I’ve been here in Madrid for more than a year, and hate the fact that I still struggle with Spanish. And so before I quit on my language learning ability, if it does exist, I did some online research and came upon Asilim, an Lavapies-based institution offering language and integration courses for foreigners. I didn’t enroll there, realizing that I can take free classes at a municipal school at Bravo Murillo. The search, however, piqued my interest in Lavapies, and led me to finding out more about it.
You may opt to start your tour at La Plaza de Tirso de Molina. In the middle background (vaguely captured) is the Teatro Nuevo Apolo, popular for its art deco-styled building, and known to be one of the most active in Madrid, in terms of programming.
I guess Lavapies owns the bragging rights to being in the middlemost part of the city (well, a little to the south of Madrid’s center, that is). A number of barrios can lay claim to this actually, since many are found within the central area of the city. The popular ones (which I’ve already visited) are Puerta del Sol, Toledo, Moncloa, Colon, Gran Via, and La Latina. These are great neighborhoods, and there are many more that I didn’t mention. For now, let me focus on our subject as it charms me the most.
One of the first things I learned is its supposedly not-so-good reputation, which I thought isn’t, really. Whether it’s true or not, there’s no denying that Lavapies is one of the most colorful barrios of Madrid. Be bewildered by the utter multi-cultural diversity of the place. Being there is like submerging in a sea of nationalities – Asians (mostly Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis), Moroccans, Middle East nationals, and Latinos, of course. They took advantage of its welcoming arms and cheap rent prices to settle and build communities.
Lavapies has become a haven of sorts for foreigners who wanted to invest or venture into business. It’s a place where immigrants from anywhere in the world coexist peacefully and forge strong relationships with the Spanish locals. In fact, they were able to establish communities within the barrio with great success that they might as well claim it as their own, and call it their Little India, Mini-Morocco, or Little Whatever-country-they-belong-to, and rightly so. Isn’t it just fair to call Lavapies Madrid’s cultural melting pot?
First Visit to Lavapies
As an Asian (Filipino) trying to blend into a new place, Lavapies’ known openness to foreigners has such a great appeal. This fact rings loudly, as attested to by many I know, giving me the impression that it is one of Madrid’s most foreigner-friendly places.
Of course, not all that I’ve heard about the barrio are praises and all. Some on the Internet have labeled it as unsafe (I refrain to use the word “dangerous” as I realized that this is not true ). In its defense, I can only think of a popular quote, “every rose has its thorns.” I strongly resent the unfair label, so I thought that being there in the middle of the action is the best way to disprove it.
Off to the Barrio
The starting point of my tour is the Ultima Parada of Autobus 27 at Glorietta de Embajadores (You can take this bus at Plaza de Castellana). A short walk through Miguel Servet and Calle Valencia and I found myself right in the middle of the Plaza de Lavapies. It was quite limited in area, with a small playground occupying a significant part.
Looking around, the uniqueness of the place is evident. Lavapies is atypical compared to other Madrid barrios. Surrounding the plaza are a number of foreign-owned restaurants, alimentaciones, and mobile phone and electronics shops, alongside their Spanish counterpart. It was almost 4 pm, and business was brisk that time of the day.
I assess that the establishments this part of Lavapies thrive since the nearby Metro Station attracts quite a good number of commuters. It is apart from the fact that the important roads converge and traverse through it, being the heart of the barrio.
I later learned that the Playa de Lavapies had been the site of the fountain where the Jews used to wash their feet (hence the name) before proceeding to the nearby synagogue, through a road now known as Calle de la Fe.
If you’re looking for a place where Bohemian and chic scream loudly, Lavapies is your best option. It offers opportunities for the free spirited to experience and savor unique poetry, arts, and music. Performances are done in restaurants, cafes, and the sidewalks. Streets become stages for evening events, especially during weekends.
Just be warned, if you’re uninitiated, about the presence of odd-hairdoed and dressed artists and similar advocates come nighttime. Indeed, Lavapies speaks Bohemian, and there is no doubt that its varied-culture nature contributes all the more to such an alternative atmosphere.
Known as a gathering place for the Bohemian crowd is the El Juglar, at Calle Lavapies, 37. It features various shows and performances at affordable entrance fees.
A safe barrio
Why do some people shun it? Why the fear, when in fact, like the rest of the city, there is strong police visibility in Lavapies, as evidenced by the regular rounds of mobile cars within the vicinity?
In my opinion, Lavapies is safe. Even for tourists. Whenever I’m there, the plaza serves as my hangout where I eat on the bench whatever food I bring. I wander around tirelessly, treading as many streets as possible just to pass time. And I always do this in my lonesome. Clearly, the place is safe as safe can be.
Shot of Escuelas Pias made more picturesque because of the beautiful day. Escuelas Pias was formerly Colegio de Lavapies, burned down during the Spanish civil war in 1936. The present ruins serves as a library and the UNED Associated Centre.
Here’s a funny incident: As I approach Escuelas Pias via Meson de Paredes, someone in a group lazing around by the street corner caught my glance and nodded at me. Between acknowledging the nod and ignoring, I decided on the latter, and continued to walk while trying to look nonchalant. Obviously, I tried to avoid them out of fear. Was I taken aback when from a distance, I saw them having a seemingly normal conversation with a elderly couple.
I felt horrible – but I thought I couldn’t be faulted for having such a reaction. While I do think of Lavapies for the most part as safe, the Internet has triggered me somehow to have even a tinge of doubt about it. A blogger even warned about the possibility of experiencing shady offers as one walks its streets. I was told a similar story by a friend. Don’t stare, avoid eye contact was the advice I got (Hence, my reaction with the group).
I thought that my foolish, paranoid reaction was unwarranted. In retrospect, I would have done the opposite and taken advantage of the chance to interact with the locals. Damn these crazed nerves – they always get the better of me.
Me Encanta Lavapies
After a number of visits, here’s my verdict – Lavapies is no different from any other barrio in Madrid. In my opinion, it’s even better. It’s cool, hip, and vibrant. It might be loud and rowdy, but not to the point of being raunchy. I’d live there in a heartbeat – if only I could.
I love that it’s near Puerta del Sol, which I consider the heart of Spain, while meters away is Rastro, for that Sunday morning flea-market shopping you don’t want to miss. Asian stores are everywhere. Doner Kepab is there (a few of them scattered, actually), with its Middle Eastern fare a good-enough alternative to the Tel Aviv version. There is a comic shop (El Collectionista) along Calle Tribulete. A health store (Planeta Vegano) at Calle Ave Maria. A herbal apothecary shop (Herbolario El Druida) at corner of De la Fe. Easy access to the highly efficient Metro. Great choices of cafes and theaters. The popular Mercado San Fernando (which I initially mistook for a church) is nearby. What more could you ask for?
While Lavapies exudes a dark character (what place doesn’t?), it’s just one of its many sides. In no way should it be labeled as seedy, or downright bad, as a few blogs do – because it’s not. Every place has its own evil, but good is there to cancel it out. The presence of opposing traits makes a place normal and livable, even great. Lavapies, the little barrio in the heart of Madrid, is exactly like that.
Cool-flavored drinks, cozy ambiance, fast Latino beats, and even DJs – all this you can enjoy at Amor Voodoo along Calle de Lavapies.
Sidreria is one of the more popular restaurante along Calle Argumosa. Spanish restaurants are complemented by their non-local counterparts to provide more options to diners.
South Asian restaurants ready up tables along the sidewalk of Calle de Lavapies. Photo was taken at around midday; a few hours more and diners are expected to come in. Indian dishes are rich and spicy, easily compensating the rather bland table covers.
Cafe Barbieri at Calle del Ave María, 45, Lavapies. Located near the plaza, the cafeteria has been in business since 1902. One of the authentic Spanish cafes that exude Old Madrid. In 2015, it had major changes under its new management. Popular in Madrid for its delicious coffee fare, Cafe Barbieri is also known for staged performances.
Theater Valle-Inclan is a stone’s throw away from the Metro Station and Biblioteca de Humanidades, UNED. Its site is where the Old Olympia Theater once stood. Offering the latest in theater technology, Valle-Inclan regularly presents programmes that feature the best contemporary writers and artists.