Plaza San Martín, in the ancient city of Segovia, goes by another name: Plaza de las Sirenas, or the Square of the Mermaids. While the origins of its nickname remain unknown, part of the story can be explained by the mythological, sphinx-like sculptures that surround the plaza. These sculptures, known as sirenas, don’t really resemble mermaids at all. Bearing the heads of women and the bodies of lions, they appear to be mystical yet landlubbing sphinxes.
In 1850, the city council commissioned sculptor Francisco Bellver y Collazos to create sculptures of mermaids to install around the square, as it had apparently been called the Plaza de las Sirenas since the Middle Ages. But Bellver had no sense of what mermaids might look like, nor did the people of Segovia (nor the city council, possibly). Sphinxes, however, do have a long presence in Spain from the times of the ancient Iberian peoples onwards and would have been instantly recognizable to most people. Two years later, after failing to meet the deadline, Bellver completed the sphinxes. The unlikely mermaids can still be seen in the plaza today—far from the ocean—flanking the statue of Juan Bravo.