A "relaxing cup of café con leche in Plaza Mayor" can cost up to three euros. And we're not even talking about a special cup of coffee: it's your average Spanish brew, served in a cup or a glass. Nobody goes expressly to Madrid's main square for coffee, the way they would in Vienna or Italy.
Days after Madrid Mayor Ana Botella became a hot topic on social networking sites, thanks to her presentation selling the city's virtues to members of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in Buenos Aires, many Spaniards were left wondering which Plaza Mayor - and, for that matter, which country even - she was referring to exactly. In a speech in English that sounded like it was being read phonetically, and that was littered with stereotypes ("Nobody celebrates life like Spanish people do," or "Most importantly, Madrid is fun"), one phrase stood out above all others: "There is nothing quite like a relaxing cup of café con leche in Plaza Mayor." As of Monday, t-shirts with the quote were being sold for 18 euros, while parodies of the speech - including musical versions - have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times online.
The Plaza Mayor that tourists are familiar with has become something of a Spanish theme park. There are souvenir shops selling shawls, fake national soccer team t-shirts, plastic bulls, Don Quixotes, swords from Toledo and ashtrays with pictures of Puerta de Alcalá on them. There is a Latin American woman in the square dressed in flamenco garb, who poses for pictures in exchange for a few coins, as well as an overweight man dressed as Spider-Man, who does the same.
Many Spaniards were left wondering which country the mayor was talking about
There are also dozens of street cafés, which overcharge for paella or Andalusian-style calamari. There are still a few stores selling old stamps and coins, but these are being gradually pushed out.
Asked about Mayor Botella's now-infamous phrase, waiters at Plaza Mayor did not poke any extra fun at her, but did express puzzlement at the adjective she used. "Relaxing? We never stop for a minute around here!" said two waiters. Most of the workers consulted for this story talked about the crisis and the gradual deterioration of the square in recent years.
"It's not so bad here, but the streets leading into the square smell bad," says Adrian Constantine, a waiter at one of the establishments on Plaza Mayor. "There are also beggars and thieves."
"This place is run down. It's a landmark location but it is not being properly maintained. I've been here for 34 years and it's a vaudeville show," adds Chari Cartagena, president of the Cultural Painters Association of Plaza Mayor, while she tries to mediate in a disagreement between one of the licensed painters, the police and a tall individual who claims to have the same right to stand there, even if he is not painting anything.
It seems a little absurd to ask the tourists whether their coffee is relaxing or not. For starters, most of them are drinking beer or wine, not coffee, and hardly any of them have heard Botella's speech. Some complain about the street musicians who ask them for money, but otherwise they seem happy with the experience: enjoying a historical spot on a sunny day.
Right under the equestrian statue of Felipe III, in the center of the square, a man named Juan María Franco has set up a tent where he is protesting against the city council's decision to revoke his bar license with no explanation. "I've been on a hunger strike for 71 days. The squares should be filled with people like myself. There's a lot of people who've been through really hard times," he says, adding that the locals no longer come to Plaza Mayor. "It's just for the tourists," he says, before suggesting that Mayor Botella should come and have a cup of coffee with him, right there in Plaza Mayor. Something in his demeanor, however, suggests that it would be anything but relaxing...