Postcard From Madrid: First Of The Verbenas

IT is customary for many citizens of Madrid to get the hell out of town this time of year, to flee the demented heat of August for some breezier redoubt on the coast. But there is an opposing tradition among those who stay put: practically mandatory attendance at a trio of street parties, thrown for a trinity of patron saints, in three adjoining neighbourhoods just south of the city centre. Together they are known as the verbenas, a reference to the vervain flowers that young Madrileños used to wear to these revels on their lapels or bosoms.

Each bash goes on a few nights, and ends with a religious procession, before the next begins in the next parish. The coming week will see the feast of San Lorenzo in Lavapiés, then La Virgen de la Paloma in La Latina. But San Cayetano, as ever, got this year’s festivities started in Embajadores, a historically poor and latterly trendy barrio around the Baroque church built in his honour (and rebuilt after burning down early in the Civil War).

On the first night I followed a distant rhythmic quaking out of my own scorched, parched, and deserted suburb into a festive blast zone marked off by metal barricades and police tape. Every tavern, taproom, coffee house, and kebab shop inside that boundary had arrayed a temporary bar out front, with a DJ on a laptop playing reggaeton, Spanish pop hits, or universal anthems by the likes of Rod Stewart through a club-grade PA system at pavement-cracking volume. And it seemed to me that every living soul left in the city was now drinking and dancing on this particular block, right up to the steps of the church itself. The doors were wide open, and the vaulted nave filled with bass noise.

Already unthinkably thirsty, I stopped for a limonada, the signature beverage of these celebrations. A homemade mix of white wine, lemons, sugar, cinnamon, and cold soda, it was originally given out gratis by locals, in a nod to the magnanimity of their beloved San Cayetano, or Saint Catejan – the 15th century Italian priest later canonized as heavenly protector of bosses, workers, the unemployed, and pregnant women (surely a real basket of cats, as constituencies go). Today it’s sold at all participating venues for a standard €4.

Margarita Puig Saenz, self-described “mistress” of the LAP Bar & Cafe, assured me that her limonada was the greatest, ladling out my ration from a silver bowl into a paper cup. She went on, with cheery irony, to claim that Saint Catejan himself is a regular customer.

“A good guy,” said Marga. “He usually comes in first thing on Thursdays, a little sad, wearing an ugly tracksuit. He never talks about himself.” Around the corner, Calle del Oso was effectively the main drag of this fiesta, with colored garlands and manila shawls strung overhead between the tenement balconies. At number 12 a chorus line of singing ladies in aprons were pouring out free sangria, while accepting donations to help cover their costs as principal hosts of the whole thing.

The event itself goes back to the late 18th century, explained resident Jose Luis Tejedor, but this street, and this building, have now been the “epicentre” for 43 years. Tejedor was born at number 12, around the time that his parents and their neighbours took on all the party planning. Today he lives at number 11 with his wife, and his day job in logistics has made him chief organizer almost by default. “It’s a lot of work,” he said.

“We’ve been making paper flowers since March. But we’re proud to do it. We’re like a family, we’ve known each other our whole lives.” Such community spirit is not necessarily a given these days, but it has always seemed especially strong in the nexus of Embajadores, Lavapiés, and La Latina. They are often called the most castizo of neighbourhoods – an tricky term rooted in resistance to the foreignness of Spain’s past Bourbon and Hapsburg monarchs, though also expressed through costumes and dances introduced by those courts.

It has come to mean “authentic Madrid”, and still very much applies to this most multicultural quarter of the city, where I watched old couples in traditional chulapo outfits dancing the chotis in an area now also well known for Senegalese restaurants, anarchist squats, and setpiece street art by big-name international murallists. I asked Tejedor about the common local concern that “coolness” is raising the rent and changing the character of the barrio.

“Maybe,” he said, “but drugs and delinquency are still bigger problems.” Out in the crowd I smelled a little weed and saw a lot of public dunkenness, but nothing you could call trouble. More, indeed, of what you’d call joy. Up at Bar Cruz on Plaza Cascorro, a rowdy hub of hugs, spillages, and hollered tapas orders, owner Rafael Martinez said that part of this “absolute madness” was probably derived from abiding relief at the return of the verbenas after the enforced Covid-quiet of 2020 and 2021. “The rest is just … Madrid.”

This year’s verbenas continue with the feast of San Lorenzo from August 9 to 12, and La Virgen de la Paloma from August 11 to 15

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