La Granja de San Ildefonso
The town was quiet and there weren’t many visitors and we walked to the Palace through the front garden and to the pay desk where admission was free on Wednesday if you could demonstrate European Union citizenship so we flashed our passports and avoided what was actually a very reasonable €4 admission charge.
The Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso is a palace set in extensive gardens in the French style of Versailles that was built for Philip V in the early eighteenth century and remains today an official residence of the King of Spain. In the days before air-conditioning the Spanish Royal family used to like to leave Madrid in the baking hot summer months and take up residence in the mountains where the climate is cooler and more agreeable and looking around the place it was easy to understand why.
Inside the dark rooms it was quite cool and an attendant in woollies and a topcoat looked at me in my shirt sleeves as though I had escaped from an institution and gave a surrogate shiver as we examined the exhibition of Flemish tapestries before moving through a succession of state rooms all of which had magnificent views of the adjacent gardens. Best of all was the Royal bedroom with a perfect balcony vista overlooking the fountains in the garden.
I didn’t get a sense that King Juan Carlos actually uses this room anymore and he probably has an apartment somewhere hidden away, which has a twenty-first century specification with wireless Internet access and Sky TV that this one certainly didn’t have.
From the Palace we walked through the King’s back garden along the row of fountains all of which represent themes from classical mythology, including Greek deities, allegories and scenes from ancient myths. They are cast in lead to prevent corrosion, and painted over to simulate the nobler material of bronze, or lacquered over white oxydised lead to imitate marble.
Amazingly the original waterworks and piping are still functional: they rely purely on gravity to project water up to the forty-meter height of the fountain jet of Perseus and Andromeda because an artificial lake, El Mar, lies secluded at the highest point of the park, and provides a reservoir and water pressure for the whole system. Today, only a few fountains are active each day and only during the real tourist season but twice a year, on the feast days of San Fernando and San Luis all twenty-six fountains are set to work, providing what must be a truly memorable aquatic show.
We returned to the Cathedral square, the Plaza del Triunfo, and had to make a choice between visiting the Cathedral or the Palace and because of Micky’s aversion to churches we chose the Palace. It was a good choice because the fourteenth century building was a jewel box of patios, halls and gardens. It has been the home of the Spanish Monarchy for seven hundred years and the upper floors are still used by the royal family today as its official Seville residence.
In mid afternoon we arrived in Aranjuez, parked the car, stopped at a café where we sat near the window and lamented the woeful weather and then walked the short distance to the Royal Palace. King Juan Carlos has eight Royal Palaces to choose from but I suspect he doesn’t stay at this one very often because it didn’t look very ‘lived in’, if you know what I mean; most are close to Madrid and one is on the island of Mallorca.
We walked through the gardens and then paid the entrance fee to go inside and take the tour through a succession or rooms (all the same, by the way) and then some exhibits about life at the Royal Spanish court through the ages.
Palacio Real de Madrid
Next door to the cathedral is the Palacio Real de Madrid, which with an area of one hundred and thirty-five square metres and nearly three thousand rooms is the biggest Palace in Europe and more than twice as big as Buckingham Palace. It is the official residence of the King of Spain but he doesn’t live there, probably because it must be a bugger to heat in the winter and it is only used for official State Ceremonies.
King Juan Carlos and the Royal Family choose to live instead in the more modest Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid. We walked around the outside of the white stone palace and admired the views over the royal gardens and then visited the adjacent Plaza de Orient a spacious and well laid out pedestrian area with an extravagant fountain and equestrian statue of Philip IV surrounded by immaculate gardens with lines of statues of former Kings celebrating the period of the Reconquesta.
The Palace at El Escorial was built by King Philip II, who, reacting to the Protestant Reformation sweeping through Europe during the sixteenth century, devoted much of his lengthy forty-two reign and much of his seemingly inexhaustible supply of New World gold to stemming the Protestant tide.
He ran his Spanish seaborne Empire which stretched from the Netherlands and southern Italy to North Africa, Latin America and the Philippines from his headquarters at El Escorial which was designed as a monument to celebrate Spain’s role as a centre of the Catholic Christian world.
Since then, El Escorial has been the burial site for most of the Bourbon and Hapsburg Spanish kings of the last five centuries and the Royal Pantheon contains the tombs of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (who ruled Spain as King Charles I), Philip II, Philip III, Philip IV, Charles II, Louis I, Charles III, Charles IV, Ferdinand VII, Isabella II, Alfonso XII, and Alfonso XIII. In 1984, UNESCO declared The Royal Site of San Lorenzo of El Escorial a World Heritage Site and more than half a million visitors come here every year to visit the place.
After our late lunch we made our way to the complex of El Escorial which has been described as ‘the oppressive monument of the first totalitarian state in Europe’ and ‘the mausoleum of Spanish power’ and although the expansive courtyard was bathed in afternoon sunshine the grey building did indeed appear cold, vast and imposing and it was easy to see how this dull monolithic exterior came to represent Castilian military virility and the expression of religious might and it certainly wasn’t as handsome as the other Royal Palaces that we have visited at San Ildefonso, Madrid and Arunjuez.
J is for King Juan Carlos but it could well have been: