Lonely Planet review
For centuries the centrepiece of Madrid life, the stately Plaza Mayor combines supremely elegant architecture with a history dominated by peculiarly Spanish dramas. Pull up a chair at the outdoor tables around the perimeter or laze upon the rough-hewn cobblestones as young madrileños have a habit of doing. All around you, the theatre that is Spanish street life buzzing through the plaza provides a crash course in why people fall in love with Madrid.
Ah, the history the plaza has seen! Designed in 1619 by Juan Gómez de Mora and built in typical Herrerian style, of which the slate spires are the most obvious expression, its first public ceremony was suitably auspicious – the beatification of San Isidro Labrador (St Isidro the Farm Labourer), Madrid’s patron saint. Thereafter it was as if all that was controversial about Spain took place in this square. Bullfights, often in celebration of royal weddings or births, with royalty watching on from the balconies and up to 50,000 people crammed into the plaza, were a recurring theme until 1878. Far more notorious were the autos-da-fé (the ritual condemnations of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition) followed by executions – burnings at the stake and deaths by garrotte on the north side of the square, hangings to the south. These continued until 1790 when a fire largely destroyed the square, which was subsequently reproduced under the supervision of Juan de Villanueva who lent his name to the building that now houses the Museo del Prado.
Not all the plaza’s activities were grand events and, just as it is now surrounded by shops, it was once filled with food vendors. In 1673, King Carlos II issued an edict allowing the vendors to raise tarpaulins above their stalls to protect their wares and themselves from the refuse and raw sewage that people habitually tossed out of the windows above! Well into the 20th century, trams ran through Plaza Mayor.
The grandeur of the plaza is due in large part to the warm colours of the uniformly ochre apartments with 237 wrought-iron balconies offset by the exquisite frescoes of the 17th-century Real Casa de la Panadería (Royal Bakery). The present frescoes date to just 1992 and are the work of artist Carlos Franco, who chose images from the signs of the zodiac and gods (eg Cybele) to provide a stunning backdrop for the plaza. The frescoes were inaugurated to coincide with Madrid’s 1992 spell as European Capital of Culture.
In the middle of the square stands an equestrian statue of the man who ordered its construction, Felipe III. Originally placed in the Casa de Campo, it was moved to Plaza Mayor in 1848, whereafter it became a favoured meeting place for irreverent madrileños who arrange to catch up ‘under the balls of the horse’.
To see the plaza’s epic history told in pictures, check out the carvings on the circular seats beneath the lamp posts. On Sunday mornings the plaza’s arcaded perimeter is taken over by traders in old coins, banknotes and stamps, while December and early January see the plaza occupied by a Christmas market selling fairground kitsch and nativity scenes of real quality.