Any excuse works for a good long festival in Spain. And most of the time these fiestas come with a public holiday to enable people to disfrutar (enjoy) the celebrations in good old Spanish fashion. Last weekend (12-15 May) was the San Isidro festival. San Isidro is the patron saint of Madrid, so the Municipality of Madrid put together an elaborate cultural programme featuring concerts, exhibitions, light shows, parades, dance events, food festivals, you name it, for the weekend. I usually plan my travels to coincide with long weekends, but I am so happy I stayed in Madrid for this very special puente (meaning bridge or long weekend). It really is impossible to get bored in Madrid, especially during San Isidro.
Now there were so many activities around Madrid for every age and taste, that you could not possibly go to all of them. The best thing about the festival is that all activities were absolutely free! The Spanish people don’t know how lucky they are. Families, teenagers, tourists… there was something for everyone in these fiestas! Considering that I religiously wake up late during weekends, I mostly chose to go to the evening/night activities. And sunset is at 21.30 during spring in Madrid, so these start at around 19.00ish and end at about midnight (just in time to catch the last buses and metro home).
Saturday 13 May
On Saturday, we went to Los 40 Primavera Pop concert in Puerta del Angel. When I saw the lineup, the only artists I knew were James Arthur (from the UK X Factor) and Bebe Rexha. It started at 19.00 sharp with DJs David Alvarez and Oscar Martinez setting the tempo with hits of the moment. Open air clubbing with Spanish teenagers? CHECK!!!
Then the radio DJs introduced the performing artists, most of whom were Spanish pop singers and bands that I did not know, but considering the excitement of the crowd, were very big at the moment. I really liked Taburete, Spanish heartthrob David Otero, not to speak of the several boysband types who really set the crowd on fire. Piso21, a reggaeton number from Colombia (Maluma, J Balvin type) came up for the first time in Madrid and they were awesome, the crowd went wild! And I was just a few metres away from these hotties, my inner teenager is still recovering from all the excitement. James Arthur was cool and sang his most popular songs, including Impossible and Say you wont let go. Bebe Rexha came in last at 00.30, and there was so much buildup that I felt a little bit disappointed with her performance, but that might have to do with the hours of standing up at that point.
Overall, I’m so impressed that such a concert with so many artists was completely free. It’s the second year that Los Primavera 40 concert is free, and I love Madrid for that. For a free concert, the crowd was very well behaved. The interludes were short in between the acts, and they tried to break the record for the biggest balloon in the world (which each time burst after about 10 seconds). A great insight into Spanish pop and a memorable first San Isidro experience for me.
Sunday 14 May
On Sunday, we decided to check out Parque de San Isidro, a park in the south west of Madrid, the very heart of the San Isidro festivities. I was expecting an actual park, not an immense expanse where the whole population of Madrid seemed to have converged! Madrilenas wore the traditional chulapa dress with a red flower in their hair and colourful silk mantillas (shawls), the men’s version is called chulapo and came with a checkered beret. The traditional dance of the chulapas and chulapos is called the chotis. The children were especially cute with their chulapas and chulapo outfits. I joined the hype as well by wearing a red clavel flower in my hair!
The park was filled with long arrays of food stalls selling traditional San Isidro food – rosquillas (some kind of donut), intestinos (intestines) and morcilla (blood sausage). Not to mention giant paellas being cooked on the spot. The slopes of the park were filled with people drinking cerveza (beer) and sangria, having a snack or just chilling listening to the live music. As soon as Despacito or any other similar music came on, couples spontaneously started to dance salsa in the streets. I observed that the Spanish people seemed to hold their alcohol quite well (I mean compared to the British and Mauritians – the only references I have). My friends told me yeah obviously they would, because drinking is such a big part of their culture, they are used to it. Also, they don’t drink to get drunk, but to socialise.
Monday 15 May
On Monday we went to Baile Social – Ritmos Latinos (social latino dance event) in Plaza Sanchez Bastillo, which is the square right next to the Reina Sofia Museum in Atocha. I have had only one salsa and bachata lesson so far, I was definitely not confident, but was curious enough to get over my cold feet, especially to check out the coreografía colectiva (collective choreography), which I thought might help me tick the “participating in a flashmob” item off my bucket list (turns out it was far from a flashmob thing).
The Baile Social included sessions of salsa, bachata (slower paced) and Kizomba (a more sensual, slower version of reggaeton). Now salsa is a completely different dancing animal to what I am used to (I am used to mostly normal clubbing dancing where you can dance socially with a partner or with friends). For salsa however, you have to dance with a partner, preferably male. And you have to let them lead. So the way it works, men walk around, check out the dancing of possible female partners and ask them to dance. It’s kind of stressful to tell you the truth, if you don’t get picked, or if you don’t feel very confident. But nothing that practice and a few glasses of sangria cannot help with, I’m told. Salsa is very trendy in Spain, and most people don’t mind putting in hours of practice in dancing schools to be able to dance the night away in the numerous salsa bars. I find it extremely difficult to follow a dance partner I am not used to, so I would advise anyone considering taking up salsa to learn the steps with someone you know and who you would be willing to go to salsa bars with. That way, no risk of not getting picked up and less chances of stepping on their toes! I have seen well-coordinated couples dancing salsa and it looks amazing – great for couple teamwork!
After the Baile Social we went to see the Espectaculos Piromusicales in Retiro Park. Basically that means music with fireworks, but it also included light shows on the Retiro lake. The park was packed with people, but the fireworks were totally worth it – a spectacular ending to the San Isidro festival.
Overall – Great San Isidro weekend!
Once again, I think the Spanish government got it right in terms of offering free cultural events for its people. It is so common now that it’s embedded in the Spanish lifestyle. Granted, it takes an efficient mix of tax money and sponsorships, but the benefits are enormous – tourism, sense of belonging, national pride, well-being of its people. I would much rather contribute towards well organised fiestas than towards expensive tomahawk missiles or ministers’ office cars and police patrols. Food for thought…