“We are in the Spanish south. The castanets click from coast to coast, the cicada hum through the night, the air is heavy with jasmine and orange blossom… the girls have black eyes and undulating carriages.” – Jan Morris, ‘Spain’
We were staying at the Hotel Retiro del Maestre, a renovated old Spanish nobleman’s house on a dusty street leading to the main square of Almagro. It was a friendly family run hotel with spacious and comfortable public rooms, a large outside terrace basking in the pleasant sun and was a nice room for us with a view over the garden.
It was late afternoon by this time and with the sun beginning to dip we didn’t linger long but made our way quickly to the Plaza Mayor to find a bar. On the way we passed by the equestrian statue of the Conquistador Diego de Almagro and then entered the rectangular Plaza.
At a hundred metres long and forty metres wide it is flanked on both sides by arcades of cream Tuscan columns, weathered by the years, supporting overhead galleries all painted a uniform shade of botella verde and fully glazed in a central European style that makes this place truly unique in all of Spain. These galleries were originally open and used as grandstands for public events, religious festivals and even bullfights that were held here until 1785, when they were finally banned by King Carlos III.
We choose a table on the sunny side of the Plaza, ordered beer and wine and just sat and watched the activity while we nibbled the inevitable olives. The bar owner shooed away some small boys playing football, telling them to play elsewhere as families began to arrive and the bar quickly filled up with chattering customers enjoying the late afternoon sunshine.
The Plaza Mayor is the most important part of a Spanish town or city and I really cannot think of an equivalent in the United Kingdom where we have public squares but use them in an entirely different way. This is the place where people meet, relax and enjoy themselves; it is generally flanked with shops and restaurants and usually has the town hall and the main church somewhere close by. In the centre sits a military veteran with only one arm selling Spanish lottery tickets.
When we arrive somewhere new it is usually the first place we make for because sitting with a glass of wine and a complimentary tapas it is the best place to be to get a feeling for the character of the town and its people.
In the search for real Spain we have visited and enjoyed dozens of Plaza Mayors; Madrid, the largest, Salamanca, the second largest, Toledo, next to its towering cathedral and the tiled Plaza de España in Seville. We liked them all and we began now to compile a list with a view to choosing our top five favourites.
We considered Ávila, Mérida and Valladolid, Cáceres and Santiago de Compostella in Galicia but after a lively debate weighing up the pros and cons and putting forward the case for each one in turn we finally agreed on the top five but could not reach absolute consensus on the actual order.
So this is our list: Segovia in Castilla y Leon because of the Cathedral and the architecture and the little streets running away from it like spokes from a wheel, Trujillo, where we had been only today, because of its unspoilt medieval charm, the unpretentious and functional Ciudad Rodrigo, Chinchón with its open balconies and bullfights and although we had only just arrived we liked this place so much that we both agreed to include Almagro in the list.
After a second leisurely drink we paid up and left the square and strolled back to our hotel where we asked for some dining recommendations and the receptionist convinced us to go to her favourite restaurant just a couple of streets away so after we had rested and changed we took her advice and found the place in a side street off the main square.
Although it wasn’t especially late when we finished the meal we were tired after a long day that had started three hundred kilometres away in Mérida, taken us to Trujillo and then a three hour drive to Almagro and we were ready for bed. We walked back through the Plaza Mayor that was lively in a subdued sort of way (if that makes sense) and then to the street to the hotel.
About half way along the route back to the hotel we heard the lyrical sound of Spanish guitars, clacking castanets, the rhythmic stamping of Cuban heels and clicking stilettos, rather like the sound of an approaching steam train and we wondered where it was coming from and then through the pavement level window of a cellar we could see a dancing class in full swing.
Some local people suggested that it would be quite all right to go inside and watch so we did just that and before the lesson ended we enjoyed fifteen minutes of genuine Spanish music played by an assembly of musicians and a group of young people dancing the flamenco; stamping, posturing and pouting in a rapid, aggressive, staccato style – wonderful vivacious movement, flicking to the left and prancing to the right and accompanied all the time by the sound of chattering music like a machine gun firing into the sky.
It was a wonderful way to end the evening!