The squares of Madrid, Spain

Punita Malhotra


Madrid’s broad boulevards and big squares are mementoes of a powerful empire. But in the back streets and smaller squares, real Madrileños live ensconced within other charms…where gourmet cheese bars and luxury olive oil stores rub shoulders with old cobbler shops and 1800-circa tabernas. Modern, classy Madrid has a rough and edgy side, and it is this twin personality that makes the city unique. A taste of local life is best experienced in Madrid’s squares, where Tapas, beers and coffees garnished every table, hand-painted azulejo tiles indicate street names and patrons fill patios all day long.

Tapas at Plaza Santa Ana

Chock-a-block with cafes and restaurants, this square is the place for a table under a sunshade below thick green trees. Tapas, beers and coffees garnish every table, the sound of laughter and loud conversation floats from every direction and the aroma of happiness creates a subtle headiness. Complimentary pintxos (skewered appetisers typical of the Basque region)…pickled manazilla green olives and cornichons (gherkins) are addictive but for a real deal, one can try roasted peppers and grilled shrimp. Street signs in decorative hand-painted azulejo tiles flaunt descriptive pictures…animals like eagles and bulls, important historical figures like mayors, or ordinary people like cobblers, religious characters, nuns, monuments, floral motifs, shrines, rural scenes, even sailing ships. Every commonplace sight adds to the intrigue…old-world charms at a ceramic shop, old panelling at a cerveceria (brewery), shoppers choosing from a countless variety at jamon (ham) shops, delectable selections in a queso (cheese) bar, a server polishing the counter at a trendy vino (wine bar). The rich urban texture of broad avenues, medieval alleys, stately gardens, tiny taverns and wrought-iron balconies is enticing.

Cafe culture at Plaza Mayor

Madrid’s main square and site of the former town hall sprawls out in a 20,000 square feet, colonnaded quadrangle behind an ochre-bricked arched gateway. Bathed in blazing sunlight and enclosed by beautiful arcaded three-story residential structures, the 17th-century square reflects a curious mix of Habsburg, Bourbon and Georgian architecture. The ‘Castilian baroque’ crimson buildings, festooned with ornate balconies and pointed grey spires once accommodated a third of the town’s population…and people enjoyed the festivities happening below from these very windows and balconies. It is a perfect spot for a pleasant late lunch of bocadillos (big sandwiches at one of the sidewalk cafés. The peaceful movement of tourists and the selfie-snappers hovering around the regal statue of Felipe III astride his horse and the symmetry of the structure and the harmony of red-white colours is comforting. A medieval square is now a stage for Madrid’s cafe culture. Somewhere, an accordion plays softly, couples amble by, and patrons continue to fill patios…but there is still peace behind the din of a noisy city. Bronze reliefs under lampposts indicate all the Spanish history that was made here…religious celebrations, merry markets, colourful carnivals, fun fiestas, frenzied football matches, brutal executions, rowdy bullfights and even heretic pyres during the Inquisition.

Sun soak at Puerta del Sol

Just a 5-minute walk southwest leads to the vast semi-circular, sun-drenched Puerta del Sol (‘Gate of the Sun’). Spain’s six national highways radiate out from six streets starting here. In front of the grand red-brick and white-limestone facade of Casa de Correos, which houses Madrid’s government, a plaque on the ground marks Spain's Kilometre Zero…’Origen de las Carreteras Radiales’ where enthusiastic tourists pose for pictures. Apparently, the numbering of the Madrid streets starts at the Puerta del Sol too. Starting off as a gate in the wall that surrounded Madrid several centuries ago, facing East according to the custom of the time, Puerta del Sol is as much a meeting place for the city’s inhabitants today, as it was then. The square is also home to the famous Madrid’s emblem, Oso y Madroño, a statue depicting a bear reaching up to eat the fruit from a strawberry tree and the equestrian statue of Carlos III, 18th-century king of Spain, the ‘best mayor’ of Madrid. Locals shop in the El Corte Inglés (The English Cut) department store, children gawp in wonder at street performers and the Spanish Marachi band plays amidst all the craziness in Sol. Standing out from the commercial establishments at ground level, is the classic pastry shop, La Mallorquina and Mercado de San Miguel, an old traditional market converted into a modern gastronomic experience. An unmissable treat is churros at the 1894-founded San Ginés chocolaterie.

Eye candy at Plaza Calleo

A 15-20 minute walk from El Rastro ends at the sweeping Gran Vía (‘Great Way’), nicknamed 'El Broadway Madrileño,’ after New York City's Broadway Avenue. Departmental stores, old-time cinemas, corporate headquarters…this is the commercial hub of the city. Skirts swish and high-heeled shoes click on the crowded pavements. Edgy bachelors race past the gorgeous Art Deco and Art Nouveau buildings in flashy cars. Gran Via is a showcase of the architectural styles of the mid-19th century. The first, and most famous…the pure white Edificio Metropolis, features a lavish façade of pillars, statues and ornaments and a statue of the goddess Victoria on a contrasting black and gold dome. The other landmarks are Edificio Grassy and Europe’s first skyscraper, the Telefonica Building. Countless shops, restaurants, bars and theatres make it a scintillating street that never sleeps…what a stark contrast to the timeless calm of the Plaza Mayor.

Vintage appeal at Plaza de Cascorro

The city's oldest working-class neighbourhoods, La Latina or (‘Austrias’) gives a sense of what Madrid was like, way back in time. Naturally, there are no traces of the bloody trails (rastro) leftover from dragging cattle carcasses through the streets to tanneries in the 17th and 18th centuries. The spotlight is the 15th-century labyrinthine flea market called El Rastro stretching between Plaza de Cascorro and Calle de Embajadores, a motley of 3500 flamboyant stalls making it Europe’s largest. Hundreds of stalls line the street with vintage and new clothes, jewellery, artworks, ornaments, LPs, household items, old music records, leather goods, posters, scarves, gas masks and inexpensive souvenirs like hand fans. Rolling Stones T-shirts, fake RayBan sunglasses and Real Madrid accessories, international movie posters, even parrots and chirping sparrows are on sale! Stall vendors tempt buyers by yelling “dos euros! dos euros!” and turning over their piles. Treasures are hidden along the side streets…antiques, retro goods, art, old cameras, puppets, old comic books, recycled cans, flamenco costumes, vintage wedding dresses, posters and postcards turned yellow with time…it is a treasure trove for patient finders. The lively, psychedelic atmosphere is enhanced by laundry dangling from railings and well-tended plants reaching for the sun from narrow balconies. Great location for a portion of Paella, the signature Spanish dish of short-grained rice cooked with rich broth and tomatoes, spicy meats, chicken and seafood over an open wood fire. Saffrony and lemony aromas stoke the appetite till the very end. “Salud!” 

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