By Tyson Manchester of donquijote.org
El Barrio de las Letras: steeped in literary history, abuzz with modern businesses and sprinkled with affordable accommodation options, this quarter of belles-lettres provides a cultured, cultural and truly captivating setting for your Madrid adventure.
Although the area sits surrounded by many of Madrid’s major attractions such as the Plaza Mayor, Retiro Park, Puerta del Sol, the Prado Museum and Atocha Station, it still feels off the beaten tourist path. Anyone serious about studying the Spanish language and its most influential writers however, will enjoy exploring this intriguing and eclectic neighbourhood.
A surprisingly rich collection of literary legends from Spain’s opulent siglo de oro period (1492 – 1681) once called this district home. Gongora, Quevedo, and Lope de Vega all resided here, as did Miguel de Cervantes, author of the globally celebrated novel Don Quijote de la Mancha.
In 1604, the first edition of the first part of that novel was also printed in this neighborhood in a printing house located at 87 Calle Atocha. Just a few blocks away, a plaque marks the spot of Cervante’s residence. Round the corner, enter Lope de Vega’s casa-museum and prepare for historical decor to teleport you to a distant past, where you’ll experience the 16th-century ambience that enveloped de Vega as he busied himself with penning some Spain’s greatest literature. Wander narrow streets and find inscriptions everywhere of olde masters’ most inspiring and most inspired pieces of artistic brilliance.
Perhaps the neighbourhood’s greatest attraction lies in its curious mix of establishments: museums, antique stores, traditional and trendy Spanish style boutiques, bodegas and bistros blend with decidedly un-touristy dime stores, quirky shops, dated laundromats and aged businesses that seem forgotten by time. The result is a wonderful hodgepodge of unpredictable store fronts and cultural activities concentrated in vibrant city blocks where unlikely neighbours do business side by side in a neighbourhood that offers an engaging glimpse into Madrid and Spanish throughout the centuries and today.
Bars and tapa
Unique urban landscapes await around every corner. An international youth hostel overlooks a cool jazz bar. A building with impressive modernist-style iron work adorning balconies, an everything bazaar, and coffee shops all huddle together around the cozy Plaza de Matute, where terrace seating allows locals and tourists to chat, snack and sip their favorite beverages outside.
An elegant cheese arrangement displayed in the window of an old school Spanish deli and vinoteca invites people inside, where a fully stocked Ben and Jerry’s fridge of ice cream stands in stark new world contrast to its environment. The Plaza de Santa Ana, just opposite Madrid’s oldest theatre Teatro Español, is lined on two sides with bars and restaurants that often fill with crowds of theater goers who have drinks and discuss shows they’ve just taken in. El tapeo (going out for tapas) is an essential experience in Spain, and the Barrio de las Letras’ doesn’t disappoint.
On the first Saturday of every month, over 200 businesses open shop in El Mercado de las Ranas (Frogs Market), so named for the abundance of frogs that inhabited the area in the 17th century, full of orchards at the time. The market was designed to rival emblematic markets around Europe such as London’s Portobello Road and the Marché aux puces de Paris-Saint-Ouen.
By night, portions of this classic barrio completely shed their historic air and quickly erupt into full blown party zones, where the academic spirits of lope de Vega and Cervantes drift around bars, pubs and clubs and hover over animated party scenes, possibly considering the tales they would weave were the alive today.
The area couldn’t be more centrally located and it is easy to find. Its southern boundary line runs along Calle de Atocha from Calle de las Carretas to Atocha Station. The Paseo del Prado defines its eastern boundary up to the Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum and to the north the area is bound by Carrera de San Jerónimo all the way to the Puerta del Sol. If you’re going by metro, you can get off at Sol, Atocha, or Antón Martin stations.
Whether you’re a history buff, a literature lover, a party animal, a tapas connoisseur, an antiques collector, or if you just happen to be in the area, the Barrio de las Letras, the old stomping grounds of illustrious wordsmiths from centuries past, is definitely worth a visit.
Author bio: Tyson Manchester is a blogger who graduated from Portland State University in 2007 with a B.A. in Liberal Studies. He has many years of experience teaching English and living abroad in Spain where he currently resides. He collaborates on Spanish blog at donquijote.org.
Top photo by Jorge E. San Roman, other two photos by druidabruxux