The Plaza Mayor is the largest open space (other than parks) in Central Madrid. It's a major tourist attraction, a place for cafes and shops that range from traditional to chic and has served for hundreds of years as a place for public gatherings, similar to Mexico City's Zocalo.
We wandered to it on the first afternoon of our first visit to Madrid; it was only a short distance away from our apartment, and it contains the main office of Madrid's tourism office. The way to Plaza Mayor led us down from Gran Via past a twist of small streets and interesting buildings and corners (above and below).
Along the way, we passed this entrance of the church of San Gines, the local parish, and noted the beautiful and complex lettering. We also noted that the parish has the same name as a place we were told to look for if we wanted the best chocolate and churros—and of course we did. Looking around the corner, we found it. Some say it's the original churro place, others say the oldest; don't know, but I won't disagree with those who say it's the best.
The buildings which line the Plaza Mayor were built in the 1700s to replace ones from a century or so before which had been destroyed in a fire. You wouldn't know from this picture that just between two of the buildings you come to one of the nine entrances to the Plaza.
The Plaza has had many different purposes aside from the obvious gatherings, demonstrations and markets. It has also at points served as a bullring, an execution site, a soccer stadium, and the scene of outdoor trials and executions of heretics by the Spanish Inquisition.
In the course of that history it's worn a number of different names. Originally Plaza del Arrabal, then Plaza Mayor. To honor the 1812 Constitution, it became Plaza de la Constitution. Two years later, with the Bourbon restoration, it became Plaza Real, a name that stuck for a while, except when it was de la Consstitucion again from 1820 to 1823, 1833 to 1835, and 1840 to 1843. In 1873 it became Plaza de la Republica for three years, then Constitution again, then Republica from 1922 to 1939, and since then Plaza Mayor. Don't blink...it could change again!
The building below, called the Panaderia, or Bake House, actually contains government and cultural agencies (and the Tourist Office). The flags out front represent Spain and Madrid.
The Plaza's role in Spanish history has varied in other ways, also. Just nearby, between Plaza Mayor and Puerta del Sol, is the site where the ill-fated 1808 Spanish revolt against Napoleon's rule began, commemmorated by the plaque in this picture. It is at the scene of Goya's painting, The Second of May 1808 (below), showing Madrilenos attacking French forces with simple weapons including kitchen knives. When the Bourbon kings were restored after Napoleon's fall they didn't like the painting: it showed the rebels as common people, not nobility.
But enough of architecture and history...eventually food becomes the main item on the agenda, and we didn't need to leave the Plaza for that! In one of the porticoes of the Plaza, we found a branch of the Museo del Jamon. Despite the name, it's not a Museum of Ham, it's a restaurant that specializes in more kinds of Iberian ham than we knew existed...Good bread and melon, as well, and a slightly spicy gazpacho made with yellow tomatoes.
Yes, I know the sign is backwards...these hams were actually behind us; I photographed the mirror...