The Plaza San Martín has always been the city’s focal point. The square is at its liveliest during the paseo hour in the early evening, although it becomes a less appealing place to wander after dark, when it fills with homeless people. Originally used for military parades, the shady square was granted its recreational role in the 1870s when the Italianate marble fountains were installed and semi-tropical shrubberies planted: lush palm-fronds, the prickly, bulging trunks of the palo borracho and, in the spring, blazing pink lapacho and purple jacaranda blossoms. Watching over all the activity is a monumental bronze sculpture of the Liberator himself, victorious on a splendid mount and borne aloft on a huge stone plinth, which was unveiled in 1916 to mark the centenary of the declaration of independence.
The square’s southern edge is dominated by the dowdy Banco Nación and the Teatro Real; more banks sit along the eastern edge. Wedged between shops and the modern municipal offices on the pedestrianized northern side is the diminutive Oratorio del Obispo Mercadillo, all that remains of a huge colonial residence built for Bishop Manuel Mercadillo. He had the seat of Tucumán diocese moved from Santiago del Estero to Córdoba at the beginning of the eighteenth century, before becoming the city’s first bishop.
On the traffic-free western side of the square is the Cabildo, or colonial headquarters, a sleekly elegant two-storey building whose immaculate white facade dates to the late eighteenth century. Fifteen harmoniously plain arches, enhanced at night by lighting, alleviate the otherwise sober exterior. Old-fashioned lamps hang in the Recova, a fan-vaulted colonnade held up by slender pillars, in front of a row of wooden doors alternating with windows protected by iron grilles. On the pavement in front of the Cabildo, as elsewhere in the historic centre, a clever trompe-l’oeil device of mock shadows has been incorporated into the flagstones.
The original Cabildo was built on the same spot at the end of the sixteenth century, but the present facade was added when the Marqués de Sobremonte became governor-mayor in 1784. Put to many different uses throughout its long history – law court, prison, provincial parliament, government offices and police headquarters – nowadays the building and its inner courtyards are mainly used for exhibitions and official receptions. The Recova, meanwhile, houses the tourism office and Tienda de la Ciudad (daily 8am–8pm), a shop selling books postcards and Córdoban souvenirs.