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Public executions, bullfights and aristocratic duels: the rectangular Plaza Mayor has been the setting of almost every imaginable type of bloody ritual. Today it is a peaceful place, a square filled with shops and outdoor cafés. This is the beating heart of the oldest part of the city, the Madrid de los Austrias district, built in the 16th century by the Habsburgs.
Step through the arches around Plaza Mayor and you step back in time. Small shops sell statues of saints, stamps and souvenirs, with shop windows and storefronts that have remained unchanged for decades. The names of the shops are displayed in decoratively painted letters on windows and signboards. At the centre of the square is a horseman statue of Philip III, the Habsburg king who ordered the construction of the square as it stands today.
It started with a modest market at the same location outside the city walls in the Middle Ages. It was called Plaza del Arrabal at the time and, later on – sailing on the winds of history – Plaza de la Constitución, Plaza Real and Plaza de la República. But it has always been known by the locals as the ‘main square’ – Plaza Mayor. The Habsburg King Philip the Fair considered it a shambles and ordered court architect Juan de Herrera to completely renovate the entire square with the Casa de la Panadería (Bakery House), richly adorned with frescoes, as its pièce de résistance. After a series of city fires, the square gained its current form: rectangular in shape with gates on all sides, 2 perky towers across one another, and fringed with 4-storey red ochre buildings. The people of Madrid could also watch the public executions and bullfights from one of the 237 wrought-iron balconies overlooking the square.
“Public executions and bullfights could be watched from one of the 237 balconies”
Plaza Mayor is a popular sight that attracts thousands of visitors each day. Many come to admire the grandeur of the historic square, but also for a cup of ‘café con leche’ or a plate full of tapas at one of the sunny outdoor cafés. Admittedly, the cafés are touristy, but the bars and restaurants a few steps away are still quite authentic. Mesón de la Guitarra is great for a glass of chilled wine or pitcher of sangria, while Museo del Jamon serves refreshing cold beers and Iberian ham sandwiches and Mesón del Champiñón offers are wide range of tapas that are to die for.