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Strolling Through the Austrias Madrid

Among the many charms of Spain’s capital, the quarter known as the Madrid of the Austrias is one of the most exciting areas in the city. The irregular layout in this section of Madrid’s historic district dates from the 16th and 17th century. It was the setting for duels and intrigues, and a privileged witness to the passage of the Habsburg dynasty through the city. Indeed, it was the Habsburgs or Austrias who chose Madrid to be the capital of their empire and they had it embellished to reflect that status.

Plaza Mayor and Environs

The Plaza Mayor is the main precinct to be built by the Austrias in Madrid and, as such, the perfect spot to start our itinerary. Full of atmosphere and thronging with people, it is one of Europe’s most beautiful squares. The project designer was Juan de Herrera, commissioned by Philip II, although it was during the reign of Philip III that it acquired something like its current appearance. I say “something like” because it was gutted by fire in 1790 and had to be restored to a design by Juan de Villanueva. Sited on one side of the square is the Casa de la Panadería, dating from 1590, the first building to go up in the precinct. In the centre of the square stands the equestrian statue of Philip III, by Giambologna and Pietro Tacca.

Emerging from the square along Calle Gerona, opposite us stands the opulent Santa Cruz Palace, in the Plaza de las Provincias, which originally served as a royal prison. Built in Herrerian style as of 1629, in 1791 it also sustained fire damage and was likewise restored under the direction of Villanueva. However, some of its original features were retained, notably the main entrance portal, the twin towers flanking the facade and the large, central coast-of-arms. Since 1938 it has been the seat of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In the same square stands a replica of the 17th-century Fuente de Orfeo (Orpheus Fountain) – the original is housed in the National Archaeological Museum. Continuing along Calle de la Fresa as far as Calle Postas, we come to the Posada del Peine, one of the oldest hostel facilities in Spain, founded in 1610.

Calle Arenal and Plaza de Oriente

From here we walk into Calle del Arenal, site of the popular, 17th-century Church of San Ginés which houses a large number of artworks. Nearby stands the legendary San Ginés Chocolate Factory, dating from 1894, a favourite among Madrilenians for having chocolate con churros.

The area between Calle Arenal and Gran Vía contains a network of streets which are the site of a  number of well-preserved monasteries, including the Monastery of the Descalzas Reales and the Convent of the Encarnación.

Further along Calle Arenal we come to the Plaza de Isabel II, formerly known as the Caños del Peral, with its spectacular Teatro Real facade. The square was important at the time of the Austrias as standing in its centre was one of the city’s major fountains. The remains of this fountain can still be seen by going down into the Ópera metro station.

Going around the Teatro Real we come to the Plaza de Oriente, home to the Royal Palace, which stands on the former site of the Habsburg citadel, known as the Alcázar. South of the Plaza de Oriente lies the Plaza de Ramales, once the site of the Church of St John the Baptist, where Diego Velázquez was buried. Oddly enough, various searches were conducted to find his bones. They were never found, but are still believed to be somewhere in the square.

Heading down Calle San Nicolás, we emerge into one of the oldest parts of the quarter, featuring the church of St Nicholas of Bari, the oldest church in Madrid. Turning back towards Calle Mayor, we come across the Palace of the Dukes of Uceda, a majestic 17th-century residence. Next door stands the Church of El Sacramento, which was financed by the Duke of Uceda in 1616.

Back in the Plaza Mayor, a must-visit landmark is the Arco de Cuchilleros, a traditional arcade lined with mesones and home to the famous restaurant, Casa Botín which, founded in 1725, has the honour of being the oldest restaurant in the world. The Arco de Cuchilleros was built by Juan Gómez de Mora in 1619 to offset the split level between the square and the Cava de San Miguel. This building, which is three storeys higher than the rest of the ensemble, was for centuries the tallest construction in Madrid. Behind the Cava de San Miguel lies the San Miguel Market, a favourite among Madrilenians when they go out to eat top-quality tapas. Near the market stands the Plaza de la Villa, one of the most emblematic Habsburg squares in the city on account of three unique buildings – the Casa de la Villa – the former City Hall – the House and Tower of Los Lujanes and the Casa de Cisneros.

Be sure to visit the Austrias’ Madrid – book your Vueling here.

Text by Aleix Palau for Los Viajes de ISABELYLUIS


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