Peace Corps Writers
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Travel Right

The Plaza Mayor — Madrid

by Alan Ryan

This afternoon, strolling through Madrid’s handsome and historic Plaza Mayor, I lingered to watch a local rock band run through a sound check on a stage set up in front of the Casa de la Panadería.
The stage, complete with roof and walls of monster speakers, obscured the view of the Panadería, one of Madrid’s — indeed, of Spain’s — most historic buildings.

A little history
The Plaza Mayor stands where Arab merchants once set up an extensive marketplace of stalls on the bed of a dry lake outside the city walls of Madrid. In the sixteenth century, Philip II ordered his favorite architect to clear out the old haphazard market and design a proper arcaded plaza that could serve as marketplace, showplace, and gathering place, something grand and appropriate for the city he had made the capital of Castile.
     The first building on the huge square was completed in 1590. It was the Casa de la Panadería, the "Bakery," housing the offices of the breadmakers’ and bakers’ guild that controlled the price of grains and obviously wielded great economic and political influence. In contrast, the Ayuntamiento, or City Hall, which faces the Panadería across the square, wasn’t finished for another three decades.

New and improved since 1790
The original wooden structures of the Plaza Mayor — which were an awe-inspiring six stories tall — burned to the ground in 1790 and were then reconstructed as they are today. And in one shape or another, the Casa de la Panadería, whose rebuilt form includes handsome twin towers and spires in the Flemish style, has presided over the public and outdoor life of Madrid for four centuries. That includes royal progresses and the ravages of plague and famine, military tattoos and revolutions, early bullfights conducted on horseback and the spiritually uplifting sight of convicted heretics being burned at the stake for the good of their own immortal souls.
     The stonework of the Plaza Mayor has been embellished in recent years with a new reddish color and the Panadería itself has had a facelift, if that’s the right word. In 1992, the city fathers set a group of muralists to work on the façade. They covered the building with vaguely mythological images in vaguely psychedelic designs and colors. It looks a trifle odd to visitors, but Madrileños — accustomed to drinking beer and eating ice cream and strolling and holding hands where heretics once sizzled — just shrug it off.

Rock concerts, not bread
Back in the Plaza Mayor in the evening, lounging around, watching the rock concert, and watching the Madrileños watch it, my friend asked about the bakery, which of course she looked around for but couldn’t find. But she did so hesitantly, suspecting now that her store of information was perhaps incomplete. And — since not all Americans know whether the Revolution or the Civil War came first — she could probably be forgiven for not knowing that particular item of Spanish history. Besides, she’s from Bilbao in the País Vasco . . . a Basque, hardly a Spaniard at all, for whom Spanish itself is a second language.

Alan Ryan received the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism Award for The Reader’s Companion to Mexico. He writes widely on international literature, music, and culture. Ryan lives in New York City and while not an RPCV, he has edited a number of articles written by Peace Corps writers.

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