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In the 17th century the focus of the rapidly growing city shifted from the medieval centre, around Plaza de la Paja, to Plaza Mayor. Part market, part meeting place, this magnificent square was, above all, a place of spectacle and popular entertainment. No one knew what the populace wanted better than the playwrights of Spain’s Golden Age, whose names are still commemorated in the streets around Calle de las Huertas where many of them lived. There were no permanent theatres in those days; instead, makeshift stages were erected in courtyards. Over time the houses deteriorated into slums and teeming tenements. The parishes to the south of Plaza Mayor were known as the barrios bajas (low districts), because they were low-lying and were home to Madrid’s labouring classes. Mingling with the slaughterhouse workers and tanners of the Rastro were market traders, builders, innkeepers and horse dealers, as well as the criminal underclass.
 

San Isidro

When the future patron saint of Madrid died around 1170 he was buried in a pauper’s grave. But, in the 17th century, an unseemly rivalry developed between the clergy of San Andrés and the Capilla de San Isidro over the custody of his mortal remains. The wrangle dragged on until the 18th century when the body of the saint was interred in the new Catedral de San Isidro where it has remained ever since.



Sights

  1. Plaza Mayor

    The heart of Old Madrid is this vast square, surrounded by arcaded buildings, now home to tourist shops .

    Plaza Mayor
  2. El Rastro

    You can easily lose a day wandering around the quirky stalls of the city’s flea market and watching the bustling world go by in the many bars and cafés .

  3. Plaza de la Villa

    This historic square off Calle Mayor has been the centre of local government since medieval times. Opposite the Casa de la Villa, is the Casa y Torre de los Lujanes, Madrid’s oldest civil building (15th-century). In the centre of the square is a statue of Alvaro de Bazán, the Spanish admiral who defeated the Turks at Lepanto in 1571 . Erected in the late 19th century, it is by sculptor Mariano Benlliure. The palace on the south side is the Casa de Cisneros (1537), built for one of Spain’s most powerful families.

  4. Museo de los Origenes Casa de San Isidro

    The museum is housed in an attractive 16th-century palace which once belonged to the Counts of Paredes. The original Renaissance courtyard is best viewed from the first floor where archaeological finds from the Madrid region are exhibited, including a Roman mosaic floor from the 4th century. Downstairs, the highlights include wooden models of the city and its royal palaces as they would have appeared in the 17th century, a short film bringing to life Francisco Ricci’s painting of the 1680 auto-de-fé  and the San Isidro chapel built near the spot where the saint is said to have died.

    • Plaza de S Andrés 2

    • Open 9:30am–8pm Tue–Fri, 10am–2pm Sat–Sun (Aug: 10am–2pm Tue–Sun)

    • Closed public hols

    • Free

    Museo de los Origenes Casa de San Isidro
  5. San Francisco el Grande

    Legend has it that this magnificent basílica occupies the site of a monastery founded by St Francis of Assisi in the 13th century. Work on the present building was completed in 1784 under the supervision of Francesco Sabatini. The focal point of the unusual circular design is the stupendous dome, 58 m (190 ft) high and 33 m (110 ft) in diameter. After 30 years of painstaking restoration, the 19th-century ceiling frescos, painted by leading artists of the day, are now revealed in their original glory. Take the guided tour to be shown other artistic treasures, which include paintings by artists Zurbarán and Goya (chapel of San Bernardino) and the Gothic choir.

    • Plaza de S Francisco

    • Open 11am–12:30pm, 4–6:30pm Tue–Fri, 11am–1pm Sat; Aug: 11am–12:30pm, 5–7:30pm Tue–Fri

    • Adm

    San Francisco el Grande
  6. Lavapiés

    This colourful working class neighbourhood has a cosmopolitan feel, thanks to its ethnic mix of Moroccans, Indians, Turks and Chinese. The narrow streets sloping towards the river from Plaza Tirso de Molina are full of shops selling everything from cheap clothes and leather handbags to tea and spices. Check out the traditional bars, such as Taberna Antonio Sánchez for example. Performances of the traditional light opera known as zarzuela are given outdoors in La Corrala in summer.

    Mural, Lavapiés

    Lavapiés district
  7. La Latina

    Historic La Latina really comes alive on Sundays when the trendy bars of Cava Baja, Calle de Don Pedro and Plaza de los Carros are frequented by pop singers, actors and TV stars. Plaza de la Paja – the main square of medieval Madrid – takes its name from the straw which was sold here by villagers from the across the River Manzanares. Nowadays it’s much quieter and a nice place to rest one’s legs. The two churches of San Andrés and San Pedro el Viejo have been recently restored. Their history and that of the area as a whole is admirably explained in the Museo de San Isidro (see Museo de los Origenes Casa de San Isidro).

    Façade, La Latina
  8. Casa Museo de Lope de Vega

    The greatest dramatist of Spain’s Golden Age lived in this roomy, two storey brick house from 1610 until his death in 1635. Lope de Vega started writing at the age of 12 and his amazing tally of 1,500 plays (not counting poetry, novels and devotional works) has never been beaten. He became a priest after the death of his second wife in 1614, but that didn’t stop his compulsive philandering which led to more than one runin with the law. To tour the restored house with its heavy wooden shutters, creaking staircases and beamed ceilings, is to step back in time. You get to see the author’s bedroom, and the book-lined study where he wrote many of his plays. The women of the house gathered in the adjoining embroidery room – the heavy wall hangings were to keep out the cold. Other evocative details include a cloak, sword and belt discarded by one of Lope’s friends in the guest bedroom.

    • Calle de Cervantes 11

    • Open for tours 9:30am–1:30pm Tue–Fri, 10am–1:30pm Sat

    • Closed Aug, public hols

    • Free

  9. Plaza de Santa Ana

    The streets around this well-known square boast the greatest concentration of tapas bars in the city and it’s often still buzzing at 4am. The stylish hotel ME Madrid dominates the square, and there is an amazing view from its penthouse bar of the Teatro Español opposite.

  10. Casa de la Villa

    For hundreds of years Madrid’s town council met in the church of San Salvador (since demolished) but in 1644 it was decided to give them a new, permanent home. The Town Hall was completed 50 years later. Its main features – an austere brick and granite façade, steepled towers and ornamental portals – are typical of the architectural style favoured by the Hapsburgs. Juan de Villanueva added the balcony overlooking Calle Mayor so that Queen María Luisa could watch the annual Corpus Christi procession. Highlights of the tour include the gala staircase, hung with tapestries designed by Rubens; the reception hall with its painted ceiling and chandelier; the 16th-century silver monstrance carried in the Corpus Christi procession; the courtyard with stained glass ceiling; and the debating chamber with frescoes by Antonio Palomino.

    • Plaza de la Villa

    • Open for guided tour 5pm Mon

    • Free

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