Wednesday 21 October 2009

A Plaza in the Sun.

By Richard Morley.

It is said that there is nothing new under the sun. Madrid can prove that statement to be false.

Standing at the very heart of Madrid, the very heart of Spain, is the Plaza de la Puerta Del Sol, the gateway of the sun. It is the place from where all distances are measured. It is the place where the Spanish gather, or watch on TV, when one year passes into the next. Historically it is a place to meet, to protest – and to assassinate. There is much that is old here, but now, there is a lot that is new.

In the 15th century Madrid’s city walls encompassed a much smaller city. With the steep escarpment and river that encircled it to the west and southwest, its main entrance faced east, towards the rising sun. Some say the entrance had an inscription of the sun on it. What ever the reason for its name, this was where the newly arrived traveller would enter the city. La Puerta del Sol - The gate of the Sun. This was a place of business, both commercial and governmental. Taxes would be charged on goods entering the city. Mail arriving from far off towns would be collected and distributed from here; goods bartered and traded, business negotiated. There would be inns, taverns, livery stables, farriers.

Before the first major remodelling in the middle of the eighteenth century, there stood the church of San Felipe. Its main steps became famous as the Gradas de San Felipe as a place to exchange gossip and rumour. Imagine the hustle and bustle of such a place.

As Madrid expanded the walls were moved out. The eastern gateway became the Puerta de Alcala which was a kilometre further east. The plaza was no longer at an extremity. Now it was very firmly in the centre. And so it has remained, both geographically and spiritually. The Plaza de la Puerta del Sol is at the heart of everything that is Spain, that is Spanish. And like the country and its people, it has undergone many changes.

Two views three months apart. The workmen have been busy.
Before 1766 there was no actual plaza. I imagine timber framed, crooked buildings set around an unpaved square rutted with the wheels of carts and the smell of pack animals. I see a place of loading and unloading, of hardy, strong backed men and small boys running errands for a few céntimos. But that work must now have moved to the new gate. The plaza de la Sol, once rich with the profits of trade would have become neglected, run down. Hardly suitable for the centre of a royal city.
Sol Prior to reformation work that began in 1857.

But in 1766 the architect Jaime Marquet began work on the post office building. To provide security many of the old buildings were torn down and a large plaza created in the space. Over the next century the old church of San Felipe, its associated monastery and the convent of Our Lady of Victory disappeared under the demolisher’s hammer.

Work begins on reforming Sol.

Between 1857 and 1862 Lucio del Valle, Juan Rivera and José Morer gave the plaza its semi circular shape. Like the eastern sun rising over the horizon. Its rays became the streets of Arenal, Preciados, Carmen and Montera. Sol in 1877.

Outside the former post office building is a stone slab, also semi circular in shape. It shows a map of Spain under a compass needle and bears the legend “Origen de las Carreteras radiales”, and the symbol “0km”. This is the point from where all distances are measured. All roads lead out from here. This is the centre of Spain.

Figuratively; the actual geographical centre is thirteen kilometres south south-east in Getafe on the Hill of Los Angeles. But for practical purposes let us return to the Plaza del Sol.

While the larger plaza, the Plaza Mayor, which lays a couple of hundred metres west of Sol might be a place of spectacle, of bull fights, heretic trials and autos de fé, the Plaza del Sol remained a place of trade. Its surrounding street housed all manner of shops and workshops, and all manner of professions. The calle de Montera is still infamous for the oldest! Sol in 1930.
1931. The Second Republic is Proclaimed to crowds gathered in Sol.

Madrid’s first underground railway line terminated at Sol. It ran from Cuatro Caminos where country produce, brought to the edge of the city (as it then was), was loaded on to special goods carriages to be transported into the centre.

Spain’s largest department store, El Corte Inglés, houses itself in several building in Sol and many other shops and hotels surround the plaza. However, while it is still possible to buy a hand made fan, or some traditional pastries, fast food outlets like McDonalds and KFC and a couple of amusement arcades are beginning to dominate.

Sol is where everyone meets everyone else. Meeting Friends? The place to meet is under the clock of the former post office. Or if not there, then “By the Bear”. Madrid’s symbol is a bear reaching up into a Madroño tree, sometimes called a strawberry bush. The fruit of the madroño do look like strawberries, but are nothing like as tasty. A twenty ton bronze of the bear and the tree stands in Sol. A month ago it was moved a few metres to a new location, but it is still in the plaza, but now at the beginning of Madrid’s longest street, the Calle de Alcala.

(Actually, the bear has been moved back to where it was when it was first erected in the plaza in 1967.) The Bear and the Strawberry Tree, over looked by Spain's favourite uncle, Tio Pepe

So why was it moved? Well everything in Sol has moved. When I first came to Madrid, less than five years ago, Sol was little more than a bus station with those radiating roads still carrying traffic. The bus stands were dull concrete, the traffic, choking. Beneath the plaza lay a dingy Metro station, barely able to cope with the passenger numbers of three separate lines and not very pleasant. What is underneath the Plaza Del Sol? This view shows the metro stations and the new Cercanias Station.

Today it is a very different place. Shortly after my arrival it was partly pedestrianised. The streets were redesigned; the bus shelters banished and the metro station got a new, shiny entrance. But that was not the end of the matter. Beneath the plaza a new commuter train station for the cercanías, was being constructed. The work went on for ever. Then we found out that they were constructing Europe’s largest man-made cavern. That opened last June (proving you can have something “new under the sun”) to great acclaim and controversy as the street level entrance, a glass shell in the shape of a great whale, (and called El Pez, the fish, by the locals), was deemed unsuitable and not in keeping with the surrounding architecture, but then neither were the rust stained bus shelters – and they stood there for years."El Pez", The new entrance to Sol Metro and Cercanias stations.

All but one of the radiating streets was closed to traffic and then the whole place was dug up and has been refurbished in completely new clothes. The uneven cobbles are gone, replaced by smooth grey stone. The old central fountain has been replaced with two modern, geometric inverted cones, and the old lamp posts, known as “suppositories” because of their shape, have given way to more tasteful and delicate standards.

Two views: On the left, sometime between 2000 and 2005. On the right, 1970.

After four long years it is nearly finished.

Again the protesters will have somewhere to meet. There will be room for many more New Year celebrators. And the centre of Madrid will have a brand new face. Mind you, while talking of this with a friend over the weekend she remarked that as soon as it was finished, they will dig it up again. “They always do!”

Which is quite true! Since Señor Marquet laid down the basic shape in 1766 the plaza, from the facades of the surrounding buildings to the nature of the land it is built on, has been in almost constant flux. There are photographs showing it with gardens, with trams and trolley buses – and with sandbags. In the centre, unmoved by all that has gone on around him, stands the statue of King Carlos III on horseback. He was known unofficially as “The mayor of Madrid” because of all the changes he ordered to be made to the city, so I hope he approves of his new surroundings. Someone once told me that when the statue, which is actually a copy of the one in the Real Academia de Belles Artes de San Fernando, was first erected in 1994 it contained an electrical device that kept the pigeons away. I must watch one day to see if this is true.

Hopefully the new surface will never be stained with blood.

On May the second 1808, an infamous day in Spanish history, the revolt of the Spanish people against French occupation culminated in a fierce battle fought in the Plaza del Sol. The Spanish were defeated and the Grand Duke Joachim Murat, head of the French forces, had hundreds of the rebels shot.

On November 12th, 1912, the Prime Minister, José Canalejas, was gunned down in Sol by the anarchist Manuel Pardiñas. A Plaza named to honour Canalejas stands a couple of hundred metres up the Carrera de San Jerónimo.

April 14th in 1931 Sol saw the proclamation of the Second Republic, an act which led to the Civil war five years later.

The former post office is now the home of the Comunidad of Madrid, greater Madrid’s governing council. Before that is was the Ministry of the Interior and was a feared place, so I am told, during the regime of Franco. People brought here, so the story went, would never be seen by their families again. On its walls is a plaque to remember and honour those who died and assisted on the terrible day of the Atocha bombings on March 11th, 2004.

Now at New Year everyone gathers to watch its 19th century clock, which was built and donated to the city by José Rodriguez de Losada, and as its bells strike twelve, to eat a grape for every chime. This is a great tradition and the atmosphere in the plaza absolutely fantastic. Everyone should celebrate there at least once. With the street works finished there will be more room for the tens of thousands of celebretantes. But before that comes Christmas. There is always a decorated tree in Sol and nearby, and much more importantly, will be someone selling roast chestnuts, which I love, and the lottery ticket sellers will be telling us they have the winning ticket for El Gordo. The rest of Madrid might still be as full of holes as a gruyere cheese, but at least Sol is almost whole again.

Until the next time!

I made this video on October 16th just before midday. You can hear from the sound of jack-hammers the work has not yet finished. I wonder if it will ever be!

1 comment:

  1. What a fascinating history - I never stopped to think about it when visiting Sol. I have a new appreciation for the center of Madrid.