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What's the story behind Madrid's San Isidro fiesta?

The Local Spain
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What's the story behind Madrid's San Isidro fiesta?
Spanish couple dressed in traditional "chulapo" and "chulapa" garb for San Isidro celebrations in Madrid on May 15th. (Photo by Benjamin CREMEL / AFP)

For people from the Spanish capital, May 15th is one of the biggest and most important days in the calendar. And with good reason.

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It’s when the city celebrates one of its patron saints (Madrid has two), which means it’s a public holiday when it falls on a week day, so all the schools, businesses and family-run shops are closed.

In 2024, May 15th falls on a Wednesday.

The party usually gets started on the weekend before when the city has activities, concerts, parades and heaps of other fun events.

Here's what look forward to and the story behind one of Madrid's biggest celebrations.

Who is San Isidro?

In the church of San Isidro lie the embalmed remains of Madrid’s most famous patron saint, Isidro the Labourer.

This varnished bag of bones lying on a bed of white satin, his modesty covered by a flag embroidered with the city’s heraldry, is not doing too badly considering it’s getting on for 1,000 years since he kicked the bucket.

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Kept in a coffin with nine locks that only the King holds the key to, he hasn’t had a public airing since 1985.

Probably all for the best as he’s been knocked about a bit over the years. Charles II had one of his teeth extracted so he could place it under his pillow and benefit from the saint’s good 'juju', and it’s even rumoured that a lady in the court of Isabella I of Castille bit off his toe, presumably hoping to obtain some of his magical powers for herself.

Painting by Alonso Cano (circa 1638) depicting San Isidro Labrador and his family after saving his son from drowning in a well through the power of prayer.

So why all the fuss? Well the miracles wrought by Isidro during his long lifetime were pretty impressive. Apparently, he got angels to plough the fields for him, saved his son after he fell down a well by praying for the water levels to rise, brought forth springs out of parched earth, and conjured food out of thin air.

Isidro’s life is commemorated every year on May 15th when Madrid holds a long weekend of festivities. Saint Isidro isn’t Madrid’s only saint, however, the female patron saint of the city is the Virgin of the Almudena and her saint’s day is celebrated on November 9th.

Francisco de Goya's 'La Pradera de San Isidro' depicts how San Isidro celebrations use to look like in the 19th century.
 

Traditional festivities

On the saint’s day of May 15th, La Pradera de San Isidro (the San Isidro Meadow) still draws families to make a pilgrimage that dates back nearly 1,000 years from the death of the saint.

At midday the Church of San Isidro will host a Grand Mass and then the Archbishop of Madrid and his entourage make their way from the church to the San Isidro meadow to bless the water from the spring that still flows to this day.

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Traditionally, pilgrims visit on this day to drink from the spring uttering the words “San Isidro hermoso, patrón de Madrid, que el agua del risco hiciste salir". ("Beautiful Saint Isidro, Patron Saint of Madrid, you made water spring from the craggy ground").

Expect the streets and parks of Madrid to be buzzing during San Isidro Celebrations. Photo: Jgomezcarroza/Wikipedia 4.0
 

Later, a parade of the statues of San Isidro and his wife, Santa María de la Cabeza, are paraded through the streets, from Calle del Sacramento to the Plaza de la Villa, via Calle del Cordón.

Nowadays Parque de San Isidro is turned into a huge festival site, with a funfair, outdoor restaurants, various stages with dancing and live music.

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But the fun isn’t limited to San Isidro park. There is also usually dancing in La Latina’s Jardín de Las Vistillas, open air concerts in Plaza Mayor and other places, classical music at Temple de Debod, fireworks in Parque Enrique Tierno Galván, a pottery fair in Plaza de las Comendadoras and events at the Planetarium and the Matadero.

For a full schedule of 2024's festivities, check out City Hall’s guide HERE.

The Gigantes and Cabezudos (Giants and Bigheads) parade in Madrid's central Puerta del Sol usually takes place before May 15th. Photo: Madrid City Hall/Wikipedia
 

Food and drink

As with every Spanish fiesta there is a traditional food and drink associated with San Isidro. Lemonade should be sipped on the picnic – but no ordinary lemonade… the San Isidro version comes with wine, lemon, sugar and chopped apples.

The traditional pastry is the rosquillas. A sweet donut type-biscuit that comes in different varieties. Las Listas (Clever ones) have a dousing of icing sugar on top, Las Tontas – (stupid ones) are made with egg. Las de Santa Clara, have a layer of meringue and Las Francesas are made with almonds.

The tasty rosquillas you can try during San Isidro in Madrid. Photo: Tamorlan/Unsplash
 

Families will spread out their table cloths in the San Isidro park or set up tables on the streets of la Latina for lunchtime feasts.

Also look out for kiosks selling calamari sandwiches, bocadillos de calamares.

Dresscode

Men, women and children will be seen garbed in the traditional Madrileño uniform of Chulapos and Chulapas stopped off with red carnations, which haven’t changed since the late 19th century..

Throughout the day at on different stages and plazas where the festivities are found, you will come across groups performing traditional folk dances known as El Chotis .

Even during the pandemic in 2021, Madrileños in 'chulapa' and 'chulapo' costumes took the streets of Madrid to dance and celebrate on San Isidro. (Photo by GABRIEL BOUYS / AFP)
 

Visit San Isidro’s miracle fountain

The Pozo del Milagro – the miracle well – can be visited in the San Isidro Museum in La Latina (Plaza de San Andrés, 2). This is where as we mentioned earlier, according to legend, the son of Isidro the Labourer was saved from drowning after falling into the well and being brought back to the surface by the sudden rising of the waters, a miracle conjured by the praying father.

¡Olé!

It’s also the start of Madrid’s bullfighting season. Corridas take place each evening at 7pm in the bullring at Las Ventas attracting some of the biggest named matadors and drawing sell-out crowds.

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