Plaza Mayor: No longer just a place for a relaxing ‘cafe con leche’

Local businesses are calling on City Hall to completely revamp the landmark site

Madrid's Plaza Mayor could change its look significantly in the coming years.
Madrid's Plaza Mayor could change its look significantly in the coming years.SAMUEL SÁNCHEZ

Madrid’s Plaza Mayor was immortalized back in 2013 by former Popular Party Mayor Ana Botella, who referred to the joys of enjoying a “relaxing cup of café con leche” in the iconic square during her speech to the Olympic Committee as part of the city’s bid for the Games.

But as anyone who knows the square well pointed out, the site is far from the idyllic picture painted by Botella (whose bid, by the way, was a failure).

As such, Madrid City Hall and the businesses located around Plaza Mayor are teaming up to completely overhaul the landmark site before its 400th anniversary in 2017. Local authorities have already begun refurbishing this popular tourist spot, which attracts an estimated 10 million people a year, according to local business leaders.

The spectacle of social misery is unacceptable”

Report by Plaza Mayor business association

While still in office, Ana Botella launched a €3.3-million project in the spring of this year to clean up the façades, eliminate damp spots and fix broken pipes, roofs and cornices. The cobblestone pavement is also undergoing repairs, and awnings are getting replaced.

But area entrepreneurs have doubts about the extent of this repair work, and want to take things much further.

This week, they presented Mayor Manuela Carmena – a leftist who took office in mid-June – with a more ambitious project to liven up the square and the arcades that run around it with art, exhibitions and performances, turning it into an open-air cultural center. The annual agenda of events would have a different theme every month.

A different topic each month


The business association is proposing a topic-of-the-month for activities at Plaza Mayor. Their suggestion is as follows: January - theater; February - carnival; March - visual creation; April - literature; May - art; June - flamenco; July - music; August - tourism; September - wines; October - energy; November - gastronomy; December - Christmas.

The Asociación de Hosteleros de la Plaza Mayor de Madrid, which represents 53 establishments with an annual business volume of €120 million (including the high-profile Casa Botín restaurant and Mercado de San Miguel food hall), feels that the square “has serious problems that require a rapid solution after so many years of passive attitudes.”

Entrepreneurs are blaming city authorities for “letting the infrastructure decay, using the square indiscriminately for all kinds of activities, and under-utilizing its possibilities as a social space.”

These businesses want to transform Plaza Mayor into a cultural hotspot, but see this as unfeasible if the square “continues to be a stronghold of nocturnal marginalization, with cultural programming better suited for a theme park, and Third World imagery.”

“The spectacle of social misery is unacceptable,” adds the association’s report, referring to the dozens of homeless people who sleep under the arcades each night.

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A second phase of the city-sponsored plan includes changes to the lighting, and the last phase could involve a complete change to the pavement. Entrepreneurs claim that the current cobblestones are a bad option and that there isn’t enough light, which “conveys a certain sense of insecurity.” Meanwhile, the sidewalk restaurant patios that line the square lack a homogeneous look because of nonexistent aesthetic policies, adds the report.

Under phase two of the restoration effort, €458,000 will be spent on decorating the vaults of the square’s arcades with frescoes and adding statues by contemporary Spanish artists such as Rafael Canogar, Enrique Cavestany and Blanca Muñoz.

But in order to further develop a cultural use for the arcades, the entrepreneurs are suggesting “the temporary installation of commercial stands and small sidewalk enclosures.”

Under phase two of the restoration, €458,000 will be spent on decorating the arcades with frescoes

These small stands could be used to display products, offer information, provide extra lighting and several other uses. They would be set up between the arcade columns in order to allow pedestrian traffic to flow unimpeded. Some of these stands would be devoted to cultural events by independent groups, in coordination with other activities taking place in the square.

The business association also wants to eliminate the street markets and other commercial events – from horse and car shows to food fairs – that currently get showcased in Plaza Mayor.

The overarching goal is to “take back the commercial pulse of the square, improve its very scant attendance and activity levels from Monday to Thursday during the night hours, and encourage a new artistic program.”

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