Friday 15 May 2009

It's Quince de Mayo - It's San Isidro

Two years ago, returning to Madrid from one of my travels, I watched spellbound from the window of my taxi at an extraordinary sight being enacted on the streets of the capital. It seemed as if Madrid had gone back in time and or they were filming sequels to either My Fair Lady or Mary Poppins.
The men were all dressed like London costermongers, men who worked in the London markets of a century ago (American readers think Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins) while the women of the town wore beautiful long dresses that hugged the figure until flaring out from the knee.

What the heck was going on?

The date was the 15th of May and this was the feast day of San Isidro, the patron saint of Madrid, and what I was witnessing was the “Romero”. The people of the town dress up in their traditional costumes and ostensibly make a pilgrimage to the saint’s shrine in the barrio that bears the saint’s name. Some do, some don’t. Some dress up because it is traditional and go to one or other of the many events that happen all over the city on this day.

There are two kinds of costume: the “Majos” and the “Majas” and the “Chulos” and the “Chulapas”. (The first in each case is for men, the second for women.) The Majos and Majas are more like the peasant’s garb seen in the painting of Goya. The Chulos and Chulapas come from a later time and, at least in the case of the women’s dress, much more flattering to the figure and consequently more popular.

And it’s here again and everyone in Madrid has a holiday. It’s too bad for the rest of Spain. Even towns just beyond the boundaries of the city don’t get to join in this fiesta. For them it’s a normal work day.
San Isidro, (c 1070 – 15th May 1130), more properly known as San Isidro Labrador, (the labourer), was a farm worker who, among other things, is credited with the miracle of finding a spring of sweet water on his master’s land which falls, nowadays, just within the city limits.

A pious man, his fellow farm-workers complained that he spent too much time praying in the church on his way to his daily labours and that they were having to do his work for him. Yet on the morning when his boss went to check, he found that even though Isidro had not arrived in the fields, an angel was doing his work for him. On another occasion, when the good man was actually hard at work ploughing, his employer saw two angels also ploughing on either side, causing the farmer to declare that Isidro’s work was worth that of three men. Yet for the wage of one. I bet there were some rumblings over post-laboral cervezas among his fellow workers that night.

Despite his co-worker’s grumbles, he probably impressed his boss more when he interceded with God to bring his master’s daughter back from the dead. However, his reputation was more surely made when King Felipe III claimed he had been cured of some deadly disease by touching the saint’s relics.

The spring the saint found is reputed to have both health giving and spiritual properties and today there will be long queues outside the “Ermita” that Queen Isabella had built in his honour, as the populace waits their turn to drink it. I doubt it is so very different from that which comes out of Madrid’s taps, but even so, it is good water. And the ladies who queue are much more beautiful than those in Goya’s famous painting.
Goya's "Pilgrimaage to San Isidro's Well" - Prado
If you can’t be here to join the queue, then you can get a virtual flavour of san isidro’s heritage here and click on the photograph.

San Isidro had a wife, known as Santa Maria de la Cabeza, because a bust of her head is carried to her shrine near the Puente de Toledo, a wonderfully sculptured bridge across the mighty Rio Manzanares near Pirámides, on the 9th of September. (Her statue can be seen among many others along the bridge.) They had a daughter who unfortunately fell into a deep well. With an intercession from the Virgin Mary, the water level in the well rose to the top carrying their floating daughter to safety. (The 9th of September is also a holiday in Madrid – although last year it was moved!)

Just around the corner from the “Ermita” there will be a religious service presided over by the bishop of Madrid, but for the rest of the day, in fact, for several days, it is a time of fiestas.

The streets within the Parque de San Isidro, in particular the Paseo del Quince de Mayo, naturally, and the Paseo de la Ermita, become a market, a fair, a Parque de atracciones, an open air church, and a ballroom. You can buy cakes called Rosquillas de San Isidro, which look a bit like ring doughnuts (but are not) and come, among others, in Clever (Listas), Stupid (Tontas), and Santa Clara flavours! There are huge loaves called Bizcochos, hams, chorizo sausages, churros (with and without lashings of thick chocolate), and many other forms of heart stopping cholesterol.

Vendors sell earthenware “Botijas”, porous pot that keep wine cool and allow you to drink from a never-ending stream held high above your head; a solid form of the canvass or goatskin “Botas”. There are ceramic whistles that can be filled with water and are meant to sound like bird singing. And if you wish, you can buy a new wardrobe of chulupos or chulupas.
Music is played and danced to. Traditionally some of the music will come from barrel organs, but more often, it seems, from a portable CD player. They dance the chotis, a strange dance where the women make all the movement and their male partners simply revolve on the spot. And they dance the two-step, or paso-double. But most of the time they stroll up and down, stopping to talk to friends and partake of yet more hear-stopping fatty meat and sugary cakes, which incidentally, are all delicious.
Late into the evening, there will be dancing of a more modern kind to live bands and the food and the drinks will just keep on coming. I swear I have gained a kilo just writing about it all.

The festivities don’t just happen in the barrio of San Isidro, but all over the city. There will be music, lots of it played on barrel organs, and dancing in the Retiro Park and puppet shows for the kids and Zarzuelas in the Plaza Mayor. It’s great fun, everyone dresses up. It’s just a little disappointing that no one breaks into a chorus of Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious*.

Officially, from May 7 to the end of the month, the Feria deSan Isidro is celebrated with a continuous string of bullfights at the Ventas Bullring, but actually they began in April and will go on until the 7th of June. On the 15th itself three of Spain’s greatest bullfighters will be there; Antonio Ferrera, Matías Tejela, and Luis Bolivar. It is curious, though, glancing through the list of names, to see that also fighting this month will be El Cid, John the Baptist, and also Juan Carlos Rey (The King!?). Does he moonlight from his royal duties, one wonders?

Oh, If you don’t have a ticket it’s too late. They have been queuing up for weeks.

The photographs here are the ones I took last year. While you read this I will be at this year’s event. If you want to come, the nearest metro is the Marques de Vadillo on line 5 or you take buses 34, 35, 50, 118 and 119.

*I am impressed that MS Word actually has Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious in its spellchecker.
If you have enjoyed reading this post, I might ask why the heck you are sitting at your computer and not here enjoying all the fun? But if you have any comment, please feel free to leave one below. Blogger doesn’t always believe what you want to say the first time and you might have to enter your comment twice. Gracias.


  1. Richard: Sounds like you will be having a great day. If I were in Madrid, I would be celebrating with the Madrelinos. One of the pictures with food has Rosquilla on each of the several signs - what is that all about.

  2. Ah, the joys of marriage and sharing a computer. Once again, my online persona has been masked by my wife. That comment from Patty is actually from me.

  3. Tom/Patty, which ever personality you're using when you read this, The Rosquilla come with different topping, dipped in suger, etc etc. I would go back and try each one on your behalf, except I have just returned and I have eaten enough already! I do know that "Tonto" is plain and "Lista" has suger. I think "Santa Clara" is nutmeg or cinnamon, but I will have to ask a native to be sure.

  4. Now I know what you were talking about last night. And you're not kidding about the cholesterol!