There are few grander public squares in Europe than Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, watched over on three sides by uniformly ochre-hued apartments with wrought-iron balconies, slate spires that dominated the city skyline in the 17th century, and frescoes that turn golden at night on the square’s northern façade.
First laid out in 1619, the plaza’s inauguration was auspicious. Its first public ceremony was the beatification of San Isidro, the patron saint of the city. But then in the 17th century, supposed heretics were tried and executed here during the Spanish Inquisition -- burnings at the stake and deaths by garrotte took place on the north side of the square, hangings to the south. Later, the plaza hosted bullfights with 50,000 attendees, and royalty watched from their privileged balconies. Those same balconies became a negative focal point in 1673, when King Carlos II decreed that shopkeepers could raise tarpaulins above their stalls to fend off the raw sewage that the residents habitually tossed from the windows above.
But the Plaza Mayor is certainly not alone in being a teller of stories about the city. Some plazas are the city’s great crossroads, transient, restless places where all of the city, and much of the world comes to play. Others are more local spaces, touchstones of barrio (neighbourhood) life where the city’s human and historical story is revealed to those who listen.
Down the hill to the west, the intimate Plaza de la Villa showcases the style of 17th-century barroco madrileño architecture that is particular to Madrid: a sober but ultimately pleasing fusion of brick and stone. The square was the seat of Madrid's city government from the Middle Ages until very recently, when the city’s councillors finally outgrew the ancient town hall. On the square’s eastern side, an imposing Gothic tower, Torre de los Lujanes bears subtle traces of Moorish design, a reminder of the country’s seven centuries of Islamic rule. It was in this tower in the 16th century that the splendidly attired French monarch François I was imprisoned following his capture during the 1525 Battle of Pavia, surrounded by rumours that the madrileños were more impressed by his elegance than they were by the drab dress sense of his Spanish counterpart.
By a quirk of historical fate, it was another Frenchman, Joseph Bonaparte, ruler over Madrid in the early 19th century, who bequeathed to the city several of its more iconic plazas. Desperate for fresh air, he tore down churches and apartment blocks in a now-lauded attempt to give the city breathing room.
One such opening, Plaza de Santa Ana, is located southeast of the Plaza Mayor. Once the favoured haunt of Madrid’s bullfighting fraternity, the plaza is today a vibrant hub of barrio life and the epicentre of the informal fiesta that ripples out across the city each night. Bonaparte’s forging of another square, Plaza de Ramales, close to Plaza de la Villa, gave birth to one of the city’s more curious mysteries. Bonaparte tore down the Iglesia de San Juanito in order to build the square, and the church’s crypt, said to contain the body of the master painter Diego Velázquez, was buried beneath. When excavations to locate the crypt were carried out in 2000, the artist’s remains were nowhere to be found.
Squares like Plaza de la Paja, a village-like area in the heart of La Morería, Madrid’s one-time Muslim district, barely interrupt the tangle of surrounding streets, concealing more than they reveal. This is Madrid’s oldest area, yet signposts to Muslim Madrid remain buried beneath the square and lost to time. And yet, in the kind of contrast that is a Madrid trademark, Plaza de Oriente is an expansive, graceful arc presided over by the Palacio Real, the royal palace that once sought to surpass Paris’ Versailles, and Teatro Real, the city’s opera house and an icon of high culture. Here, everything is on show, not least Madrid’s aspirations to be considered among the elite of European capitals.
A very different Madrid square again is the green and octagonal Plaza de Olavide, a 15-minute walk north of Plaza Mayor. The hum of a dozen bars and hundreds of Spanish conversations fill the air here, and even after sunset, children still play on the swings. Throughout the day, groups of Spanish women, elderly and elegant, take up residence and chatter the day away.