It’s almost impossible to get any work done in May in Madrid. I don’t know why I even bother to try. May 1st is of course Labour Day. So everyone has the day off. That’s a good start. Thing is, in most places, people go back to work the next day, but not in Madrid. Oh no, May 2nd is also a public holiday in the city, and not just any old holiday either - this is to commemorate how the people of Madrid fought against the French army on that day in 1808. This year, the dates fall at the weekend, so there are no official extra days off, but I think we can take it as read that productivity will slow all over the Madrid region this month.
Boho Malasaña is the place to be around this time. The area is named after Manuela Malasaña, the teenage seamstress who stabbed at the French soldiers with her sewing scissors and died in the battle that took place in what is now called Plaza Dos de Mayo in the heart of the neighbourhood.
Back in 1808, this space was occupied by the Monteleón barracks, which was stormed by desperate Madrilenians trying to arm themselves with the weapons stored there so that they could defend themselves against the attacking troops.
These days, the city marks this key event in its history with street festivals and concerts, which go on for at least a week, and lead up to the San Isidro festival, which kicks off this year on May 13th.
Isidro is Madrid’s patron saint, and is celebrated on May 15th with processions, parades and lots of dancing and drinking.
A lot of festivals these days seem to be staged for tourists, but this one is really a local affair that visitors are welcome to take part in. There is music and dancing with people in traditional dress at various squares in the city, including the Plaza Mayor, Plaza de Vistillas and the Sabatini gardens alongside the Royal Palace.
Men wear checked waistcoats and caps, narrow black trousers and neckerchiefs, and woman wear contoured long cotton dresses and fringed shawls with carnations in their hair. Kids are dressed in a mini-me version of the above.
The main event is the pilgrimage to the Pradera de San Isidro, now a park on the ill of the far side of the Manzanares river. It was here that San Isidro worked in the fields at the end of the 11th century, performing several miracles along the way.
These days, you can line up to drink from a fountain reputed to be on the spot where he made water spring from the ground on a sweltering day to quench the thirst of the landowner. I have queued up, and drunk the water, to no ill effect, but didn’t notice any miracles occurring either.
Stalls selling cold beers and snacks line the route of the pilgrimage, and it is a great day out. People are usually more than happy to be photographed in their costumes, but always ask first.
This year is the centenary of the Gran Vía, the main avenue through the centre of the city, and there will be a big street party to celebrate the fact on May 15th as well.
It’s going to be a busy day, but I’m determined to fit it all in.
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