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A Rich History in Plaza Mayor

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Summer at Plaza Mayor. Taken by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr.

Just a short walk from Madrid’s iconic Puerta del Sol is another center of life in the Spanish capital: the Plaza Mayor.

Plaza Mayor signWhat Can You See at the Plaza Mayor Today?

Today, the Plaza Mayor is an expansive space in the heart of the city center. Compared to the labyrinth of small, winding streets that lead up to the Plaza from many different directions, the open space is a welcome relief and literally, a breath of fresh air.

Plaza Mayor panoramic. Taken by Loek Zanders via Flickr.
Plaza Mayor panoramic. Taken by Loek Zanders via Flickr.
Summer at Plaza Mayor. Taken by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr.
Summer at Plaza Mayor. Taken by Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via Flickr.

The Plaza is formed on all sides by three story buildings that serve a variety of purposes, from residential to business to the central Madrid tourist office. On the upper floors you will notice balconies, good for catching an afternoon breeze or checking out what’s going on below.

On the ground floor of these buildings there are typically a variety of Spanish-style restaurants with interior dining spaces. More popular, however, is to sit out at one of the outside tables admiring the atmosphere and watching the many different characters that entertain for money in the Plaza.

Outdoor seating at Plaza Mayor. Taken by Pablo Sanchez via Flickr.
Outdoor seating at Plaza Mayor. Taken by Pablo Sanchez via Flickr.

Though sitting out in the Plaza and enjoying a meal, some tapas or even a drink may sound like a great idea, it is actually super overpriced and from my experience the quality was definitely lacking. I would recommend instead spending a little time walking around the Plaza, then heading out one of the entrances towards less touristic neighborhoods with more reasonably priced tapas such as La Latina.

The Rich History of Plaza Mayor

The conceptions for the construction of the Plaza date back to 1577 when Philip II asked renowned Classical architect Juan de Herrera to remodel the existing Plaza del Arrabal. Construction did not begin until 1617, and was finished by Juan Gómez de Mora in 1619.

Statue of King Philip III in Plaza Mayor. Taken by Loek Zanders via Flickr.
Statue of King Philip III in Plaza Mayor. Taken by Loek Zanders via Flickr.

As the Plaza Mayor has been around for nearly 400 years, you can imagine it has seen its fair share of historical events. The first ceremony to take place was the beatification of San Isidro Labrador (San Isidro the Farm Laborer), Madrid’s patron saint.

From there, it served as the location for bullfights (typically in celebration of marriages or other events), as well as the autos-da-fé (the ritual condemnations of heretics during the Spanish Inquisition, followed by executions such as burning at the stake or hangings. The burnings turned out to not really be a great idea, when a fire largely destroyed the plaza in 1790. The Plaza Mayor that we see today is from the architect Juan de Villanueva, who reproduced it in 1790 following the destruction.

Throughout the years, the Plaza Mayor has also gone under a variety of names such as Plaza de la Constitución, Plaza Real, Plaza de la República and back to the Plaza Mayor.

Events in the Plaza Mayor Today

Today, the Plaza serves as a location for events such as a holiday market, concerts and other traditional parties and festivals. We went to a delicious Jamón (Spanish Ham) festival a few years ago that definitely didn’t disappoint!

Jamon fair

[Go Madrid]

Buy, Eat and Have Rooftop Drinks at the Mercado de San Antón

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Fruit section. By Tiia Monto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.

With a fresh makeover in the past 15 years, the Mercado de San Antón in the Chueca neighborhood of Madrid is a hot spot for fresh ingredients, regional and international specialties and a great place for locals, expats and tourists to hang out and socialize over drinks.

Mercado de San Antón. Taken by Carlos ZGZ via Flickr.
Mercado de San Antón. Taken by Carlos ZGZ via Flickr.

Check out this quick tour through the market today:

First Floor: The Market Stalls at the Mercado de San Antón

At the bottom floor of the Mercado de San Antón you will find your average supermarket chain Supercor. The magic happens, however, when you venture up to the first floor, where there are market stalls, selling raw ingredients such as fresh produce, meats, cheeses, fish, and baked goods as well as some prepared foods and drinks such as handmade hamburgers or a wine bar.

Fruit section. By Tiia Monto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Fruit section. By Tiia Monto (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
Many of these stations, such as La Charcutería de Octavio, (roughly Octavio’s Butcher Shop) have been around since the beginnings of the market over 50 years ago. With the renovations in the early 2000s, they have adapted to modern tastes while still providing the traditional favorites such as Jamón Ibérico (Iberian Ham).

Butcher shop at the Mercado. Taken by Felipe Gabaldón via Flickr.
Butcher shop at the Mercado. Taken by Felipe Gabaldón via Flickr.

The raw ingredients from the market are a bit more expensive than you would find in the typical supermarket chains, but the few times I did buy things there, I could definitely tell the difference in terms of quality and freshness. Definitely worth the extra costs if you can afford it!

Second Floor: Restaurant and Bar Stands

Interior view of the Mercado de San Anton.By Benjamín Núñez González (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons.
Interior view of the Mercado de San Anton.By Benjamín Núñez González (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
On the second floor of the Mercado de San Antón (restaurant zone) you will find many more prepared food options in a huge variety- anything from traditional Spanish to Japanese to Italian to ice cream. Each stand has their own seating area, typically high bar stools. The upstairs area is usually very crowded during the after work and weekend hours, but I never had to wait to find a place to sit. Most food options come in tapas form, which is perfect for socializing (something the Spanish are absolute experts at!).

Top Floor: Rooftop Restaurant “La Cocina de San Anton”

For a splurge, check out the rooftop restaurant entitled La Cocina de San Antón (The Cuisine of San Antón). This is the perfect place to showcase the delicious, fresh and seasonal ingredients you can purchase on the lower floor, which is exactly what they do! There is an indoor dining area, where you can taste a variety of dishes from cheese plates to salads to meat plates served in both a traditional Madrileño and international style.

You can also bring products purchased at the market below and they will cook it to your liking! What a cool concept!!

As well, you can venture to the rooftop during a nice day (Madrid has over 3,000 hours of sunshine per year) for a refreshing drink (popular is the gin tonic) with a great view of the neighborhood below. This area is especially busy in the evenings, so get there early if you want a good spot!

[Mercado de San Antón], [The Guardian]

Let’s Meet at Puerta del Sol!

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Puerta del Sol in spring. Taken by Mike Norton via Flickr.

The Puerta del Sol (Gate of the Sun) is Madrid’s most central point, one of its most famous sites and a great place to people watch!

Both as a visitor and a resident in Madrid, Puerta del Sol was a place I frequently visited– passing through on my way to another neighborhood, meeting friends or having a drink at one of the many cafes in the surrounding area.

A Short History of Puerta del Sol

As Puerta translates to “gate” you can imagine what the original function of the space was- as a gate in the city wall that surrounded Madrid in the 15th century. As the gate faced the east, the name derives from the sunrise which decorated the entry each morning.

What to See in Puerta del Sol

A central focus point of the square is the Casa de Correos (House of the Post office), which was built between 1766 and 1768. This historical red brick building currently functions as the headquarters for the President of Madrid’s Autonomous Community. As well, at its highest point, it contains the famous clock tower which is a focus of any Spanish New Year’s Eve. The ringing of its bell marks the time for the traditional eating of 12 grapes!

Casa de Correos. Taken by M.Peinado via Flickr.
Casa de Correos. Taken by M.Peinado via Flickr.

Right in front of the Casa de Correos you will find Kilometer Zero, which is the center of the radial network of Spanish roads, also a popular spot for tourists to take pictures with. As well, it is a symbolic place for protests to begin.

Yes, I am one of those tourists...
Yes, I am one of those tourists…

Another famous site is the statue of King Carlos III (r.1759-1788), built in 1997.

Statue of King Carlos III.
Statue of King Carlos III. Taken by Charlie Phillips via Flickr.

Next to it there is a main fountain, which is a popular spot to sit during a sunny day and watch a few of the many street performers working for a few euros! Plus, the plaza is always a really beautiful place to sit- whether it is springtime…

Puerta del Sol in spring. Taken by Mike Norton via Flickr.
Puerta del Sol in spring. Taken by Mike Norton via Flickr.

–or the lights of Christmas are out!

Christmas time in Puerta del Sol. Taken by Doc Searls via Flickr.
Christmas time in Puerta del Sol. Taken by Doc Searls via Flickr.

Perhaps the most famous of the statues in Puerta del Sol is El Oso y El Madroño (the bear and the strawberry tree). This is a symbol of the city, but actually there is no clear reason why. The statue depicts a bear eating fruits from a tree, not something you often see in Madrid. Legend has it that there were many bears in the fields and forests around Madrid and, paired with the strawberry tree (which is actually a hackberry tree) it became the emblem of Madrid in the Middle Ages.

Oso y El Madroño statue. Taken by Tomás Fano via Flickr.
Oso y El Madroño statue. Taken by Tomás Fano via Flickr.

Where to Go From Puerta del Sol

Anywhere! The literal central location of Puerta del Sol allows it to be the perfect spot to venture of on adventures in literally any direction. In almost any direction you will find a number of bars, restaurants and shops. As well, it is a short walk from one of Madrid’s most famous squares, Plaza Mayor.

[Madrid Tourist Info]

“Tapa hopping” in La Latina

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La Latina, Madrid

As the birthplace of tapas, you can be guaranteed a culinary (small-plate) journey on any visit to Spain.

My number one best tapa city is, of course, Granada. Each drink comes with a free tapa, sometimes of your choosing, and you can expect to pay anywhere from 70 cents to 2,50 euro for a drink. That’s a pretty good deal. While you may not find that kind of bargain in the Spanish capital city of Madrid, the neighborhood of La Latina definitely won’t disappoint in terms of selection and deliciousness!

How to Get to La Latina

Located just southwest of the city center, you can easily reach La Latina by foot in about 20 minutes from Puerta del Sol. It is located on the oldest section of Madrid, the Islamic citadel inside the city walls, so it has developed with many narrow, winding streets and big plazas. This creates the perfect setting for a wide variety of tapas bars. You can find the hidden ones down in the corner of a back alley or sit out in the main plaza.

The two main streets to find the best tapas bars are Cava Alta and Cava Baja. Especially during the warm weather and on weekends, these streets can be totally packed and it may be difficult to find a spot inside or at an outdoor terrace. The few times I went during the week it was relatively empty, however, though you risk some places not being open and the ambience isn’t quite the same.

Cava Baja in La Latina. Taken by Juan Antonio F. Segal via Flickr.
Cava Baja in La Latina. Taken by Juan Antonio F. Segal via Flickr.

I would definitely recommend going to these streets during your trip to Madrid, but it’s also a good idea to venture off the beaten path a bit and explore some of the places more out of the way, on the hidden plazas. The most well known is Plaza de La Cebada but there are other ones that may be more hidden such as Plaza de La Pajam, Plaza del Humilladero, Plaza de San Andrés and Plaza de Puerte Cerrada that are worth it to check out.

Favorite Tapas Bars

Also great about La Latina is you can find so many different types of tapa options. From the traditional ones at most places, such as the world’s oldest restaurant El Sobrino de Botín, or the famous Casa Lucio, to the more unique options found at the vegetarian Viva La Vida, located near the La Latina metro stop. You can easily recognize it with it’s cool mosaic exterior!

VIva la Vida, Madrid. Taken by Tnarik Innael via Flickr.
VIva la Vida, Madrid. Taken by Tnarik Innael via Flickr.

One of my favorite activities when I lived in Madrid was to spend the day “tapa hopping” with a friend. We would slowly make our way from place to place, sampling what they had to offer. Typically cerveza is the least expensive option, but you can also find other great drinks such as Mojitos or wines.

Featured image from erwin brevis via Flickr.

Templo de Debod: A piece of Egypt in the heart of Spain

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Temple of Debod at sunset.

Did you know you could find an ancient Egyptian temple right in the heart of Spain? Well, you can!

Situated in the Parque del Oeste (West Park), right next to the royal palace in Madrid is the Templo de Debod (Temple of Debod) and not only is it one of the few pieces of ancient Egyptian architecture found outside of Egypt, but it is the only one of its kind in Spain.

The original buildings were constructed in 200 B.C., approximately 15 kilometers south of Aswan in southern Egypt, close to the 1st cataract of the Nile, also known as a shallow length or white water rapids as well as the grand religious center dedicated to the goddess Isis, in Philae. Adikhalamani, the Kushite king of Meroë, built the original structure of the monument, a single chapel room dedicated to the god Amun. During various other reigns, it was further expanded to form a small temple and decorated to completion by the Roman emperors Agustus and Tiberius.

Temple of Debod before it was moved from Egypt, ca. 1862. Public domain.
Temple of Debod before it was moved from Egypt, ca. 1862. Public domain.

In 1960, the construction of the Aswan High Dam posed a threat to numerous monuments and archeological sites in the area, included the Templo de Debod, and UNESCO initiated an international call to preserve these historically rich structures.

During this time, Spain assisted Egypt in saving the temples of Abu Simbel and as a sign of gratitude the Egyptian state donated the Templo de Debod to Spain in 1968.

It was then disassembled and rebuilt in the center of Madrid, opened to the public in 1972. The gateways were also assembled in a different order than the original layout from Egypt.

Today, the Temple is the perfect place to watch the sunset, hang with friends and simply find some calmness and solace within the busy city. You can have a spectacular view of the city below and the peaks of the Sierra de Guadarrama. I used to love going there with a few friends, a big blanket and a picnic basket!

Temple of Debod during the daytime.
Temple of Debod during the daytime.
Temple of Debod at sunset.

Because the park and temple is located so centrally, it is very easy to find, especially from the usual tourist sites. The “hop-on-hop-off” bus also stops there, as well. You can easily walk to the temple from the main palace (which also has some really beautiful gardens), from Plaza de España and Gran Vía.

Though visiting the park and the temple grounds could be the perfect afternoon, you also have a chance to go inside the chambers. Entrance is free, but the schedule and opening hours are subject to change so it’s a good idea to confirm the opening times before visiting, if possible. The scheduled hours can be found via their website (only available in Spanish).

Artifact inside the chamber at Temple of Debod. Taken by Morgan Davis via Flickr.
Artifact inside the chamber at Temple of Debod. Taken by Morgan Davis via Flickr.
Wall carvings inside the Temple of Debod. Taken by Morgan Davis via Flickr.
Wall carvings inside the Temple of Debod. Taken by Morgan Davis via Flickr.

I definitely recommend trying to get inside the temple, which as ancient drawings as well as a museum dedicated to the history of the monument. There are also guided tours available upon request.

[Wikipedia], [Madrid.es]

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