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By Jaed Muncharoen Coffin

Note from Jerrold - The Lavapies district is located east of the Centro de Arte Reina Sofia.
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Read about my family's tapas tour in Madrid"

When you get tired of drinking watered down sangria in the tourist bars of downtown Madrid, you may wish to venture into the city's most diverse, artistic, and un-touristed neighborhood: Lavapies. To experience the Lavapies night life, you'll have to stay up past your American bedtime.

To get to Lavapies, take the metro from anywhere in the city to the Lavapies metro stop (yellow line 3).

Upon entering the plaza, you'll find yourself among Africans, Turks, Gypsies, Chinese, South Americans, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indians, and Spanish. The wealth of diversity may at first be daunting. Within minutes, someone will probably step forward, whistling, and offer to sell you hash. This is not a threat, and your life is not in danger. Shake your head “no,” smile, and walk on. You have offended no one, and you are not being followed.

For the Lavapies outdoor café nightlife, head to the streets of Calle Ave Maria or Colegio. The atmosphere is lively, relaxed, and informal. To get service at any of the cafes, you'll have to be -- by American standards -- patient.

If there is an open outdoor table, sit and wait. If there are no tables on the terrace, sit inside and wait. Eventually a waiter will come up and ask what you want to drink. The key to successful interaction is simplicity. If you want to drink a beer, just say “caña.” If you want wine, order the “vino de la casa.” At some bars, you can choose your drinks from the pricelists chalked on the wall. If you want cocktails, most waiters will understand the English version. But truly, if you don't speak Spanish, it helps 1) to order simply, and 2) to not be picky. Regardless of your political affiliations, an American might feel as if he or she were walking on ideological eggshells in Lavapies. The less one appears as the typical “ugly American,” the more it seems to smooth out interactions on all levels of communication.

While the atmosphere of Lavapies is upbeat, jovial, and inviting, one must recognize that being American in this neighborhood can be difficult. Acting with a relaxed class and grace will only improve diplomacy!

You'll notice that many of the patrons of the bars and restaurants have mohawks, shaved heads, or dreadlocks, and more often than not you'll smell hash joints being passed around tables of friends. A visitor must recognize that the presence of hash in Lavapies is accepted as a social -- and nearly legal -- norm. But the crowd of Lavapies is not only young radicals; there are old city Madrileños as well. Gypsy bands with guitars and accordians may come to your table, but they won't haggle for tips. Enjoy the music, sit, drink, talk, drink, talk, and drink.

If you want service, you'll have to politely call on a waiter. The waiters do not work for tips, so it's not one of their concerns to change over tables throughout the night. You can stay at your table for as long as you like and you'll offend no one. Drink slowly and stay long. This seems to be the natural rhythm of Lavapies.   When action in the outdoor cafes subsides around 1:30 or 2a.m., ask for “la cuenta” (the bill), and as mentioned, don't feel obligated to leave a tip. At 2a.m., the Lavapies night is nearly beginning. Continue to page 2, Candela


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This page last updated September 2007

  This article written By Jaed Muncharoen Coffin: Jaed Coffin is the author of, soon to be published, A CHANT TO SOOTHE WILD ELEPHANTS, Da Capo Press, and currently lives between Alaska, Maine, and Spain.
Lavapies Photographs and text © Jaed Muncharoen Coffin 2004