Madrid-Salamanca Part II: Whose Plaza Mayor is mejor?
Built between 1729 and 1755, Salamanca’s exceptional Plaza Mayor is widely considered to be the most beautiful central town square in the whole of Spain. Except by the Madrilenians. In their opinion, Madrid’s equally opulent Plaza Mayor, built in 1619 and designed by Juan Gomez de Mora, is not only the beating heart at the centre of Madrid, but at the centre of the entire nation.
There is no doubting the magnificence of both squares. On the one hand, you have Madrid’s gargantuan Plaza, packed full of restaurants, street performers, tourists and revellers, its uniformly terracotta-tinted apartments with wrought-iron balconies offset by exquisite multi-coloured frescoes on the facade of the Real Casa de la Panaderia.
On the other you have the stunning baroque manifestation of Salamanca’s Plaza, loaded with every architectural frill and embellishment, consistently golden in its sunny sandstone construct together with matching golden shutters and busts of every ruler of Spain (including, controversially, the much vandalised bust of Franco, a bust which has in fact been so vandalised that it has been replaced with a plastic, easily wipe-clean replica). How to choose between them?
Well on this second day of my Madrid to Salamanca adventure, I was afforded the opportunity to compare the two Plazas directly, enjoying breakfast in one and an early evening tapa in the other, as my holiday moved from Madrid to Salamanca.
I had promised myself never again to eat in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor having experienced a disastrous meal there last year. Madrid’s Plaza may be packed full of restaurants, but, as is so often the case with the central tourist attractions, restaurant prices are hiked up to reflect their location but very rarely their quality. On my previous trip, our meal was no exception – excruciatingly expensive with food which was, by a long mile, the worst we had ever eaten – cremated, tasteless sole (at €24 each), baby lamb which consisted of NO meat whatsoever, only grizzle and bone (similar price), and a steak which met its promised weight in fat (if I could remember the name of the restaurant I’d let you know as a clear warning NEVER to dine there – sadly I can’t. I’m not sure we ever even knew, as we sat outside what looked like a respectable restaurant only to find that we were being served from some shed down the road).
However, realising that this time the square couldn’t go too far wrong with breakfast, we stole the opportunity to soak up some morning sun as it flooded the giant square, its rays warming the cobbles and inviting a fast-waking Madrillenian population to enter for their coffee and churros. At this time of the day, there is no doubting the significance of Madrid’s plaza as a beating artery in the city. It wasn’t just full of tourists, but locals too, discussing business, playing games and gossiping under the welcome warmth of the Spring sunshine.
Time is however the master of all of us, and we were soon required to leave the hustle and bustle of the Plaza Mayor, to check out of the Vincci Soho Hotel and forge our way through the labyrinth of the Madrid metropolitan network, all the way up to Madrid Charmatin from where we caught our super efficient 2.5 hour train to Salamanca. The train afforded us the opportunity to see some beautifully spartan landscapes, hostile hillsides which appeared sprinkled with sporadically scattered granite boulders as though Zeus himself had seasoned the landscape with a sprinkle of rock salt. We were also able to experience the phenomenon of Spanish weather extremes, from sunshine leaving Madrid, to a snow shower passing through the mountains, and then, upon our arrival in Salamanca, a sharp northern wind which almost knocked us backwards onto the train.
Luckily, by the time we reached our hotel, the wind had lost much of its chill, and the sun was bestowing its glorious warming glow upon a golden city which was already proving to be every bit as glittering as had been promised. But first the hotel – We stayed in the Hotel Palacio de San Esteban, a converted monastery which makes for a stunning Salamanca base. With views of the imperious Cathedral from many of its windows, and with close proximity to all of the central Salamanca sites, it was everything we needed. But this hotel gave us more – a huge bathroom with views of the cathedral – you could see it lying in the bath, a particular treat at sunset with nesting storks flying amidst the cathedral’s plethora of spires and towers, a super comfy bed, and the preservation of rustic architectural features left over from the old monastery.
But I’m an impetuous young thing, always bursting with curiosity and an energetic thirst to discover new surroundings, and so I could not enjoy our new hotel without first seeing the beautiful city which was bursting with shades of peach, gold and orange all around us. And where to head for our first sampling of Salamanca – why to the Plaza Mayor of course, a square which proved to be every bit as stunning as the guidebooks, and its reputation suggest. The architecture is so elaborate that it’s the kind of place which takes your breath away, and the fact that the architectural splendour can be discovered in the continuous round, from every conceivable 360 degree angle, means that the awe is all-encompassing, magical. Here Madrid’s street performers are replaced by groups of students, intellectuals from the nearby university meeting to discuss their subjects and no doubt gossip about their friends, while Madrid’s frescoes are superseded by an equally glamourous town hall facade adorned with flags, bells and embellishments aplenty. But like Madrid, Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is also the bustling centre of the city, host to cafes and restaurants squeezing into every available space, and it was to one of these that we headed directly, settling into the early evening sun with a caña, a glass of vino and a plate of manchego cheese.
Later on, we returned, to dine in a restaurant on the square, Plaza 23, a culinary offering with stylish white interior and elegant food, complete with a view of the plaza at night, illuminated to spectacular effect. Good food in a tourist hot spot, and as stunning by night as by day – for these two reasons, Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor gets my vote.
See you tomorrow!
- Madrid-Salamanca Part I: Silk-scarf Chagall’s and perfect palmeras – Thyssen, Prado and a well-needed Retiro (normsonline.wordpress.com)