The best time to see a plaza mayor is in the morning with a cafe solo or te verde, or perhaps fresh-squeezed zumo de naranja. You must linger, on a bench or cafe table. Bring some sunglasses, and a blanket if it’s cold. Maybe a book. The stillness is key. Plazas are mostly frantic places. You have to catch them when they’re empty to appreciate the rows of 19th-century wooden windows gazing down on you, the whistle of the breeze through the four entrance arches, the aging, multi-colored stone, the patterns of foraging pigeons, how the light falls onto the square, which corners are illuminated, and which are in shadow.
A handful of people is sucient to set the scene. A family out for a walk, the kids on tiny, plastic bicycles, a jogger with her tie-dye shirt and excited pitbull, an old man with leather shoes and a hand-me-down fedora who will also be taking in the early morning scene. But no more than that. Just you, and the almost complete silence, like a tidal pool with a hint of the ocean current slipping in.
By ten, there will be a continuous click click click on the charcoal-colored cobblestones that grows and grows until six pm when the plaza bursts into a cacophony of shoppers, cafe patrons, and hawkers of cheap plastic toys. You will have to dodge and weave to get anywhere, or worse, patiently wait for groups to lter along like grains of sand in an hourglass.
I’ve only felt this peace twice in my life. The rst was in Salmanca, a Sunday in early September. The city was still swaddled in a morning haze. There was only me and my paper map and twisting corridors of ancient sandstone shooting o from the plaza. So many paths worth taking. The second was July 3rd, 2018 in Madrid before the midday sun painted the plaza walls an even brighter shade of red. My green tea warmed me from the inside out, the breeze caressed my face. The air itself seemed to glow. I was so content.
When I returned to these spots three years later, the magic was gone. Perhaps it was my recent breakup. Perhaps the pandemic. Perhaps the light just wasn’t quite right. But I think it might be that you only get one chance to truly see a place, to have a profound, spiritual moment with your surroundings, before it is whisked away.
So, savor this early morning stillness. The imported scarves, one-euro postcards, and Prado lines can wait. Tranquility is temporal. There will always be twinkling lights from private windows and stores alike, and stalls of sweets, and glittering souvenirs, but the square’s boundaries—four walls and the azure dome—will be smothered by the urry. You must stop to look before it is forever out of reach
Above: Salamanca on a Sunday looking up the Rua Mayor, taken from the top of the Cathedral (I also mention Salamanca in my piece about Plazas).
Above: Photo of the Plaza Mayor of Madrid at night
Above: Johanna Burr is an MFA graduate student specializing in creative writing at Iowa State University. She also works as a part-time professor teaching English Composition. Her poems and essays can be found in the OWL (Ohio Wesleyan Literary Journal).