La Latina is part of the throbbing old heart of Madrid. A befuddling web of old colourful streets, packed to bursting with tabernas and bars whose occupants spill out into the February sun. La Latina is tapas land. Not so much the free buy-a-beer-plate-of-greasy tortilla tapas but the get-your-bloody-wallet -and-buy-something-lush tapas. Settled noisily out from the lower belly of Plaza Mayor, the area is also home to Madrid's humongous but, for me anyway, intolerable market "El Rastro". If you like flea markets it's heaven. I don't. Too many people. Too many tourists. Too much tat. However, it's all too easy to forget the joy of wandering off into the side streets. The quieter little tributaries. Jettison any plans for the tapeo (tapas bar crawl) and let your nose and your eyes pull you around.
First to El Buho and their tortillas. As big as a child's birthday cake and for only 8/9 euros they sit on a plate that struggles under the weight of them. Varieties: garlic prawns, tuna and red pepper, roasted pepper, caramelised onion and goat's cheese. Why constrain yourself to egg, egg, egg with onion and egg. Then wobble out, gassing heartily and penguin walk to the Rastro.
Then the decision. Join the throngs or splinter off.
Always splinter. To Calle Mira el Río Bajo. 'Look the low river!' And its tributaries. Here is the real Rastro. Little workshops and second hand shops and antiques stores displaying their wares out on the streets, preening themselves at you in the light. Little withered books from bygone ages. Chairs and drawers. A little handmade table with a chess board in it. Lanterns. Paintings in stocky frames. Everything wood and smelling of age. You wonder how long these things stay here before some romantic soul gets his money out.
Then onto Calle Rodas, a street that warbles with the soundtrack of tiny birds singing their hearts out. Pet shops, little canaries and budgies. A parrot or two. The windows present a hopping blur of colours; reds and yellows. A tiny wine shop punctures the avian air and then you're out onto another street. Calle Embajadores; ancient and lined with pastel hues and ecclesiastical monoliths. A tiny plazuela, two trees, some wine and fried sardines. Farther still you push on; the alcohol turning the spongy afternoon into some delirious daydream. Down to Calle Casino where Cafe Lusi resides. A round of Albariños that are somehow cheaper than everything else, some olives bobbing in vinaigrette and stuffed with gherkins. The winter sun leaving us in jumpers and the little waiter has to use a bench to reach the bar and shout for the croquetas. Round our feet multitudinous bags and crap that has wafted over from Curtidores street and the now dormant market. Drunkenness slowly starts to enter and speech becomes sloppy.
And finally to the Ronda de Toledo and its grand old archway; the old south entrance to Madrid. El Pescador sits innocently enough on one 'corner' of the roundabout and provides the tapeo-ites with a final resting place to wet their mouths. A round of wines and some torreznos (giant crinkly pork scratchings). On the wall, a little cut out from a national newspaper. It proclaims the bar's calamari rolls as kingly. More wine and a bap.
'A knife to cut please?'
A bread knife is handed over by Paco, the friendly but shy owner.
'Don't give him that butter knife, cut it with a kitchen knife!' Barks an old lady in stripy blue and white nightie style clothes that all silvery ones don.
The walk back is full and jaunty. Softened up with the jammy comfort of Rioja and good food. The Madrid mountains are blue and snow-capped off behind a horizon of pleasing flats. You return home blasted with a happy fatigue and slump to the sofa proclaiming for the umpteenth time that you should do this more often.