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'Madrid is a humble city of overlooked treasures and untold stories'

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'Madrid is a humble city of overlooked treasures and untold stories'
Leah is the founder of Madrid No Frills. All photos: Leah
17:13 CET+01:00
The Local met Leah Pattem, the 32-year-old founder of the Madrid No Frills blog who gave us the lowdown on why she has fallen in love with Madrid, "a humble city of overlooked treasures and untold stories", and how best to enjoy a perfect weekend in the city.

What brought you to Spain?

My love for Spain was forged very early on in the tackiest parts of the costas (decades later, they haven't changed a bit). Then, 12 years ago, my partner and I came here to visit some Madrileño friends of ours who we met at university. They took us to Bar Cruz in the Rastro, where I saw my first rubbish-strewn floor. We also sat on lots of terraces at sunset, drinking tiny beer after tiny beer, and that is probably when the Madrid seed was planted.

After several years of jobs that took us to the colder bits of Europe, we finally decided to head south to Madrid. Now, almost five years later, we couldn't imagine living anywhere else.

What inspired you to start your blog, Madrid No Frills?

It’s basically a reflection of my day-to-day life. I drink in no-frills bars, eat in no-frills restaurants, wander the streets and stop and take a lot of photos. I get chatting to people, and they must sense my curiosity because they often end up inviting me to explore beautiful old store rooms, church vestries or restaurant kitchens.

I created Madrid No Frills because I wanted to share my discoveries, and also to help others see the Madrid I love – a humble city full of overlooked treasures and untold stories.

A tiny house in Vallecas, which has been exposed due to the demolition of its neighbours

Tell us a bit about Madrid No Frills.

The core concept of Madrid No Frills can be summed up in a no-frills bar. When you step inside, it's like an accidental museum of Spain's humble, working-class past, with old men playing cards, their wives chatting over a caña, and small children weaving between the barstools. The no-frills bar is also the heart of a small community, but, as its older customers die, younger customers don't take their place. With declining business, the bar can no longer afford to stay open, and the hub of a local community disappears.

I write about no-frills bars partly as recommendations of fun places to grab a drink, but also in the hope that their stories will resonate with people. If every person who read an article stopped in for a caña, it might just be enough to save a no-frills bar and the community it underpins.

Restaurants serving immigrant communities fall within the no-frills concept too, because they're often overlooked for the same reasons. They may be unglamorous, but their food is good, the staff care, and they are the heart of a close-knit community.

Digging deeper into Madrid's history ­– particularly from the Spanish Civil War up to La Movida – is also a crucial part of my blog as it helps us appreciate what Madrid was like before, and why it's so important to find and preserve pockets of the city's humble past while they're still here.

One of Madrid’s most iconic no-frills bars and its owner, Casto

What makes your blog different from the numerous other blogs about Madrid?

The internet makes a lot of noise about cool, new and chic places in Madrid, but many no-frills bars, restaurants and shops – and entire working-class districts – are barely on Google Maps (I've already added dozens of places). I wondered: if no-frills places got the same attention, would people go? The answer seems to be a resounding yes!

Are there any other bloggers doing what you do?

If there are, I’d love to meet them. There are a couple of Spanish 'ghost blogs' that started documenting Madrid’s disappearing no-frills bars, but there've been no entries for years. Sadly, these blogs have become an archive of a lost Madrid: many places they wrote about are now either shiny hipster cafés or vacant commercial units plastered inches deep with club posters.

What makes a bar no-frills?

Cervecería La Carpa is the archetypal no-frills bar. Even when it's busy, the barman will make space for you at the bar – the best place to be. Within 30 seconds, you'll have a drink in your hand and a generous tapa in front of you. The floor is often strewn with serviettes and olive stones, but we all know that's the sign of a good bar. Everything about the place is unpretentious, even the customers, and I feel comfortable here.

Cervecería La Carpa one quiet afternoon

Tell us about the exhibition you’ve just had.

It was all very unexpected. Renzo, the marketing director at Hostel ConCiencia, saw my photos on Instagram and wanted to meet. He'd grasped the no-frills concept completely and wanted to spread the word, so he asked me if I’d like to display my photos in the hostel’s exhibition space.

I saw it as an opportunity to reach out to tourists, many of whom unintentionally ignore the best parts of this city. The guidebooks don’t write about the nooks and crannies of Madrid, or about the fascinating districts beyond the centre because they’re seen as poor, run-down or culturally insignificant.

Madrid No Frills celebrates parts of Madrid that are unfairly overlooked by residents and visitors alike, and my aim is to encourage them to shun the tour bus, get off the beaten path, and explore every inch of this beautiful city – whether they’re here for a weekend or a lifetime.

Discover Madrid's hidden corralas

What do Spanish people think when they discover Madrid No Frills?

Many have told me that I know Madrid better than they do, which I’m not sure is true. But they also say I’ve helped them appreciate parts of their city and culture that they’d previously taken for granted.

How has Madrid changed since you’ve been here?

Apart from Madrid's rapidly disappearing no-frills bars, modern bars increasingly serve drinks without a tapa, which is a real shame as tapas are part of Spain’s culture – it's world-famous for this.

There are also a lot more tourists, all year round, and I've noticed more and more groups of people filing into residential buildings with suitcases in tow. The rumble of the wheeled suitcase has become a familiar sound on Madrid's streets due to the huge numbers of unregulated tourist apartments we have in our neighbourhoods.

What do you love about Madrid?

I love the sense of optimism I get just from walking down the street, especially at sunset, when a purple glow descends over the city. I also love the close-knit communities and fascinating subcultures we have here, and how friendly and non-judgmental people can be.

Madrid also has so many places to explore. I love that I'll never fully know this city, because of its sheer size, complexity and pace of change.

READ: Eight of the very best Instagram accounts to follow in Spain

Describe your perfect weekend in Madrid.

I'd begin Friday night at Mercado San Fernando in Lavapiés, propping up the bar at Son de Lata in the heart of the market. By day, this is a long-established, local neighbourhood market where you can buy your groceries, and by night, it’s a bustling compendium of no-frills bars and food stalls.

On Saturday, we’d take a local train and head to a small town nearby. We often visit our friends' olive grove in Toledo and eat at a no-frills bar in the village before going for a walk through the olive trees.

Back in Madrid for the evening, we’d see if anyone’s up for heading to a neighbourhood we haven’t properly explored yet. One of our recent excursions was to Usera, where we stumbled across a little marisquería that transported me straight back to my seaside childhood. We also discovered some the best Chinese food I've ever had.

Sunday is Rastro day, of course. We live in the centre of Spain's biggest flea market, and it suits me perfectly because I absolutely love treasure-hunting. I’d be off sifting through cardboard boxes and asking the stallholder questions. I once discovered a rare invitation to Franco’s funeral!

A stall at El Rastro, and a tiny door to huge, underground storage units

What do you wish visitors to Madrid would do while they are here?

Put on a good pair of shoes and walk around the city. Look out for things the guide books would never tell you. Then, after a day of exploring, follow that fluorescent light to your nearest no-frills bar. If you're here for more than a weekend, go further afield – take the metro and head out to one of the neighbourhoods I’ve written about. See if you can discover a hole-in-the-wall restaurant that isn’t on Google Maps yet, and be adventurous with the food and ask: “Que recomiendas?”

Follow Leah's adventures in Madrid on the Madrid No Frills blog, on Facebook and in Instagram

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