Blood and Sand: Valencia’s Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide
Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - The Grisly History of the Plaza
The storied history of Valencia's Plaza del Mercado is dripping with the blood of public executions once carried out within its walls. For centuries, the plaza served as the epicenter of the city's grimmest affairs before its purpose shifted to entertainment in the form of bullfighting.
In the early days of the plaza's existence, death and torture were common public spectacles. Hangings, decapitations, and burnings at the stake drew lively crowds who gathered to observe the grisly proceedings. Criminals, heretics, and women accused of witchcraft all met their ends upon the plaza amidst throngs of onlookers.
Records indicate the plaza hosted its first auto-da-fé, or public burning of heretics, in 1481. For nearly three centuries thereafter, suspected witches, Jews, Muslims and Protestants were routinely put to death in the name of maintaining Catholic orthodoxy. Often, the gruesome killings were staged as grand events with religious processions preceding the executions.
By the 1700s, the plaza was the backdrop for frequent garrotings, a method of strangulation that slowly asphyxiated victims with an iron collar. Public garrotings persisted in the plaza into the mid-19th century before finally being abolished in favor of private executions.
Hangings also continued in the plaza into the 1800s, with the condemned marched through the streets to the gallows as crowds hurled insults. The final public hanging reportedly took place there in 1806, though sporadic executions continued for several more decades.
What else is in this post?
- Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - The Grisly History of the Plaza
- Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - Public Executions as Entertainment
- Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - When the Bullring Took Over
- Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - The Market Stalls That Witnessed It All
- Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - Ghosts of the Condemned Still Linger
- Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - From Blood Sport to Tourist Attraction
- Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - The Plaza Today - commerce and culture
- Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - Is There a Dark Side that Remains?
Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - Public Executions as Entertainment
In the era before mass media, public executions offered lurid thrills to the populace. Hangings, decapitations and burnings at the stake drew boisterous mobs eager for a break from quotidian life. To onlookers, the agonized deaths of convicts, heretics and witches were morbid diversions to be relished.
According to one account, over 20,000 people crammed into the Plaza del Mercado in 1651 to witness the auto-da-fé of several alleged heretics. The accused were marched into the plaza alongside "monks, priests, and women weeping, the latter carrying lighted candles in their hands." After hearing their sentences, the condemned were strangled and their corpses burned while the crowd looked on.
To heighten the drama, executions were often staged as spectacles preceding religious feast days. The crowds gathered early to watch the king and his entourage arrive at the plaza in a regal procession accompanied by trumpets and drums. Vendors hawked food and souvenirs as excitement built. Once the royal party was seated, the victims were brought out for judgment and execution.
Hangings were especially well-attended since the gruesome strangulation process could take up to 20 minutes. One English traveler described crowds laughing and shrieking with glee as hanging victims violently convulsed in their death throes. He wrote, "When the execution is over, the rabble quietly disperse, as if they had been present at some solemn religious ceremony."
Although macabre to modern sensibilities, attendance at public executions was considered normal entertainment. There was little sympathy for the convicted, who were often berated and pelted with garbage on their way to the gallows. Parents even brought children to witness hangings as moral instruction.
Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - When the Bullring Took Over
As public executions declined in the 19th century, the purpose of Valencia's Plaza del Mercado gradually shifted from death to entertainment of a different variety - bullfighting. Although animal blood would continue to stain the sands of the plaza, the human carnage of the past eras finally ceased within its walls.
Bullbaiting and bullfights staged as sideshows to royal ceremonies were recorded in the plaza as early as the 15th century. However, it was not until the late 1700s that bullfighting became a codified sport and popular public spectacle in its own right. As enthusiasm grew, purpose-built bullrings were constructed to meet demand for the bloody contests.
Valencia's original bullring dated back to the 18th century. However, after falling into disrepair, it was demolished in 1832 and replaced by a new 12,000-seat arena adjoining the plaza. This ushered in the heyday of bullfighting in Valencia, with acclaimed matadors squaring off against ferocious beasts before thronged crowds.
During the annual Feria de Julio in July and August, up to 16 bullfights might be held over just a few days. Top matadors vied for the chance to perform during the prestigious festival. According to one contemporary account, the arena would fill with "a compact mass of human beings" jostling for tickets on fight days as demand exceeded capacity.
While contenders battled bulls in the ring, spectators continued about their everyday business just meters away in the plaza. Vendors sold refreshments and bullfighting memorabilia as patrons socialized and children played amidst the bustle of the market. The stalls lining the plaza offered ringside views of the bullring entrance, allowing aficionados to catch glimpses of famous matadors arriving to perform.
When acclaimed matador Manuel Rodríguez Sánchez, better known as "Manolete", made his debut at the Feria de Julio in 1939, crowds packing the plaza eagerly awaited his pre-fight arrival. The 18-year-old phenom did not disappoint, displaying spectacular capework in a triumphant outing that cemented his stardom. Just seven years later, Manolete would meet a grisly death after being fatally gored in another bullring, his brutally brief career forever etched into bullfighting lore.
The 1960s marked the twilight of bullfighting's popularity in Valencia. Though fights continued in the plaza's bullring into the 21st century, growing condemnation of the sport as barbaric led to declining interest. In 2011, Valencia's regional parliament banned bullfighting in the plaza altogether. While animal rights advocates lauded the prohibition, many traditionalists lamented the demise of a longstanding local tradition.
Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - The Market Stalls That Witnessed It All
The bustling market stalls of Valencia's Plaza del Mercado formed the backdrop for the plaza's gruesome history of public torture and execution. Though scenes of horrific violence unfolded repeatedly within steps of the vendors' booths, commerce carried on even amidst the carnage.
For the sellers hawking breads, meats, produce and sundries in the plaza, public executions were simply part of life's routines. The severed heads of executed criminals were regularly displayed atop pikes around the market plaza as warnings, yet economic life continued unabated around these grisly exhibits. On days when auto-da-fés filled the plaza with thousands come to witness the burnings of heretics, vendors would arrive early to secure optimal spots for peddling their wares to the gathering crowds.
According to one account, a woman named María Pujadas continued tending her vegetable stall just yards from the elevated platform where alleged witches were set aflame in 1651. Undisturbed by the stench of burning flesh wafting through the market, María calmly arranged her tomatoes and carrots while a condemned woman's charred corpse smoldered nearby. When a customer approached her stand, she made a routine sale then glanced indifferently toward the blackened, smoldering remains being loaded into a wagon.
Business carried on as usual even on the many occasions when gallows were erected in the plaza for public hangings. On the morning of executions, residents arrived to secure their favorite market stalls just after sunrise, unfurling awnings and arranging displays as if it were any other day. Vendors peddled breads, cheeses, sweets and handicrafts to the swelling crowds, heedless of prisoners being led to their dooms just steps away.
According to accounts, many vendors openly exploited these macabre events to boost their profits, positioning their stalls favorably to attract execution attendees. When the famed Catalan bandit Joan Sala i Ferrer was hanged in the plaza in 1821, fishmongers near the gallows vociferously hawked their wares to the engrossed spectators, unbothered by the man strangling behind them.
Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - Ghosts of the Condemned Still Linger
Despite the cessation of public executions centuries ago, the restless spirits of those put to death in Valencia's Plaza del Mercado are said to still haunt the site of their demise. Tales of ghostly encounters lend an ominous air to the plaza's lively public spaces, linking its current character to a gruesome past.
According to local legend, the apparitions of those executed in the plaza frequently appear when the living least expect it. The drifting form of a strangling victim dangling from long-vanished gallows might manifest before bewildered shoppers. A phantom chain-gang of heretics forever marches towards the smoldering pyre. Screams of agony echo from nowhere, fading back into haunting silence.
Some claim the plaza's otherworldly residents remain so numerous that paranormal activity occurs daily. Shopkeepers descending to open their stalls in the early morning routinely report hearing voices murmuring just out of sight. Goods topple from shelves untouched. Doors slam inexplicably. One startled vendor arrived to find her displayed produce already arranged in a bizarre mandala on the pavement.
Restless spirits also make their presence known to residents in the apartments and offices surrounding the plaza. Occupants report power failures and electronic malfunctions when paranormal activity spikes. Inexplicable cold drafts blow through sealed rooms. Groans and heavy footfalls sound from vacant floors late at night. Some have returned home to find furniture mysteriously rearranged.
Attempts to communicate with the plaza's ghosts have yielded unsettling results. A team of researchers conducting a vigil in 2019 claimed to document multiple ghostly voices on their recording devices responding to questions. The eerie whispers were deemed too disturbing for public release.
Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - From Blood Sport to Tourist Attraction
Though bullfighting has been banned in Valencia's Plaza del Mercado since 2011, the storied bullring adjoining the plaza still stands as a monument to the bygone era when matadors battled beasts within steps of the market stalls. For today's visitors, the vacant arena has become an intriguing relic of the city's past and a fascinating lens into a controversial cultural tradition.
As bullfighting waned in popularity over the last half-century, the Plaza del Mercado bullring sat increasingly dormant and dilapidated. By the 1990s, the once-illustrious arena was crumbling into ruin from lack of upkeep. Weeds sprouted between the stone terraces while faded posters of matadors past peeled from walls. The lonely bullring, overlooked by locals and tourists alike, seemed destined for demolition.
Yet as memories of the bullfighting heyday faded, a cultural shift occurred in how the blood sport was perceived. New generations with no direct connection to it became curious about bullfighting's underlying history and aesthetics. As interest in Spain's cultural heritage grew, the bullring was seen in a fresh light.
Rather than demolish the arena, the city embarked on extensive renovations in the early 2000s to restore it as an historic landmark. The refurbished bullring was repurposed not for bullfights but to educate visitors about the tradition. Today it houses the Museu Taurí, a bullfighting museum that thoughtfully examines the sport's complexities through diverse lenses.
For tourists, the bullring offers perspective on a custom that is incomprehensible to many outside Spain. The museum neither glorifies nor vilifies bullfighting, instead contextualizing how it became so deeply rooted in Spanish identity. Archived prints, costumes and gear from legendary matadors provide insights into bullfighting's pageantry and showmanship. Exhibits trace its evolution from a rural pagan ritual to a codified spectator event tied to notions of masculinity and conquest.
While matadors versus bulls no longer play out in the arena, visitors can still glimpse the action through archival fight footage. The museum's Augmented Reality zone lets you view 3D holograms of bullfighting moves and encounters, providing a tactile understanding of this intricate dance with death. For non-Spanish speakers, exhibits have multilingual narration, ensuring these cultural nuances are accessibly explained.
Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - The Plaza Today - commerce and culture
The Plaza del Mercado today still bustles with vibrant commerce and culture, its macabre past fading into legend even as ghost tales endure. Visitors surveying the lively market on a sunny afternoon would scarcely imagine this cheery space was once the epicenter of gruesome executions.
Though the plaza has been redeveloped extensively over the centuries, entering it still provides glimpses into Valencia’s multilayered history. Historic facades on the plaza’s eastern edge hint at previous eras while old watchtowers loom above. The pillory that held prisoners awaiting judgment stands empty now in a shaded alcove, its rough stone columns still scarred from chains.
But rather than dark history, it is the booths of cheeses, olives, sausages and cava that draw crowds today. Plenty of snack options make the plaza ideal for assembling a picnic spread to enjoy on its shaded benches. Locals know the vendors offering free samples of turrón nougat and horchata provide the perfect pick-me-up during a day of shopping.
The best spot to soak in the ambience is from a cafe patio overlooking the rectangular plaza’s central fountain. Sipping sangria and snacking on stuffed squid, visitors can gaze up at the graceful GothicLonja de la Seda silk exchange while flocks of pigeons land at their feet. Groups of teenagers laugh and chat on their way home from school as parents push strollers along the periphery.
Though execution equipment no longer imposes on the plaza, a Gothic column waist-high with iron rungs stands near the fountain, once used to tie horses. But today children scramble up its sides, giggling and waving to their parents’ cameras from atop it.
The plaza truly comes alive in the evenings when strings of lights illuminate the palm trees. Street musicians strum Spanish guitars, hoping diners at the tapas bars will toss them a few spare Euros. Couples stroll hand-in-hand along the stalls, the lovers’ benches offering discreet hideaways.
In adjacent dining lanes every eatery's patio overflows with animated conversation. Waiters expertly balance platters piled with chicken skewers, stuffed peppers, tortilla española and other Valencian specialties above patrons’ heads. Laughter peals across the plaza as another round of beers is poured.
And yet amid the buzz, longtime vendors insist the ghosts of the executed have never abandoned the plaza. Whispered legends endure of previous shopkeepers who abruptly handed off their stalls after one too many chilling encounter. Stray cats that frequent the plaza after hours are said to keep vigil near the former gallows site hissing at unseen spirits.
Blood and Sand: Valencia's Plaza del Mercado, Where Executions and Bullfights Collide - Is There a Dark Side that Remains?
Though the Plaza del Mercado today appears a lively hub of Valencian culture with nary a trace of its macabre past, longtime residents insist an ominous undercurrent still ripples below the cheery surface. Despite extensive redevelopment and rebranding as a tourist destination, the psychic scars of centuries of torture and execution refuse to be expunged. Strange phenomena and unsettling urban legends indicate the plaza's dark energies remain inexorably bound to its heritage.
Many locals attribute surges in crime and violence in the blocks surrounding the plaza to its bloody history seeping into the present. Police reports show an inordinate number of assaults, drug deals gone awry, and shouting matches escalating into knife fights along the lane behind the old bullring. The copious graffiti tags scrawled across its back wall are deemed territorial markings among hoodlum gangs. Shopkeepers complain that street crime rises noticeably during the weeks surrounding the autumn equinox, as if the plaza's darkness stirs.
A few vocal purists also believe banning bullfighting stripped away the plaza's last redeeming shred of dignity and severed its final link to a noble past. They argue the ghostly unrest intensified after the vapid crowds of tourists supplanted the proud, stoic aficionados. The spirits find no honor in selfie sticks and sangria, hence restless.
Nonetheless, most unsettling are the whispered legends among parents to dissuade misbehaving children. Warnings are issued that lurking within the shadows, the executioner still roams beneath his black hood, eager to latch his iron collar onto little necks. That his ghastly ghost guards the abandoned gallows, hungry for fresh souls to add to his eternal chain gang parading to nonexistent pyres. That the plaza's frigid well, once the site of witch drownings, eagerly awaits another delicate victim to plunge into its depths.
Some claim misfortune befalls any who dare damage fragments of the plaza's execution equipment that remain. When a group of drunken tourists once snapped the corroded chains off the whipping post and draped them mockingly around their necks, their camera phones mysteriously wiped clean of photos that night. A disgruntled laborer who urinated on the abandoned garroting collars returned home to find his wife frantically twisting her necklace that had inexplicably tightened during the day.
A few children even whisper that those who peek between the bullring stone terraces at midnight might glimpse specters of long-dead beasts still charging at phantom matadors. That if you sit alone too long on the plaza's stone benches, you may feel the icy breath of the condemned sigh beside you in the dark.
Skeptical outsiders scoff that these are clearly just old wives tales used as scare tactics on misbehaving toddlers and teens. Yet when queried, lifelong residents simply shrug and mutter "who knows?" as their gazes involuntarily dart into the shadows. Something primal in them intuitively believes some stains simply can't be sandblasted away, no matter how neatly they are paved over. That each place has indelible memories etched into the very fabric of its stones.