San Isidro Day 2020 – Phantom Fiesta in Madrid


Museo de los Origines (Casa de San Isidro). It just gets more and more complicated.

Well, it exists.  I knew that already, but I just needed to get inside.  The Casa de los Origines (The Mseum of Origins) is located in the La Latina neighborhood and it was once and still is sometimes called the Casa de San Isidro (House of Saint Isidro) though it never was his house, nor is there a full-fledged confirmation that he ever lived there.  Tradition has it.  But Tradition has a lot of things, believe you me.   The building belonged to the Vargas family where it was thought that Saint Isidro and his wife Saint Mary de la Cabeza, lived shortly having their son Illán, which apparently is a variation of Julian.   Are you still with me?   

        Illán was the little boy who fell out of Maria’s arms and into the depths of the well in the home.  After minutes of immense tension and prayer, the water level rose to the top and the boy appeared unharmed (evening smiling according to some, though I doubt we have any reliable eyewitness reports).  One story goes that as a result of the miracle the couple moved apart and lived in different homes for spiritual reasons (or possibly because they didn’t know how to tell the kid the truth).  It goes on to say that the boy died before reaching adulthood.

        Not so! Say other sources.  Just last week I mentioned that this couple stood out in the annals of holiness for being a rare case in which both members of the married couple ended up becoming Saints.  Normally in real life, it is just one of the spouses.  This extraordinary situation did not end there.  Their son went on to be a saint too, which should not come as a surprise considering his upbringing.  My question is: is there anything this family did wrong? 

      Now if digging up good facts about San Isidro is a near impossibility, and even less can be found about Maria de la Cabeza, you can forget San Illán.  We already know that there’s a chance he didn’t survive his youth, but assuming that he did, quite possibly he was never even canonized.  He wouldn’t have been the first.  But that doesn’t mean that he is not venerated.  There is a town in Toledo called Cebolla (which translates as Onion), where there is a hermitage.  A hermitage is a church outside a town.  There used to be a small village surrounding it too but the last resident left years ago.  The hermitage is dedicated to San Illán.  Several miracles are attributed to him. 

        I didn’t enter the museum to find out about San Illán.  I didn’t even expect to find out what I did.  On the inside it has a modern-looking set-up which can be divided into two parts.  The first floor centers on San Isidro and Santa María de la Cabeza.  You can see a small chapel, several facsimiles of the codex which recounts his life, historical objects and several magnificent models of some of Madrid’s oldest churches.  They made me jealous.  You see, in addition to wanting to be a solo-guitarist for Lynyrd Skynyrd, a painter, an owner of a fine country restaurant and a Zamboni driver, I have always wanted to make a living building models and I envy those who do to such a degree that, if I were ever to meet one, I could not guarantee their safety. 

         The highlight of the first floor is the site of the well where the miracle was said to have taken place.  Whether to believe or not, it is still a nice old well to look at, water and all, but no baby. 

         Upstairs takes through the ages of this city from prehistoric times, meaning we get to see real mammoth tusks and all.  One of the earliest human remains is there too.  It’s a molar.  And it is on display.  I like a museum which displays molars.  It says they have character. 

         The different rooms take you through the different periods of the city all they way up to the 17th Century (with some more models that tantalize you) and then it abruptly ends.  Some of the rooms were roped off, so I am sure there is more.  I will have to return.

       The good points are that it is small, manageable and free.  But it helps to have some knowledge of the history of Madrid and a decent level of Spanish since none of the information comes in English.  Give it a shot.

More bull…fights

Yesterday a friend asked me if I wanted to go to the bullfights on Sunday and I had to decline, much to my disappointment, because it looks like I just may have to forego a visit to the bullring during San Isidro season this year.

Though not a major enthusiast of the custom, I do appreciate bullfighting, know a thing or two about it, and enjoy a good bullfight from time to time.  I fully realize that this means I am condoning slaying an innocent animal as a form of paid entertainment.  I do.  But that is just one of the mysteries of this world. 

Nonetheless, I have to admit there is something naturally unusual in this day and age about a friend asking, “Hey, Brian, would like to go watch six bulls get stabbed to death?”; it’s  Something that doesn’t quite jive with the general thinking of today.  And yet, bullfighting continues to lure endless numbers of tourists from all over the planet and visions of life.

This comes and doesn’t come as a surprise.  There is so much legend and lore shrouding this tradition that people are inevitably drawn to it.  There’s also a lot of morbid instinct influencing too.  I can’t tell you how many times I have had conversations with people who are clearly defenders of many of the current universal causes – human rights, civil rights, respect for global diversity, save-thises and save-thats, and then out of the blue I heard, “So, my wife and I have bought tickets for the bullfight this afternoon.  What do you think?”

“What do I think?  I think you’re in for a big shock.”  I mean, what would they be expecting?  A tag football version of ritual slaughter?  No, folks, this is the real thing.  You go and will witness how half a dozen animals are rather slowly executed.  There will be blood, sometimes plenty of it.  And the animal will at times also display unquestionable signs of suffering.  “If this is what you are willing to take, then by all means, be my guest.  But don’t expect some kind of clever editing that will spare you of the gory details.  It’s all there happening before your very eyes and that’s that.  There are no two ways around it.”

Invariably, most people return wishing they had not gone in the first place.  No, kidding.  Still, if you are willing to accept it, then you can move on to the next step of trying to find out just what it is all about.  I’ll get to that at a different time. 

San Isidro: What You Do Too

So, as I was saying, you can do a number of things in and around that day to recall the pious man who was assisted by angels while trying to plow his fields until he collapsed.  Boy, I wish I could get a little help like that from time time…if only with the minor stuff like ironing.  My mom says I need to hire a laundress, but she fails to realize that is a profession that died out decades ago and that, as a rule, primary school teachers do not have laundresses.  Plus, I kind of like ironing; on good days at least.

      Anyway…the real thing to do is head out to the Pradera de San Isidro on the other side of the mighty Manzanares River and, well, hang out.  That was yesterday, so you’ll have to wait 364 more days for the next opportunity to participate, don’t say I never gave you a head start on next year’s planning.    There’s a big sort of carnival, and hordes of people just lay out on the grass and have a picnic.  That’s what they’ve been doing for centuries, and if you don’t believe me, check out Goya’s painting the very same scene over two hundred years ago.  So, I think it’s a kind of cool thing to do, even if you aren’t doing anything in particular.  Here’s Goya’s painting:

The Meadow of San Isidro on the Feast Day / La Pradera de San Isidro en Dia Festivo


Here you can actually see landmarks that still stand out in Madrid’s old town like the dome of San Francisco el Grande and the Palacio Real. 

San Isidro: What you do

Basically because Madrid is such a big city, fiestas like San Isidro kind of get absorbed and lost among buildings, endless neighborhoods and just the busy lives of millions of urban dwellers; which is not to say that the inhabitants don’t feel an affinity for the day or its honoree.  In my humble opinion, this is Madrid’s most important fiesta, and though you won’t find widespread celebrations, there are plenty of traditions that keep it alive and healthy…I will get to them throughout the next day or two…stay tuned.