July 18th, 2011
There are certain aspects of daily life in Spain that have changed little down the years. Sitting in a plaza in a Spanish town or city is one such way to pass time in Spain.
Or stroll around and through the main square. You have to do it. It is in the unwritten contract you undertake when visiting Spain.
And if you live in the country, the best way of experiencing the true pulse of a city is not to be square. But to be in the square.
No two plazas are the same in Spain. Sure, if judged on first appearances, some are alike. But, in actuality, they are all different. What makes some stand out? Why are some more popular than others? Which have attracted Hollywood film directors?
Take the Plaza de España in Ronda as a starting point. The same name as many a plaza across the country. But none have the view of this one located as it is in front of the cliff hanging parador and facing the Puente Nuevo with its 400 feet drop of the Tajo below. If you holiday in Ronda you are sure to have this in your sights.
One of the most photographed locations in all of Spain. Dramatic and mesmerising. Down below is the River Guadalevín. The piers of the bridge were built up from the bed of the river. The bridge itself took forty two years to build.
Of course nearby is the famous Plaza de Toros. Not a place to sit and have a coffee but the location of the oldest bullring in Spain. It is a peaceful place to sit when the coach parties have left and the bulls are not being killed.
In times gone by the Plaza in Spain was not a place for sitting with a drink and watching the world go by. It was often the venue for bullfighting. The properties surrounding Spanish plazas were much sought after. The deeds of sale of these houses had within them a clause allowing the original owner of the property to be able to use the windows and balconies of their former home when bullfighting was taking place. Imagine that! The seller of a property could go back and use their former home to be a spectator.
You will notice when sitting in a Spanish plaza how grand many of those properties are. Whether in a small town, or a big city, you can see that these buildings either were, or still are, home to the wealthy. More often these days they are the head offices of Spanish banks – though wealth and banking are no longer inextricably linked in Spain!
In Córdoba the main plaza has been known by two or three names, although Plaza Mayor is today the most widely used address. This may not be the most handsome of all the plazas in Spain but it is typical of many. It is oblong. On three of its sides it has a continuous arcade of pale brick arches at street level. There are several shops and cafes within.
Of course Córdoba is famous for La Mezquita. It is the must see monument in this beautiful Andalusian city. But, once again, take time to soak in the atmosphere of Spain by sitting in a plaza with a refreshing drink. You will not get moved on in a hurry. I’ve known Spanish friends spend half a day over one cup of coffee, a glass of tap water and several newspapers.
Like many cities Córdoba has not one, but several plazas. Do find your way to Plaza de los Dolores. It is a charming smaller square that has the church of Maríade los Dolores alongside it. At one end is the Convento de los Capuchinos with its impressive Mudéjar door. It is often the case that the little plazas, or plazuelas, offer more charm than the large Spanish squares.
Sometimes plazas in Spain acquire fame for reasons I never quite understand.
For example, I know of a handful of squares in the grand city of Granada which are altogether more pleasant and representative of the architecture in the city than Plaza Nueva. And yet this is the first place to which many visitors head. Why?
The answer is, of course, because the guide books tell them to go there. Don’t get me wrong. Plaza Nueva is fairly grand and parts of it offer a view of the Alhambra Palace. But it’s never been the nicest square in Granada. Stay in the city for a few days and you will discover them yourself.
Plaza Nueva has a chequered history. It has at different times been used for the running of bulls, Moorish jousting and the execution of criminals. It’s much less gruesome today, but it’s not for me the plaza of choice in Granada. There are many other candidates to choose from.
In the Realejo district there is the family orientated open Campo del Principe. This is a very open space with lots of shady spots to sit and a play area for children. The plaza is lined with pleasant bars.
Plaza de la Trinidad is dominated by some splendid big trees that make this feel like a very cool space. It is located very close to the much larger and altogether more populated Plaza Bibarrambla.
On Saturday mornings in this square you will find Granadinos having their early morning coffee or, in winter, churros con chocolate prior to them hitting the shops. Then, when the shops have closed, the locals will rest their feet outside a restaurant and enjoy some free tapas.
Spanish plazas come in differing shapes and sizes. Not all are square. Not all are petite. In the town known as the frying pan of Spain, Ecija near Seville, the Plaza de España is huge. It is very hot in this town every summer, hence its nickname.
It has one of those plazas that is looked down upon by nesting storks. Huge birds building their vast nests.
These amazing creatures can also be seen much further north in Spain in the town of Haro. It’s much cooler for most of the year in wine growing La Rioja country, but people do sit out in Plaza Mayor on hot summer days and evenings (as photographed above).
Of course all the big Spanish cities have major plazas. In recent months the main square in the capital city of Madrid, Puerta del Sol, made the news when it was the venue for big protests against the Spanish government.
In the superb city of Salamanca you are spoiled for choice when it comes to deciding which plaza to sit in. Plaza Mayor is a very smart location. Arcaded walkways and numerous cafés at which you can sit and watch Spanish life go by. Then there is Plaza Colon home to the 15th century octagonal tower with pepper pot turrets, the Torre de Clavero.
Many a Spanish square has starred in international movies. Seville’s Plaza de España was the location for the grand exterior of Queen Amidala’s palace in the Star Wars films. The plaza is located on the edge of the Parque Maria Luisa, an intricate area of trees, shrubs and lawns on the southern edge of the city centre. It’s one of many reasons to spend some time in Seville.
On your travels around Spain I urge you to take time out, just as the Spanish do, and sit in a plaza. Have a beer or a coffee.
Look up and admire the surrounding architecture. People watch.
It’s all part of the rich tapestry of life in Spain.