La Plaza “Mejor” (Mayor)
By Caitlin Thompson
Many states, cities, provinces, and or autonomies of different nations across the globe are distinct from others because of some renowned object, city, food, or landscape. Often times people attribute certain places with specific landmarks for example the Statue of Liberty in New York City, New York, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, and the Coliseum in Rome, Italy.
In Salamanca, Spain the most familiar and well-known feature that will forever stick in my mind when thinking of my weeks here, is La Plaza Mayor. Although photographs can be taken to capture both the grandeur and chaos that exists in the plaza, in order to fully appreciate the livelihood and humanized characteristics of La Plaza Mayor, one must amble through it at all times of the day, for dawn in the plaza is much different than dusk, a Monday much different from a Saturday and a rainy day much different from a sunny day.
Each day I find myself in the plaza at least five times, whether it is when I march to class, hang out with friends, devour a freshly baked chocolate croissant, or use it as a meeting place to go on an excursion or somewhere else. No matter the time or for what reason, every time I enter the plaza, Burger King is on my left, Corteiffel a popular clothing store on my right, and the “reloj” or clock situated directly on a diagonal from my entrance point. The “reloj” is the Spanish word for clock, and the clock in La Plaza Mayor serves as a typical meeting spot for all of its passersby, and is known by the locals of Salamanca as a place to tell your significant other to find you before a romantic evening. When looking through my camera and the pictures I have taken throughout our stay in Spain thus far, the majority is taken in the plaza and the beauty of it will never stop sending chills up my spine. It is not only the intricacy of the Baroque style sandstone architecture of the soaring clock tower, balconies, and arcs that captivate me, but it is also the diverse yet stimulating activity that goes on in the plaza each day.
Dogs howling at the top of their lungs, babies sobbing, the sounds of many different foreign languages, as well as glasses smashing on the floors of tapas restaurants, are all noises that one may hear when passing through the plaza. Although this depiction appears to represent pandemonium, to me it has become the norm over the past three weeks that I have been here. Dripping moist meat hanging in windows, stray dogs, multiple sets of twins, towering baby carriages, mimes, and accordion players have become ordinary sights to me during my strolls through the plaza, that before seemed so foreign and strange to me. Cigarette smoke, freshly baked pasties, and savory meats can be tasted just from the aromas that radiate in the air of the plaza. Whether it is the day or the night each and every surface I walk on in the plaza provides for an unbearable aching in my feet, for the roads here are very uneven and made of cobblestone making it near impossible for me to wear my brand new favorite pair of high heels. However, despite the induced pain, I could never complain, for the atmosphere of the plaza provokes such bliss and excitement throughout every inch of my body, as if I am a child in a candy shop.
The term plaza is a Spanish word directly meaning field, which refers to an open, public locale most often in an urban area. Throughout history, plazas in Spain have continued to be a central place for townspeople to congregate in order to make important governmental announcements, celebrate, and or mourn. Although many plazas exist in Spain, La Plaza Mayor in Salamanca is the largest, and its structure is based off of the design of the grand plaza in Madrid. Plaza Mayor is a relic of Spanish culture that dates back to the 1700’s, however the upkeep of its surroundings is surely obvious. In its earlier days of existence, La Plaza Mayor served as one of many locations for the legendary bullfights that still to this day take place in various cities in Spain. According to Fodor’s “See it in Spain” travel guide, presently, the plaza acts as a hub of Salamanca’s social life, where many people gather to people watch, shop, and sip on coffee or fine wine. No matter its purpose, to me, La Plaza Mayor is the most significant part of the history and beauty of the city of Salamanca.
The uniqueness of La Plaza Mayor can undoubtedly be compared to the commons of the James Madison University campus, for it symbolizes a central square where students and other members of the JMU community both in Harrisonburg and Salamanca can meet, socialize, eat, and exchange important announcements. Both the commons and the plaza embody the history of the founders of each landmark for instance Madison’s “bust” that can be found across from Chik Fila, and the iron laden balconies of La Plaza Mayor that display ancient plaques commemorating rulers of Spain from Alfonso XI to the current King Juan Carlos. The antiquity and splendor of this locale has such a great deal of spirit, character, and life that I think of it as a human who has become such a close companion of mine.
The sort of friendship I have developed with this special place has taught me a lot about others and myself. I have become a lot less ignorant to ideas and activities that once seemed so full of stigma and at first glance very unusual. More than anything the plaza has helped me to expand my horizons, think outside of the box, and appreciate the simple things in life. Prior to arriving in Salamanca and becoming accustomed to frequent visits to the stunning plaza, purple hair, extravagant clothing including panty hose under almost anything, even shorts, were not styles that I found to be customary. Now I feel that it is just an expression of the people here just like styles in the United States that may seem weird to outsiders.
La Plaza Mayor is a teacher more than anything, for I have learned from experiences such as being introduced to new styles and other unusual sights, that judging others for materialistic differences is pure ignorance and insecurity. Instead of thinking wild hair and crazy outfits are strange I now feel that they are purely more colors to be added to the rainbow of amusing people, places, and objects in this diverse and amazing place. Each day I am here I become more and more attached to the plaza and the lessons it continues to teach me. I dread leaving Salamanca for the pure fact that when I go back home it will not be the same when I do not see the memorable people, and shops, hear the tunes of accordions and violins, and smell ham and croissants each and every day. Throughout my stay in Salamanca, I have become accustomed to, and will never forget, sitting at a Tapas bar at any time of the day enjoying the deep history of this foreign land as I gaze around at the sandstone structures, and elaborately carved plaques surrounding each inch of the plaza.