On Sunday mornings a coin and stamp market overtakes the perimeter of Plaza Mayor in Madrid, El mercadillo numismático de la Plaza Mayor de Madrid. The first time I happened upon it I was on my way to El Rastro, the enormous flea market held in La Latina, the neighborhood south of the plaza. Tables overflowing with coins and stamps lined the colonnaded porticoes surrounding the plaza. The collectors were out in full force, most of them men in their fifties through eighties, although the crowd was peppered with women. The vendors and shoppers wore sweaters, quilted vests, tweed sport coats, and perhaps a light scarf or jaunty cap in the chill of the shade.
Connoisseurs huddled over tables, flipping through binders specially made to house the collectibles, some used magnifying glasses or lifted their glasses and bent their faces down for a better look as they examined the offerings. No one was going to pull one over on them. Pairs and small groups of men huddled together, discussing the merits and deficiencies of their finds. Patrons spoke at length with vendors, who may have become friends over many years. It warmed my heart to see this scene that had likely played out in this same manner for decades.
My dad collected stamps, but I had no idea what types he favored or what he would consider worthy of his collection. Before I moved on to El Rastro, I stopped at a table run by a quiet man in a cardigan sweater. His offerings weren’t in tidy binders, but were heaped into shallow cardboard boxes, which made them less intimidating, and indicated that they would likely be affordable. I sifted through a big pile, sorting them by what seemed to have historic or artistic merit, things I knew my dad would like based on their design. My pile consisted of architectural etchings in grays and browns, highlighted by blues and greens; images of cathedrals, castles, columns, colonnaded cloisters, and Moorish details. Originally, they’d sold for just a few cents each.
After a time, an older gentleman came up and started looking through the boxes on the table. Every once in a while he’d glance over at my activities. Before long, he began rifling through and examining the contents of my pile and pulled some out. Satisfied with this bit of culling, he went back to the serious business of looking through stamps. When he found two good ones, he’d put one in his pile, and toss the other onto mine with a quick flick of his wrist, never looking up at me. This silent arrangement went on for a good 10 minutes. I was just about to thank him and pay, when a gypsy man plopped something on my shoulder. I kept my wits about me, held my bag firmly, and looked down to see a black, rubber tarantula perched on my shoulder. Not having language skills to deal with the strangeness of the situation, I shooed him away dismissively with my hand, scowling. The two men at the stamp table looked on, said nothing, their expressions never changed. This perturbed me a bit, but only a little. Perhaps they felt I’d done alright on my own.
I thanked the kind gentleman for his help, paid the vendor, and slipped into the center of the plaza. It felt good to be out of the fray, and I took my time crossing the plaza toward the calle de Toledo, which led to El Rastro. A stream of people clogged the archway, but I soon made my way through to the wide pedestrian way leading away from the plaza, lined with shops and tapas bars. I followed the crowd down the gently sloping hill, confident they would lead me to the market.
On subsequent trips to Madrid, I returned to the coin and stamp market to find more treasures for my dad. Recently I came across a small, wax envelope with some stamps I’d tucked away, but had forgotten to give to him. Sadly, he passed away in 2015. I loved spotting things for him on my travels and saving them for his birthday or Christmas. I selected hand blown marbles for him in Venice, a large, clear green one at a Christmas market in Berlin, an antique skeleton key in Arles, a geometric Moorish inspired tile in Toledo, and dark chocolate bars infused with orange from all over Europe. Additionally, I found antique prints for my parents at an antique shop in Berlin and at a flea market in Paris on a cold, foggy morning, all of which my dad framed and still hang in their home. It’s special to me to find treasures for my loved ones while traveling. Every time my husband puts on the blue silk tie I brought back from Rome I smile, recalling our first summer in love and how I desperately I missed him while in Italy. Likewise, it makes me happy to see my mom wearing the gold Art Nouveau earrings my husband selected for her in Paris last September, the way she holds her head so elegantly in them, or pairs them with a silk scarf with similar motifs that I picked up for her in Austria years before. I think they like knowing they were there with me in spirit, and I enjoy these reminders, too.
What special treasures have you picked up on your travels? Or, what do you hope to find on your next trip?
WHERE TO FIND UNIQUE SOUVENIRS
Souvenirs don’t have to be expensive to be special. Many unique things can be found by exploring beyond the usual tourist traps at places such as:
- Flea markets, open air markets, and shops off the beaten path all have treasures waiting to be discovered.
- For religious souvenirs, cathedrals and many larger churches have gift shops offering rosaries, crosses, and prayer cards.
- Supermarkets often have a wide array of affordable high quality chocolates and local candies that are fun to explore.
- Museum stores and historic sites usually have a variety of bookmakers, magnets, cards, and notebooks with beautiful images of artwork.