El Rastro is Europe’s largest and most diverse flea market and it’s held each Sunday in Madrid’s La Latina barrio. The notes in the guidebooks are not favorable, varying from “you’re going to be kidnapped into white slavery” to “don’t bring a wallet, don’t bring a camera, expect to have your pockets picked” to “tourists are the target and it’s a spectacle of them being mauled by gangs while the police stand by and watch.” We found it none of those things, but we did find it amazing, entertaining, crushing and a cool place to spend the morning gawking equally at the shoppers and the goods.

We came down on the side of modest caution and left our bags and my fancy camera at home, choosing instead to bring some loose money and a smaller camera that could stay in my coat pocket. My phone was tucked into an inner pocket in my jacket and My Lovely Wife zipped the apartment keys (which unfortunately had the address on them) into a pocket in her vest which was under her jacket. In short we were armored and ready for the lightest of touches. The precautions made us feel better, but turned out to be unnecessary – I never felt I was a target for a moment; perhaps the thieves were more interested in the tourists with the long lenses and video cameras. I generally think we don’t look like visitors due to our dress and demeanor, and I still relish the memory of the German fellow in China who, with a genuine look of shock, told me he couldn’t believe I was an American. I think being a tiny bit less arrogant and not wearing big white athletic shoes pays off.

A sunny Sunday morning in any major Spanish city is a wonderful thing to experience. The streets are empty, the traffic is light and the shops and bars are either just closing or cleaning up from the night before. We stopped at the San Miguel Mercado for a slice of that special Spanish tapa that is known as tortilla but is really more of a quiche. This one had potatoes as the main ingredient. Today was our first pleasant opportunity to have a bite at San Miguel because it wasn’t mobbed. There was room to sit and you could actually walk around. We had coffee with our breakfast and I played English-Spanish with the attractive young barista at the counter. I complimented her on her language skills and she smiled. San Miguel runs like a giant restaurant with no tables. The individual booths share silverware and plate supplies, the customers collect what they want – tapas, sweets, wine, beer, pastries, ice cream, olives, caviar, sausages – and meet at some standup table to visit and eat. From the late afternoon into the late evening, it’s a place for the wealthy young to see and be seen. We just liked visiting and grabbing something to go.

We had a rough idea about where to go and probably should have followed the crowds but chose instead to take what we thought was the correct route. Ending up in a square that showed the first signs of retail – some booths selling t-shirts, we had to choose at a fork in the road and opted for the shady street figuring it’s always nicer to be out of the sun. The vendors vanished almost immediately which was consistent with the guidebooks which said in addition to the big market, things were for sale on every street. We ended up off track by only a couple of blocks, but the reward was a nice quiet stroll through a genuine neighborhood where people were waking up and heading out for bread, juice and the paper. Not wanting to have to go back up the giant hill we were descending, we decided to get serious with our navigation and after looking at the map, took a path cross-country which brought us straight into the heart of the action.

I’ve been to flea markets all over the world including the organized Panjiayuan market in Beijing and the antiquities market in Shanghai. I’ve been to farmer’s markets in the US and Europe and I’ve been to the evening and morning markets in every major city in China. But I’ve never seen anything like this. El Rastro stretches from the top to the bottom of a 1 mile hill along two major streets and off into each side street within that distance. It is mobbed in the way where once you’re in the flow of people, you don’t walk. You just slowly shuffle along, wondering at what point you’re going to be lifted p and ferried along by the crowd. One street is dedicated to new things – horse tack, clothing, art, scarves, underwear, kitchen supplies, CDs, toys, sports paraphernalia, jewelry, African/Asian/Indian souvenirs, small appliances, power strips, and just about everything you can imagine. The vendors on the other street specialize in antiques of who knows what provenance and so is a bit less crowded and interesting. I did stop to look at a cart where a man was selling nothing but antique keys. Thousands of them, from something that once opened a locket to one a foot long that must have opened a door to a castle. Of course everything is Spanish in origin which is belied by the blocks of Chinese import companies that line the street as it enters the district. The connecting streets are a mishmash of both with cafes thrown in for good measure.

When someone stops walking in the middle, society collapses until the impediment is cleared. You find yourself cursing the people who brought strollers into this chaos. The people watching was epic, with a spectrum that ran from pasty, overweight college students to stylish young Madrileño couples in skinny, designer jeans and enviable leather jackets. My absolute favorite person was a middle-aged Latin woman in tan riding britches, brown knee boots, a fashionable short jacket, and sporting a big Hermes belt buckle. Her golden blond hair was parted at the side and swept back grandly from her richly tanned face that was mostly obscured by a very large pair of very dark glasses. She belonged in an ad for an expensive Italian espresso maker where she would be sitting on the hood of her Bugatti in front of a palazzo complaining about the temperature of her Americano. Her much younger boy-toy was almost as interesting between his Prada shades, skinny jeans and matching tight gray denim jacket and perfect hair, combed back in precisely uniform ridges and undoubtedly held decisively in place by some product we’ve never heard of. What a pair, simultaneously a joy for the eyes and the soul.

We spent most of our time shopping for scarves to bolster my growing collection of Palenstinos as they are known locally. Modeled more or less after the Arab kaffiyeh, they make great neck scarves. I picked up my first in Barcelona when we were there in 2009 and got a couple more during the Hound’s-tooth craze in China. I bought a nice one at the street market in Valencia on this trip and actually found one lying on the sidewalk in Madrid’s Chinatown on our first day here. It was subsequently boiled and washed lest anything be alive in it. Quite a few vendors were offering them here, 3€ for one, two for 5. I found a nice one but the true object of my desire was elusive. All of the inexpensive versions are some combination of a black or white field and a complementary color. The one I was seeking was the more traditional red, black and white version worn prominently during the Intifada by all those rock throwing hooligans. After a lot of searching I finally found what I wanted in a table off of the main path for the princely sum of 4€.

By mid-afternoon we’d covered the better part of the place and so we headed back towards the apartment to collect our bags, my camera and some money. Passing through Plaza Mayor My Lovely Wife stopped again to visit with her favorite street performer, sort of a Jar Jar Binks in a suit made out of multicolored Christmas tinsel. There are so many of these crazy performers in the popular open spaces that it’s hard to figure out which one to patronize if you’re going to pass by regularly. This one though captured our hearts because of her personality. It’s often hard to know who is under all that costume, but one night we happened by while she was packing up for the day. A tiny woman of indeterminate age.

Coffers replenished we stopped for chocolate and churros hoping to once again replenish our immune systems. Next on the agenda was one last sight – The Temple of Debod – a 4 thousand year old stone artifact located in a park just behind the Palacio Real. Of all the things we went looking for, is one turned out to be very easy to find. We simply walked to where we thought it was and there is was.

Located on an island in a long rectangular reflecting pool, the temple consists of two stone arches and a small square building to the rear. Given as a gift by the Egyptian government in 1968 to the Spanish for their help in rescuing the Abu Simbel temple complex during the Aswan Dam flooding, it’s a bit out of context relative to the Palacio behind it and the Baroque apartment buildings across the street. But viewed against the rolling hills of Madrid and the snow covered Sierra behind them, it looks very much in place. We opted out of visiting the inside – the line was too long and too slow – and sat down instead on a bench for a bit of people watching. That decision was rewarded with the sight of a Segway tour group rolling by.

This was our last night in Madrid and we decided to spend it at the little hole in the wall we’d stumbled upon one night when leaving the San Gines Chocolateria. On our first walk by we’d been invited in by Rashel, the very polite owner for a sample of Cruz Campo, the beer of Spain. We’d gone back the next night and made friends with his business partner, the very up tempo Antonio. On our second visit, Antonio was out and Rashel was back. Tonight both were in and they greeted us like family. It’s so nice to make this kind of acquaintance when traveling, a restaurant that you like and where they are friendly. We visited over tapas, exchanging photos of horses – our two minis and Rashal’s Arab. The place got busy and the flamenco music got turned up loud. When a big group of Germans came in, we gave up our table – there are only 4 inside and Rashel gave us a glass of sherry to take to the outside tables. We sat there for a bit visiting with Antonio as he tried to cajole passing people in for dinner. It was getting a bit nippy and the sherry was coming up short in its ability to keep us warm so we paid our bill and made our goodbyes, promising to return the next time we find ourselves here.