Madrid's Historic Plaza Mayor
Heretics, Anarchists, Cloistered Nuns, and Bull Busts
By Rick Steves
Plaza Mayor, built in 1619, is a vast, cobbled, traffic-free chunk of 17th-century Spain. Each side of the square is uniform, as if a grand palace were turned inside out. The statue is of Philip III, who ordered the square's construction. Upon this stage, much Spanish history was played out: bullfights, fires, royal pageantry, and events of the gruesome Inquisition. Reliefs serving as seatbacks under the lampposts tell the story. During the Inquisition, many were tried here — suspected heretics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims whose "conversion" to Christianity was dubious. The guilty were paraded around the square (bleachers were built for bigger audiences, the wealthy rented balconies) with billboards listing their many sins. Some were slowly strangled as they held a crucifix, hearing the reassuring words of a priest as this life was squeezed out of them. Others were burned.
The square is painted a democratic shade of burgundy — the result of a citywide vote. Since Franco's death in 1975, there's been a passion for voting here. Three different colors were painted as samples on the walls of this square, and the city voted for its favorite.
A stamp-and-coin market bustles here on Sundays and on any day it's a colorful and affordable place to enjoy a cup of coffee. Throughout Spain, lesser plazas mayores provide peaceful pools in the river of Spanish life. The tourist information office (wonderfully air-conditioned with limited Internet access) is under the builidng on the north side of the square, the Casa de la Panadería, decorated with painted figures (it once housed the Bakers' Guild).
The Torre del Oro Bar Andalú is a good place for a drink to finish off your Plaza Mayor visit (northwest corner of square, to the left of the Bakers' Guild). The bar has Andalú (Andalusian) ambience and an entertaining staff. Warning: They push expensive tapas on tourists. But buying a beer is safe and painless — just order a caña (small beer). The interior of the Torre del Oro bar is a temple to bullfighting, festooned with gory decor. Look under the stuffed head of Barbero the bull. At eye level you'll see a puntilla, the knife used to put a bull out of his misery at the arena. This was the knife used to kill Barbero.
|At the Torre del Oro Bar Andalu.|
Notice the breathtaking action captured in the bar's many photographs. Just to the left of Barbero, there's a photo of Franco with a very famous bullfighter. This is Manuel Benítez Pérez — better known as El Cordobés, the Elvis of bullfighters and a working-class hero. At the top of the stairs to the WC, find the photo of El Cordobés and Robert Kennedy — looking like brothers. At the end of the bar in a glass case is the "suit of lights" the great El Cordobés wore in his ill-fated 1967 fight. With Franco in attendance, El Cordobés went on and on, long after he could have ended the fight, until finally the bull gored him. El Cordobés survived; the bull didn't. Find another photo of Franco with El Cordobés at the far end, to the left of Segador the bull. Under the bull is a photo of El Cordobés' illegitimate son kissing a bull. Disowned by El Cordobés senior, yet still using his dad's famous name after a court battle, the new El Cordobés is one of this generation's top fighters.
Leave Plaza Mayor on Calle Ciudad Rodrigo (far right corner from where you entered the square, and to your right as you exit Torre del Oro). You'll pass a series of fine turn-of-the-20th-century storefronts and shops such as the recommended Casa Rúa, famous for its cheap bocadillos de calamares — fried squid-ring sandwiches.
From the archway, you'll see the covered Mercado de San Miguel (ornate iron posts, on left). This historic market has morphed into a gourmet food mall. Before passing the market hall, look left down the street Cava de San Miguel. If you like sangria and singing, come back around 22:00 and visit one of the mesones that line the street. These cave-like bars stretch way back and get packed with locals who — emboldened by sangria, the setting, and Spain — might suddenly just start singing. It's a lowbrow, electric-keyboard, karaoke-type ambience, best on Friday and Saturday nights.
On the opposite (downhill) side of the market, follow the pedestrian lane left. At the first corner, turn right and cross the small plaza to the modern brick convent. The door on the right says venta de dulces (sweets for sale). To buy goodies from the cloistered nuns, buzz the monjas button, then wait patiently for the sister to respond over the intercom. Say "dulces" (DOOL-thays) and she'll let you in. When the lock buzzes, push open the door and follow the sign to torno, the lazy Susan that lets the sisters sell their baked goods without being seen (smallest quantity: half, or medio). Of the many choices (all good), galletas (shortbread cookies) are the least expensive.
Follow Calle del Codo (where those in need of bits of armor shopped — see the street sign) uphill around the convent to Plaza de la Villa, the square where City Hall is located. The statue in the garden is of Don Bazán, mastermind of the Christian victory over the Ottoman Turks at the naval battle of Lepanto in 1571. This pivotal battle, fought off the coast of Greece, ended the Turkish threat to Christian Europe.
From here, busy Calle Mayor leads downhill a couple more blocks to the Royal Palace. Halfway down (on the left), there's a tiny square opposite the Casa Ciriaco restaurant (#84). The statue memorializes the 1906 anarchist bombing that killed 23 people as the royal couple paraded by on their wedding day. While the crowd was throwing flowers, an anarchist (what terrorists used to be called) threw a bouquet lashed to a bomb from a balcony of #84, which was then a hotel. Gory photos of the event hang just inside the door of the restaurant, to the right of the entrance.
Continue down Calle Mayor. Within a couple of blocks you'll come to a busy street, Calle de Bailen. (The Garrido-Bailen music store is the place to stock up on castanets, unusual flutes, and Galician bagpipes.) Across the busy street is the Cathedral of Almudena, Madrid's cathedral. Built between 1883 and 1993, its exterior is a contemporary mix and its interior is neo-Gothic, with a colorful ceiling, glittering 5,000-pipe organ, and the 12th-century coffin (empty, painted leather on wood, in a chapel behind the altar) of Madrid's patron saint, Isidro. Isidro, a humble peasant, loved the handicapped and performed miracles. Forty years after he died, this coffin was opened and his body was found unrotted, convincing the pope to canonize him as the patron saint of Madrid and of farmers, with May 15 as his feast day.
Next to the cathedral is the Royal Palace, Europe's third-greatest palace (after Versailles and Vienna's Schönbrunn), with arguably the most sumptuous original interior, is packed with tourists and royal antiques. Details about visiting the palace are in my guidebook, Rick Steves' Spain.