Sunday 1 November 2009

Words of Warning

By Richard Morley.
I had left the Plaza Santa Ana, a well known square not far from the city centre and a much better place to eat or have a drink with friends than the Plaza Mayor, and was walking along the Calle Principe towards the Plaza Canalejas. It was twilight and the streets were starting to fill with people looking forward to an evening out on the town. As a moved along with the tide of walkers a Chinese looking man stopped in front of me and asked me if I spoke English. He held a map. He was lost. Could I direct him? He pointed to a place on the map.

Suddenly, a short, fat man, accompanied by a taller, skinny youth, crossed towards us from the other side of the narrow street. The little fat man gave me a half second flash of a green, official looking card inside his wallet and announced, “I am a policeman. It is very dangerous to speak to strangers on the street”. Then added, “Show me your passport”, and reiterated I was in danger.

Those that have met me will know I am not the tallest man in the world, yet I was half a head taller than this “policeman”. However, I was quite a lot shorter than his companions.

I have had young men offer to change my money in unlit back streets of African Towns (I give you good rate, Mister). I have been invited into back rooms and offered wondrous things as I strolled the alleys of Cairo. I have watched the tourists conned by the three card trick artists in the Calle Della Veste in Venice. The little fat man and his accomplices were amateurs by comparison. But there were three of them and one of me.

He was still demanding I gave him my passport. Still telling me it was “very dangerous”, although he didn’t elaborate on this supposed threat. I gave them my best sardonic stare and walked away, on the principle that if he really was a policeman he would come after me. He didn’t.

I suppose I am worldly wise. I should be; I have been in it long enough. But for a young girl just off the plane this could have been quite scary. If my “policeman” had been taller than me and not so laughably squat, I too might have felt more apprehensive. The whole thing lasted less than a minute. It wasn’t a pleasant experience and as I walked away I kept glancing behind me. But they were gone. They had disappeared as swiftly as kitchen cockroaches when the lights are turned on..

In four and a half years of living in Madrid this in the ONLY time I have felt concerned for my safety or my possessions. As far as I am concerned Madrid is a safe place. I have felt less secure on a Friday night in some English provincial towns.

The major street crime seems to be pick-pocketing. The Rastro, the famous street market on Sunday mornings, (see header photograph) is said to be teeming with flexible fingered felons who will, quite literally, snatch at any chance they have to have off with your exposed purse (that’s UK English for a ladies billfold, American readers) or wallet. I do know people who have had belongings taken from their pockets in the Rastro, so that is certainly one place you must be on your guard.

However, this week, I came across a news item about someone called Diane Von Furstenberg who reported that she had been mugged while walking along the Paseo del Prado. Google alerts told me:

Diane Von Furstenberg tweeted that she was mugged in Madrid, Spain. A distraught Von Furstenberg apparently got away with her phone because she instantly went online to let friends and fans know "Madrid! I just got robbed in the street in front of the Thyssen Museum. My wallet, cash, and all my credit cards!" People, this is why you should carry a photocopy of your passport around and not the real thing, okay?
She then assured fans she was "totally fine" and hoped that was the worst thing that happened to her. Hey, that's a valid fear in Madrid. My best friend and I could barely walk around the city at night because there were so many casually dressed prostitutes outside of our hostel that we were inevitably followed by American boys speaking bad Spanish who wanted to know how much. Also, why are there so many Pork Museums?

Let’s clear up two things straight away: The “Pork Museums” as she calls them, or the “Museos de jamón” are a chain of cafés and pork butchers. One of the best places for a cheap meal if you don’t mind being surrounded by suspended pieces of dead pigs. And, oh come on Miss Furstenberg, I have seen your photograph. There’s no way, except in your imagination, that any man would think you were a prostitute. The girls in Montera are so much better looking!

Right: Diana Von Furstenberg as photographed by Vanity Fare.

However, she claims she was mugged and that’s not nice. It does surprise me that the deed occurred in such a public street, but the report does not tell if it was some lonely hour of the night. She is also female and perhaps thought a more vulnerable victim.

Not being female I decided to ask the experts in this matter how they felt about walking the streets of Madrid. I asked both native and ex-pat and cross section of age ranges. If it is not considered sexist, might I also remark that these are also attractive women, who love to go out at night and might seem to be easy pickings to the dregs of our society?

I asked them:
How safe do you feel in Madrid?
Do you feel more or less safe than in other cities?
What advice would you give to visitors regarding safety?
Do you have a scam / pick pocketing / mugging story to tell?

Here is what they told me.

From a native who has lived in Madrid all her life: I feel safe, but usually stay in well populated areas and never take the back streets. All cities have their dangerous areas and it is unwise to carry all your belongings in one bag or pocket.

From a lady from England who lives here: Short answer, yes, I feel safe in Madrid. Safer than I did in London, at night certainly, though I didn't spend much time in London if I could help it. I think the difference is that the mugging potential in Madrid does seem to be pretty much round the clock and not confined to the side streets.

From a lady from Scotland who visits often: I have been travelling back and forth to Madrid for many years and I must admit I feel only as threatened as I would at home. In all the years I've visited I have only been with one person when they've been mugged and to be honest if they were wearing those baggy combats and acting quite so clearly as a tourist, they would have been mugged in London, Edinburgh and Glasgow too - but they probably would have known about it at the time rather than only noticing when getting back to the hostel. I have never witnessed the kind of street brawls that welcome most of us heading out in Britain on a Friday/Saturday night.

From a native who comes from elsewhere in Spain, but now works in Madrid: Yes, I feel relatively safe in Madrid but I'm not a naive person (and I have common sense), so I make sure that my purse is closed, behind my arm and never ever I stop looking at the people or vehicles, etc. I don't carry anything important in my pockets (just in case). I think that Madrid is not a dangerous city or at least not more than other cities, but you have to take some actions in order to prevent a complicated situation like "our friend". (I think she means Diane Von F.)

And from another Madrid native who answered my questionnaire like a questionnaire:
How safe do you feel in Madrid? Very safe. Especially in the historical centre.
Do you feel more safe or less safe than other cities? The same as in other European capitals.
What advice would you give to visitors regarding safety? Take care of their wallets, handbags, etc. The same as we do when we walk on the street. There are pickpockets like in other cities as London, Paris, Vienna, Berlin.... but Madrid is not an especially dangerous city.
Have you a scam / pick pocketing / mugging story to tell? No, because I usually take care of my handbag

I also loved her comments about how Miss Von F thought she was perceived:
"I think this woman has a lot of imagination. It is possible she was more aware of the fact that if people recognized her or not, or if there were any fans on the street, than taking care of her bag. Of course Spanish man don't think foreign women are prostitutes, they are (in general, with exceptions) very respectful with people and especially with women."

My first responder also commented on that. When I asked if she thought it was true that Miss Von F could assume that men thought she was a prostitute, my friend replied, “Who knows? Probably a high class one!”

Oh! You women when the claws are out!!!!

There are some good, common sense points there: Not putting your possessions in one bag or pocket, always be aware of your surroundings, keep your bags close to you. And, of course, have sense with what you wear.

In summer we see lots of very obvious tourists. How do we know? Well, apart from the horrible fashion (?) of wearing sandals AND socks, there will be a camera around the neck, a bum bag / fanny pack around the waist, a bulge under the shirt where they think they are hiding that money belt and sometimes a little pouch hanging from the neck that we all know has their passport, money and credit cards in it. And if the tourist is an American male over fifty, he will be wearing a florid shirt his wife bought him in Hawaii. They may as well have a target on their back saying, “Come and get me!”

So do my ladies have any advice for you? Yes lots, and I am just going to list it as trying to put it into a literate form would take too long.

Don't put all your money and belongings in the same pocket.
The worst pocket (ie. jeans) is the rear one. It's better in front of you.
Don't leave your handbag, suitcase, backpack... hanging on your chair or on the floor.
Don’t wear your backpack on your back.... because someone can cut it if it without you knowing.
Pay special attention in crowded areas.
Don't leave your mobile on the table (someone can come there trying to sell you a newspaper. They lay the paper over the phone and when they go, so has your phone!)
Don't leave your bag on the seat (in a car) it's better on the floor of the car.
Keep your passport in the hotel (safe box).
Take official transportation at the airport.
Hotels, train station, airports are special places to be robbed if you don't pay attention of your belongings.
Take a copy of your passport, credit cards because if you lose it at least you have all the information.
Don't play "trileros games", it can be "friends" of your properties. That’s the three card trick, or the coin under the cup trick.
When you're walking don’t carry your bag on the road side of the pavement.
If you notice someone is following you try to change your way. If the situation will be the same try to enter in a shop or a place with people.

The resident English lady puts it well: “My advice to tourists here would be the same as anywhere else - try not to look like a tourist! Don't carry everything valuable with you all the time, have a bag that zips up securely and that you can carry where you can see it and just be observant and vigilant. Ignore distractions like people dropping money, etc.”

And she has quite a cautionary tale to tell. She writes: “In Madrid so far, (she has been here six or seven months, I think), the night before I arrived, the girl I was due to meet here on my first day had her phone stolen, a week after I arrived there was a murder less than 500 metres from where I was living, my flatmate was assaulted getting off the nightbus, one of her female friends was knocked to the ground and had everything taken last week, and a couple of days ago one of her male friends had his mobile cut from his trouser pocket on the Metro. Oh, and a male acquaintance of mine was attacked apparently for his watch and his wallet and got a black eye in the process (he says he fought off two "big guys" and they didn't actually get his stuff!) The closest I've come is actually catching a woman halfway through unzipping my handbag on the Metro - she hadn't managed to get anything out of it yet! Sadly, I'm sure my time will come!”

I sincerely hope not.
She also commented on Miss Von F: “I also have no idea who this woman is, but as she's a designer and as far as I can tell most designer clothes these days seem to be made to make you look like a tart, maybe someone did think she was a prostitute! And surely she's a prostitute for fashion.”

I am but a mere male and would not dare to comment! Besides, I care nothing for fashion – as everyone who knows me will testify! Jeans and tee-shirt, that’s me!

That means I look like everyone else, mas o menos, although sometimes when visiting offices I dress up a little more smartly, which means, I blend in to my surroundings. I don’t look like a guiri, a foreigner, a tourist. My ever present camera is small enough to remain hidden until I need it. I haven’t used a wallet for years and separate my cash. And I always try to look like I know where I am going – even when I don’t.

Different countries have different styles in clothes, even in the western world. One young lady seeking information about “How to not look like a guiri while visiting Madrid” received the advice, “Leave all your clothes at home and come straight from the airport to Zara and buy yourself a new wardrobe”. Unrealistic, I know, but it would probably do the trick.

Madrid unfortunately does have its share of bad people. I watched as three men closed in on a young back-packer as he boarded the metro. I am pleased to report that I got between him and them and then, as the doors closed behind them had the satisfaction of watching the trio trying very hard to pretend they were not there. They exited very quickly at the next station.

But the young back-packer was a definite target. His heavy pack was on his back, his pouch was around his neck and he wore those baggy shorts which have pockets everywhere. Oh, and he wore that cotton “Tilley” hat with the wide, stitched brim that no Spaniard would ever wear. Please, take note, if you don’t look like a target then you won’t be one!

Again on the metro, a lady in a group I was travelling with suddenly realised she was sandwiched between two men with designs in her large handbag. Our group closed in around her and the men left the train.

My landlady, who has lived here nearly all her life and should have known better, had her purse, money and door keys stolen in a moment of inattention while riding the metro. She had left them sitting on the top of her open bag while talking with a colleague.

This would seem to indicate that the metro is an unsafe form of transport. It’s not, but you must be careful. I ride it nearly every day and have never experienced a moment’s unease.

The truth of the matter is that much like anywhere else you must take elementary precautions. But I have to say I have never felt safer than in Madrid. Sometimes I will walk home at three or four in the morning – a walk of about forty-five minutes – and have never felt threatened. One evening last week I was approached on a narrow pathway by a group of skin-headed youths with chains and piercings who not only stepped out of my way but wished me “Buenas Tardes” as I passed.

Here is another comment by another lady, a native who has lived here all her life, who sent her reply just as I was finishing writing this. (I would never divulge the age of a lady, but under the cloak of anonymity I might add that she has lived here for nearly fifty years.) She writes: “I don’t know if I can help you, because I have never been robbed or mugged in Madrid.
I have always felt quite safe anywhere. I think the secret is trying not to look like a “guiri”, although in some countries it is not easy.
And related to the story about ( Miss Von F) being followed by men thinking that they were prostitutes, I don’t believe a word of what she says. It has never happened to me or any of my friends or women I know. Maybe I’m a bit stupid… but how can you know a casually dressed woman is a prostitute?”

Personally I think Miss Von Furstenberg had a bad experience, which can never be nice, but then milked it for all it was worth, painting Madrid in a bad light which I felt needed to be answered. I hope I have put everyone’s mind at rest.

But let me finish this by quoting the comment of the Scottish lady whose answer I gave you earlier: “There is not a city in the world where you wont find muggers and con artists but hand on my heart I feel much safer as a young woman walking round Madrid at 2 am than I would in London.....”.

My sentiments exactly! Well, except that I have never been a young woman.

My thanks to Concha, Emma, Luz, Nic, Paloma, and Sole.
If you would like to comment on anything in this post, feel free to write it in the section below.
Remember the four questions I put to my friends:
How safe do you feel in Madrid?
Do you feel more or less safe than in other cities?
What advice would you give to visitors regarding safety?
Do you have a scam / pick pocketing / mugging story to tell?
How do you feel while walking the city streets? Do you have any more advice you could pass on?
I wish you all a hapy and safe time in my favourite city.


  1. Great post and excellent advice. My 23 year old daughter just moved to Garmisch, Germany last month. She and friends are going to either Innsbruck or Munich tomorrow on her day off and I referred her to this post for good, common sense advice.

    As for feeling safe in Madrid, perhaps it is being a large male, but I have never felt unsafe. But I have not visited any areas in Madrid that appear to be unsafe - if I felt at risk, I would depart quickly. I have found dangerous places in other cities (parts of Miami, New York, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Prague, Paris) and not stayed any longer than necessary.

  2. Yes, I feel safe in Madrid at night in the areas that I know. More safe than in London.
    I have two stories to tell. Some English friends came to Madrid an one had his camera stolen in the metro. (he had it on his back, and by the time I was telling him that was dangerous, it had gone). We went to the police to report it in Huertas, and obviously they have quite a lot of reports a day, they even have the forms in English. My friend got a better camera with the insurance money!

    My in-laws and my sister-in- law came on visit to Madrid, and as we were walking down Carrera de los Jerónimos, I saw a gipsy looking woman unzip the handbag of my sister-in-law and put the hand in. I was so astonished that I could not react, but my husband, who is 6 ft did, while this woman was 4ft10in, all she had taken was the empty camera bag, not the purse and it was restored to the owner.

    I have visited Naples, where you also here a lot of mugging stories, and I walked even without a handbag, in jeans, trying not to look tourist at all. No problem.

  3. Talk about stable doors and horses!

    After I left you the other week, one of my wallets went walkabout. No great drama; there wasn't anything of any real value in it ... that was in my other wallet, in a rally secure place.

  4. Some tips given to me during my years in the USA.
    1 - Whenever possible wear sunglasses,they enable you to 'scan' without eye contact.
    2 - Carry your 'stuff' in a supermarket carrier bag.Looks valueless and 'local'
    3 - Do not carry your laptop in one of those neat black bags that scream "laptop" use a standard briefcase.

  5. I feel safer here that in Canada. I´ve lived here for nine years, and have been pickpocketed only once, do to my own stupidity. I was walking down C/Fuencarral with my backpack (stuffed with work papers) and I forgot to move my wallet to the bottom. Oops. Lucky for me the Spanish police are very efficient and within 15 minutes that were calling me to return it. I would never walk downtown at 4 am in Canada, and here I walk to Cibeles late at night and there are more people in the street than in the daytime!

    Love your blog by the way!!

  6. This is my second year in Madrid, and I have never had anything stolen. Having said that I knew before moving here that Madrid had a slight reputation for pickpockets or caracteristas! I think it's better to have a handbag with a cross body strap. Mine has 2 shoulder straps and a cross body strap. I always wear it so I have the zip in front where I can see it and have my hand near it with my thumb through the metal holes that attach the shoulder straps. I am especially caregful on the metro, and even more so when it is extremely packed! I have never had my mobile phone stolen but I was on the metro once a while ago, and I saw someone steal one. Luckily the man realised, and confronted the pickpocket before it was too late. He said "you have my mobile, empty your pockets" and the thief denied it, but sure enough he emptied his pockets and there was the mobile he had stolen! Beware of men with large coats hanging over their arms, they usually use these to hid what they are stealing! You can usually tell pickpockets because they look around trying to suss who will a be a good unsavvy victim.

    I'm also weary of people asking surveys on the street. I always ignore them, and say I'm in a rush which is more often than not the truth.

    It's true, I do feel safe here, it depends on the area of course. Some areas, I don't feel so safe. It does feel safer than Oxford or London, thats for sure! You just have to keep your wits about you, be alert and know what's going on.

  7. Another your purse or bag at outdoor cafes, especially if you're approached by a kid trying to sell you something. They'll grab your bag and be gone in a flash. I've noticed some of the restaurants near the Prado have hire security guards to keep the kids "moving along" with a few well-aimed blows to the head and ears!