Plaza Mayor has a much darker past than you would imagine from the fun and festivities that fill the square these days. In the 17th and 18th Centuries it was the regular location for autos-de-fé, public condemnations for crimes against religion during the Inquisition. Prisoners sentenced to blasphemy, adultery, witchcraft and other crimes were burned, flogged, or banished to the underground labyrinth of prisons under the square.
Looking at the front of this Irish Pub off the Northeast corner of the plaza, you would have no idea that a former Inquisition-era torture chamber is just down the stairs inside.
We ventured down, as the Irish bartender explained that, yes, in fact this is where many prisoners were kept and tortured. He added that many were forced to eat the bodies of their dead companions if they didn’t want to starve. Dean and I both noticed that the room felt really heavy, even with the jolly looking kegs of beer and new paint job. The bartender noted that they chose the color red for the new paint based on the secret history the room. Creepy.
Winding around to the Southwest corner of the square, there is a long and narrow set of stairs known as the Arco de Cuchilleros, leading down to Calle de los Cuchilleros or Knife-Grinders Street. The small pulpit that you can see in the photo above on the right is famous as the location where a friar gave a speech in 1808 to incite a citizen revolt against the occupying French.
As you wind down the stairs to the right is the well-known restaurant and tourist destination dedicated to a 19th century swindler.
In 19th century Madrid, there was an infamous bandit named Luis Candelas. He was known throughout Spain as a crafty gentleman and highway robber, who could steal anything and escape from anywhere. He was sensationalized in the press and romanticized in songs and films. Maybe it’s this romantic view of robbery that encourages the ever-present Madrid pickpockets. Personally, I see nothing romantic about getting your stuff stolen. Anyways. The restaurant that’s now near where he and his gang used to hang out is called Las Cuevas de Luis Candelas, and the waiters actually dress like bandits as well. Slightly unnerving, but the space is very interesting – a labyrinth of caves and cellars inside. The illustrations on the walls tell the tall tales of Candelas’ adventures, and huge barrel vaulted ceilings and walls are covered with trinkets and memorabilia of the gentleman bandit’s life of crime.
Walking down Calle Toledo just South of Plaza Mayor brings us to the Plaza de la Cebada, which became the regular location for public hangings and garrotings after 1790. Public executions were a popular source of entertainment for hundreds of years in Europe, with flocks of people surrounding the square and watching from the wooden tenements above. Maybe the modern equivalent is watching violence and murder on TV, so no need for public violence anymore? The fountain in the center of the rotary (above) is quite unusual – it used to provide drinking water to city residents.
To our left a tiny side street leads to the Plaza de Coscorro, with an interesting statue of a man carrying a box and torch with a rope tied around his chest. This is Eloy Gonzales, an orphan and jailbird who joined the Spanish fight in Cuba and offered himself in a suicide mission. The box contains gasoline, which he used to burn down the Cuban stronghold under the cover of night. He only agreed to do it if they would then drag his lifeless body back to the Spanish side out of enemy hands, in order to have a proper burial. He was seriously wounded but the Spaniards were able to drag him back to their side alive. He survived for only nine months after, dying as a result of his wounds just after receiving the medal of honor.
Just beyond the statue stretches a long, overwhelming sea of people and vendors selling what seems like mostly scarves and T-shirts. It’s worth a visit if only to ogle at how many masses of people are there. This is El Rastro, Madrid’s largest flea market. The name translates to “stain” or “trail of blood” because originally it was the site of a slaughterhouse in the 17th and 18th century. People would drag the animal carcasses down the street and the blood would stain the ground.
A nice discovery slightly off the beaten track is the small square, Plaza General Vara del Rey with very different types of vendors than the main drag. There are tables dedicated to rocks and minerals, and lots of antique decorative arts, lamps, chests and trinkets. Also in the area you can find vintage office equipment like typewriters and rolltop desks, and a telephone museum with gramophones and antique radios. There are also high quality antique galleries in indoor locations along the trail.
And these guys were a pretty random surprise, tucked into the square of a long-abandoned building in the La Latina neighborhood, very close to the flea market.