural, skinned and crushed. Some places add a touch of garlic. Usually the tomato is served in a small bowl or cup with a spoon. Don’t get tomato toast if you see them serving tomato in sealed plastic mini-containers. That stuff is not very good.

Ideally there’s a bottle of olive oil and salt-shaker readily accessible for you to do your own thing. Some places pre-mix oil with the tomato, that’s usually ok, but separate lets you fine-tune to your own preference. If there’s no oil on the counter or table, ask the wait-staff.

My system: first poke holes in the toast all across the toast surface and drizzle on some oil (the holes let the oil soak in). Spoon on the tomato, spread it all the way to edges of the toast – these details are important – then take a bite to check your combination. Add a little more oil and salt if necessary, then ENJOY!

Note: Some places spoon on the tomato prior to serving. Hmmm. I really prefer to do that myself, but if it’s good tomato, that’s ok.

Where to try tomato toast in Madrid:

My neighborhood favorite: Cafe San Millan, Plaza de la Cebada, corner of San Millan. Excellent bread, perfect tomato. Only issue: early in the morning tomato might be cold instead of room temperature. Oil and salt should be on the counter (you don’t have to ask). Coffee is usually in a glass instead of cup, if you want it another way, specify when ordering.

Other favorites are on the city walks on eastern Alcala street and in Chueca’s market.

Reader contributions:


Cafe Matilda: Calle de Almaden, 15 (near Caixa Forum on Paseo del Prado). A very simple tostada with just tomatoes and olive oil. Bread is thick and crunchy, perfectly toasted.

Biotza: Claudio Coello 27 (near Jorge Juan, a few blocks from the Retiro). Crushed tomato, nothing added, good texture. Their “cafe americano” is very good, too.


Thanks to Kim Mozil for the photo