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La Plaza de la Paja, in Madrid

Plaza de la Paja square

Madrid is a city famous for its hustle-bustle pace and crowded streets pulsing with life, but it also features pockets of serenity tucked in the most surprising places. A prime example of this more tranquil side can be found in the Plaza de la Paja, a broad, shady square whose peaceful atmosphere belies its role in history as Madrid's commercial center and beating heart. Now fully pedestrianized and overshadowed in business by the city's more modern corners, it is an ideal place to have a drink or a bite to eat while admiring architecture that spans several centuries.

A major marketplace during the 13th and 14th century, the plaza got its name (which means "Straw Square") because in its medieval height it was also a tithing site for the Catholic church - peasants gathered there to offer a fraction of their harvest to feed the chaplain's and bishop's mules. The Bishop's Chapel still stands on the north end of the square, a beautiful 16th-century edifice now joined with the palace that formerly housed the noble Vargas family. Plaza de la Paja was once home to many such palaces, including that of the Marquis de la Romana, the Lasso de Castila, and Isabella la Catolica. Unfortunately, only the Palacio Vargas survives to present day.

The remaining chapel and palace are both worth a look. Built between 1520 and 1535, the Bishop's Chapel was meant to house the relics of Saint Isidro, although disputes in the parish prevented him from ever being interred. The building's façade has been beautifully preserved, and its interior decorations present an interesting mix of Gothic and Renaissance style. And although not much remains of the original Vargas Palace - it was converted into an extension for the chapel during the last century - it is still a solid, graceful presence on the square. It is interesting to imagine the plaza in centuries past, lined with many such noble buildings.

If the weather is good, Plaza de la Paja offers many outdoor pleasures. The nearby Garden of the Prince of Anglona is one of the few examples of eighteenth-century aristocratic gardens remaining in Madrid. You might also decide to follow the example of the plaza's only decoration - a broze sculpture of a man reading a newspaper - and parttake in the wide variety of bars and cafes, many of which offer open-air seating. The vegetarian restaurant Viva La Vida comes particularly highly recommended.

Plaza de la Paja is located in the historic city center, in the famous neighborhood of La Latina (which, along with Tirso de Molina, is also the plaza's closest metro stop.) It is surrounded by some of Madrid's most important medieval thoroughfares - including Segovia, la Cava Baja, Alfonso VI and Redondilla, streets - many of which terminate at the square itself, or nearby. As such, as you wander the maze that is Old Madrid, you may well find yourself in Plaza de la Paja whether you meant to visit or not. Why not take advantage of your good luck? Sit down, relax, and drink in the quiet history.

Article written by Alissa Greenberg. Photo of the Plaza de la Paja Square courtesy of Carlos Viñas-Valle.



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