A simple stroll through the center of Madrid will quickly make one realize the uniqueness of each of its traditional, yet modern neighborhoods. Previously we discussed Malasaña, La Latina, and Huertas — all of which have their own particular vibe and way of blending the old and the new. Today we’re going to take a look at yet another area of Madrid’s city center, the eclectic neighborhood of Lavapiés. Located just south of the Puerta del Sol, this area is famous for simultaneously and paradoxically being very castizo — that is, traditionally madrileño — but also being home to many immigrant communities and expats. One thing is for sure: a trip to Madrid would be incomplete without seeing a bit of this distinctive barrio, and the city certainly wouldn’t be the same without it.
Lavapiés Past and Present
Tradition has it that Lavapiés was originally the Jewish quarter of Madrid, due to the remains of a Jewish cemetery and on Calle Salitre and the belief that the Iglesia de San Lorenzo was built where there was originally a synagogue. Tradition also provides an explanation for the origin of the neighborhood’s name — lava meaning ‘wash’ and piés meaning ‘feet’ — a reference to rituals performed by Jews to be ceremonially clean. Although this legend is widely accepted, others dismiss it as fiction due to a lack of solid evidence. Whatever the case may be, it is certain that Lavapiés was originally located outside the city walls, and thus, has always been a working-class neighborhood and home to newcomers to the city.
Nowadays Lavapiés is still home to new arrivals in Madrid. Where in the past, residents were primarily Spaniards from rural parts of the country, now the neighborhood is home to many foreigners — some say as much as half the population. Aside from some European expats, many of whom are Italian, there are primarily African and Asian immigrants living in the area. There is a big Muslim community, which is made up of foreign nationals from places as different as Senegal, Bangladesh, and Morocco and other North African countries.
The Benefits of Diversity
Due to the great diversity found in the neighborhood, there is a wealth of restaurants and shops that are almost unique to Lavapiés. There are many Arab-style teahouses and restaurants where you can enjoy traditional dishes such as hummus or lamb, and of course drink tea and even smoke a hookah, most of which are located near the plaza and especially on Calle Miguel Servet. And of course the neighborhood wouldn’t be the same without the incredible amount of Indian restaurants that line Calle Lavapiés and to some extent Calle Ave María. We mustn’t forget the traditional Spanish establishments either, such as the Galician tavern which crowns Plaza Lavapiés, Portomarín, famous for its generous tapas.
In addition to its shops and restaurants, Lavapiés also holds several festivals throughout the year, many of which are of foreign origin. Due to the large Muslim community, the end of Ramadan is always celebrated, there often being concerts of Muslim artists put on by the city for all to enjoy. One of the best-known festivals is definitely Bollywood, a celebration of Indian culture where the main square is filled with booths selling food and beverages; the adjacent streets also hold Bollywood dance demonstrations and movies. The oldest and perhaps most popular festival in the neighborhood, however, is most definitely San Lorenzo. The festivities take place at the beginning of August, starting with the verbena, or traditional dance event, which is followed by concerts in the Plaza del Cascorro and also a fair with music, food, and games on Calle Argumosa.
Once you make it to Madrid, you’ll definitely want to take the time to see Lavapiés. No where else in the capital boasts so much diversity and no where else can you enjoy such great foreign cuisine or have the opportunity to do such shopping. Make this neighborhood a must-do on your list!