There is no shortage of palaces in Spain. It is, after all, home to the famed Moorish palace the Alhambra as well as the land of the country’s most famous ruling monarchs, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella. However, if you don’t have ample time to traipse all over the country (Spain is one of the largest in Europe) and your visit is primarily concentrated in the central region of Castille, two palaces, El Escorial and El Palacio Real de Madrid (the Royal Palace of Madrid), although extremely different from one another, will make for excellent and unforgettable visits.
On my first trip to Madrid, I traveled on an extremely cold (for Spain that is) weekend. I didn’t accomplish much on that visit in terms of sightseeing due to the almost seven hours it took to get there by bus from Seville, where I was living, and also the inclement weather, which contributed me to getting a head cold. My full day was devoted to visiting the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, more commonly referred to as simply El Escorial. I hadn’t read too mich about it except that it was a famous palace that was approxiamtely 30 miles away from the capital city. It’s easy to visit without a car on local trains from the Chamartin and Atocha stations. However, as they are more “suburban rail,” they do not run as continously as regular metro trains and I had the unfortunate luck of juts missing one and having to wait more than 30 minutes outside on the cold platform for the next one. Once you arrive in the town of El Escorial there is a local bus that costs a couple of Euros that will take you to the monastery or it’s a long walk, all uphill.
Three years prior I had visited the famous royal French palace of Versailles, and while I didn’t overly enjoy myself due to the absurd amount of visitors there which resulted in being packed in like sardines when traveling from room to room, I still was in sheer awe over its unimaginable features. While the area around Versailles is certainly bucolic and serene, there’s nothing striking about its landscape. Nestled in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama against the backdrop of a stark, semi-forested wine-swept landscape, El Escorial is a sight to behold. However, unlike at Versailles, where utter lavishness was de rigeur, El Escorial exudes more of a somber tone which is directly related to its founding. Phillip II of Spain was a staunch Catholic and decided to build El Escorial as a means of bringing about a counter movement in response to the Protestant Reformation that was taking Europe by storm during the 16th century. El Escorial was designed as a monument to Spain’s role as a center of the Christian world. El Escorial has always had a two-fold purpose, as both a Spanish royal palace and a monastery, originally a property of the Hieronymite monks.
While the interior rooms at El Escorial were certainly striking, almost all containing exquisite treasures and striking works of ark, they weren’t rooms that excluded tons of opulence and at one time, gaiety like you could imagine being the case at Versailles. I just finished reading The Last Queen by C.W. Gortner, the story of Juana ‘la loca’ (Joanna the mad), the oldest surviving child of Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand and the last queen of Spanish blood. She married Philip I who inherited the Duchy of Burgundy and Burgundian Netherlands, today lands that are in the Benelux countries and areas of France. Throughout the book, differences between Spanish and Flemish court life play a prominent role, the former being more conservative and plain, the latter being opulent and to some of the book’s characters, bordering on scandalous. El Escorial was built by the grandson of Juana ‘la loca,’ a ruler who by all accounts followed in the footsteps of his maternal great-grandparents by wanting to preserve and safeguard the security of the Catholic faith in Spain.
When I visited Madrid again two months later, I toured the Palacio Real de Madrid, which is located a few blocks away from the famed Plaza Mayor. Although the Palacio Real was built more than 150 years after El Escorial and featured an entirely different architectural style, it’s what one would think of when they envision a royal palace in Europe. The Palacio Real is the official residence of the Spanish royal family in Madrid, but it is only used for state ceremonies (the royal family opts to live instead at the “more modest” Palacio de la Zarzuela, located on the outskirts of Madrid).
The location of the site of the Palacio Real has a history that dates back more than 1,000 years. It was built on the site of a 9th century Moorish fortress. After Madrid had been reclaimed by Spanish Christian forces, an alcazar was built on its site in the 16th century. When the structure burned down in 1734, a new palace was ordered on the same location. Construction lasted for almost 20 years and in 1764 the new palace, which was designed in a Berniniesque style, was occupied by Charles III.
Although one may not think of a palace in the middle of a city as being absurdly large, the Palacio Real has 1,450,000 square feet of floorspace and contains 2800 rooms, making it the largest palace in Europe by floor area. Its location reminded me of the Louvre in Paris, a once royal palace built in the thick of the city.
While the Palacio Real had innumerable treasures, everything from paintings by Velazquez and Goya to the world’s only complete Stradivarius string quartet, my favorite part of the palace was the Royal Pharmacy. During the reign of Phillip II, the Royal Pharmacy being an appendage of the royal family and whose monarchs ordered the supply of medicines, a role that still continues today. The medicines, which are said to contain all sorts of strange concoctions, were stored in exquisite bottles appearing themselves like a work of art.
Don’t go to El Escorial and expect to see the Spanish equivalent of the Hall of Mirrors for they won’t be there. But you will find a Spanish royal palace that was built at the height of the Spanish Golden Age (Siglo de Oro) whose historical and religious significance is monolithic. Visit the Palacio Real and expect to be wowed; you simply will be.