La Plaza del Callao

The Plaza Callao square

A perpetually crowded square, ceaselessly moving and changing, with room for 10,000 people; an intersection crossed by 51,000 vehicles a day and 113 million people a year, surrounded by tall buildings - such a description evokes New York or Tokyo, rather than the more sedate and compact cities of Europe.

Yet such a place exists in the heart of Madrid - the Plaza Callao, famed as much for its role as the heart of cinematic and theatrical Madrid as it is for its eternal bustle and art deco style. Architecture, cinema buffs, and interested visitors will all find much to discover here. Beyond a wide variety of plays and movies, the square itself looks like the embodiment of an 1920s architect's imagined "city of the future". It's a place for gawking as much as exploring.

In a way, the plaza (named after an 1866 battle between Peru and Spain, which took place in El Callao, Peru) represents Madrid's transition into the modern area. It barely existed before the major construction projects that created Gran Via - arguably the city's most important street - in 1910. This undertaking enlarged the plaza greatly and set it up as a kind of crossroads, sitting on the confluence of the important shopping streets Calle del Carmen and Calle de Preciados, along with Calle Jacometrezo (and of course Gran Via).

Plaza Callao grew into this birthright properly in the 1920s. Baker Antonio Rodilla began the square's rennaisance by starting a small pastry shop, a business that grew in later years into a large commercial venture that included several of the plaza's buildings. Marked as a "hot property", the square then attracted business interests in the period’s hippest technology - film. Since then, Plaza Callao has been home to as many as six movie theaters at one time, although recent zoning alterations have allowed some owners to create high-end shopping centers in their stead. These centers still maintain much of their original charm, but the loss undoubtedly alters the feel of the square.

In 2005, the entire Plaza Callao was pedestrianized, which allows for visitors to spend as much time as they like in unhurried admiration of the architecture:

-The Carrion Building, with fourteen stories, was one of the tallest buildings in Madrid when it was constructed in 1933. It has become one of the city’s best-known symbols, owing largely to the signature neon Schweppes billboard displayed on its right side. Its architecture, which manages to combine both retro and futuristic aesthetics, is unique, to say the least.

-The Press Palace, built in 1928, also boasts 14 brick-and-concrete floors, presenting an interesting cubic design that challenges the eye. It was much feted as the tallest building in Madrid until the nearby Telefónica building, an imposing edifice a littleways down Gran Via, was constructed just one year later.

-The Callao Cinema Building was built in 1927 to cater to the nascent film craze. Today it’s recognizable by its destinctive Art Deco style and cream-and-rose color scheme.

Plaza Callao is very well-connected to public transportation, an unsurprising fact given its central location. It is most easily accessed by the Callao metro station (metro lines 3 and 5), at the north end of the plaza, although both Gran Via and Puerta del Sol stations are within easy (and interesting) walking distance.

Article written by Alissa Greenberg. Top photo of the Plaza del Callao Square courtesy of Jose M. Azcona.