There are three main things to remember when shopping on the road:
1. Nothing big, nothing breakable.
2. Even the cheesiest souvenir becomes acceptable once you’ve put 6,000 km between it and its dozen identical brethren.
3. If you like it, buy it. You will not come back later. You will not see it elsewhere (unless it’s an Eiffel tower keychain in Paris). You will regret it, and your regret will drive you to buy the next thing that catches your eye, even if that thing is a sixteen-dollar fridge magnet.
Thanks to a well-intentioned cousin in France, I was already lugging around a mug and ceramic sponge holder (flagrant violation of rule #1!) and arrived in Spain more determined than ever to keep my magpie instincts in check. I’d heard a lot about El Rastro, of course. The Madrid Tourist website calls it “the most popular open air flea market in Spain”, and my friends insisted that it was on the must-see list. With up to 3,500 vendors and a history that dates back to the Middle Ages, it was an easy sell, literally. Not only have I never been one to turn down a chance to sift through piles of treasures, I’ve also got a soft spot for long-standing traditions.
Since my Sunday morning bus to Granada coincided with the first El Rastro of my stay, we kicked off the shopping spree with a trip to the Lost & Found vintage market. Unlike El Rastro, this market has only been held once before, and sprawls across the courtyard of an 18th century barracks. It was full of handpicked vintage clothing, art, fantastic hats and even antique luggage. Their website has a great video of the event; check out the dollhead planters at 0:29. We could have spent the entire day there. Instead, I managed to find a sweet vegan leather (read: pleather) jacket and a pair of boots before the Spanish midday sun chased us home for a siesta.
The next day, I set out for the Oasis Hostel in Granada, apparently one of the top 10 best hostels in the world. Located right in the heart of Albaycín, the historic Moorish city centre, my new home base for the week was tucked away just behind Calle Elvira. This street is a sliver of shallow stone steps lined with gorgeous restaurants and vendors whose colourful Moroccan clothing, sandals and jewellery spill out onto the walkway like a breadcrumb path to magpie heaven. Sure, it would all be less than half price if you bought it in Morocco, but only if you’re willing to add another leg to your trip. Otherwise, this is a great spot to go treasure hunting. Don’t be overwhelmed by the sheer number of shiny objects on offer; rule #2 is particularly applicable in a place like Calle Elvira.
When I returned to Madrid the following weekend, I was all warmed up and excited for El Rastro. Caitlin, Jacob and I walked up to Calle Embajadores. Holding my purse tightly in front of me(the market is just as popular with pickpockets as with shoppers), I fell in behind my friends as the crowd thickened. Within moments, we were engulfed in a mass of shoulders and elbows. I wasn’t walking so much as being carried along by the mob. Stopping to take a closer look at things became nearly impossible.
As soon as we emerged at the top of the street, we ducked into a little vegan cafe to celebrate our survival with tea and cake.
Apparently, this is what happens when you show up at El Rastro after 11am. Veteran market-goers have tips on how to maximize your experience at places like these, and often the first guideline is to arrive by 9:30am. Naturally, they’re not accounting for the fact that their nightlife can easily keep you out until 6am.
Which brings us to rule 4 of shopping on the road: If all else fails, buy nothing. Take pictures; spend your money on food and experiences. You may lose trinkets, but you always, always remember cake.