I have often read that if Dickens were alive today he would be writing scripts for Eastenders, and the same probably goes for Benito Perez Galdos, his Spanish contemporary. At the end of the 19th century, Galdos was a prolific writer on the wretchedness of daily life in Spain, and many of the characters in his novels lived in squalid conditions on the hill below the Plaza Mayor in Madrid.
These areas, La Latina and Lavapies, are the most traditional parts of the city, but have always attracted a mix of cultures. Lavapies was the Jewish quarter until the end of the 15th century, and the Jews who converted to Christianity stayed there until around a hundred years ago. Now the area has taken on a different character with new inhabitants from North Africa, Asia and the Far East, with a proliferation of tearooms, ethnic restaurants and bazaars, and is livelier than ever. This is where to find the best flamenco, but these days you are just as likely to hear reggae or salsa belting out of the bars.
Walking around Lavapies, you can still see a couple of corralas, the galleried tenement buildings, usually three or four-storeys high, that feature prominently in the work of Galdos and other authors and playwrights. With dozens of families packed into tiny apartments set around a courtyard, the corralas provided no end of juicy stories.
There is one at the bottom of Lavapies, on Calle Miguel Servet. Built in 1790, it has been extended and restored over the years to form a higgledy-piggledy complex, and is still used as flats. From the strategic viewpoint of La Mancha de Madrid, an old-fashioned bar with a marble counter just opposite the corrala, I looked up at the rows of washing strung across the balconies. A bemused elderly resident observed discreetly from behind a flapping sheet. At street level, the Beirut Teahouse, an Arab supermarket and a few kebab shops reflected a more modern image of the barrio.
Just around the corner, on Calle Embajadores, is La Tabacalera, which was built at the same time and is now a community arts’ centre. Eight hundred women were employed there making cigarettes and cigars. Sassy and streetwise, you could easily imagine them strutting around in a Spanish version of Eastenders or Coronation Street. A lot of them lived in the corrala and were regulars at the local cafes. When the factory bosses installed a cigarette-rolling machine, which threatened their livelihood, they came out on strike and, just to be on the safe side, destroyed the offending contraption – by dancing on it in killer heels, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.
Walking back uphill, I looked up at the tiled balconies with wrought-iron railings, green wooden blinds and flowerpots. On Calle Meson de Paredes, I came to Madrid’s best-known corrala, where the tradition of staging plays and concerts in the yard in front of the building is still very much alive. On a warm night, this is the place to see a zarzuela, Madrid’s own form of operetta. A yellow plaque commemorates a famous zarzuela called La Revoltosa, which portrays everyday life in a corrala and is performed every summer. Some members of the audience get into the spirit of things by dressing in traditional Madrid costume – checked caps, waistcoats and neckerchiefs for the men, and headscarves, figure-hugging cotton dresses and fringed shawls for the women.
Just below the corrala, I cut along Calle Tribulete to have a look at another unusual sort of building, known as a casa a la malicia. We may think housing shortages are a modern phenomenon, but Madrid had a problem 450 years ago when it became the capital of Spain and attracted a massive influx of people. A bylaw was introduced whereby people living in houses with more than one floor were obliged to provide accommodation for courtiers and other assorted bigwigs.
To get around this, the wily madrilenos built houses which had only one storey giving onto the street, but rose up through several more floors at the back. Only a handful remain, and have been altered over the centuries, but as most buildings in the area are four or five storeys high, it is not hard to pick them out. Just look up as you walk around.