It’s no secret that Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor or Main Square is one of those places that anyone coming to the city knows that they simply must visit if they want to immerse themselves in the city’s social and cultural scene. This “irregular, but surprisingly harmonious quadrilateral”, as Spanish author Unamuno described it, was recently featured in a special issue of Elperiodico.com entitled “95 places in Spain you must see once in your lifetime.” What better moment to find out a little more about the history of one of the most emblematic sites in Castilla y León.
The Plaza Mayor in Salamanca has always been a place of intense activity. Right from the very beginning, when it was known as the Plaza de San Martín and was four times the size of the current square, it was a natural spot for trade alongside the Puerta del Sol in Salamanca’s city wall. Perhaps not surprisingly, from the fifteenth to the eighteenth century, it was regarded as the largest square in Christendom. But it was not until the eighteenth century that Andalusian Royal Magistrate, Rodrigo Caballero convinced the city authorities to redesign and renovate the square in a style more in keeping with that of the time. So in 1724, Alberto de Churriguera started work on a project – the completion of which in 1756 he would not see – that took its inspiration from other Spanish squares of the period, such as the Plaza Mayor in Madrid or the Ochavo in Valladolid.
Thanks to its long history, Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is rife with anecdotes and fascinating facts. For instance, anyone visiting it after reading this blog will know that the City Hall is missing two towers; or that up until the 1950s, the square had a central garden, a bandstand and public urinals, which were removed in order to create the wide open space of today’s Plaza. The most observant may even spot that, of all the spandrel medallions that adorn the four pavilions, only one effigy appears more than once: Felipe V in the Royal Pavilion; or the inscription on one of the arches of the Royal Pavilion, which reads “Here died a woman, pray to God for her. Year 1838”.
But Salamanca’s Plaza Mayor is much more than history. Of all the many cafes that encircle it, the most famous – and the oldest in the city – is the Novelty Literary Café, a meeting point for writers and artists in the city since it opened in 1905, along the same lines as the Café Gijón in Madrid. The square is also the hub of cultural life and entertainment in the city, attracting performances and concerts by Spanish and international artists. And, as Salamanca’s spiritual heart, the Plaza Mayor is a perfect place to soak up the pulsating atmosphere of this wonderful city and to begin exploring the many other delightful places that it has to offer.