Today I was going to see two of the iconic sights in Madrid - the Royal Palace of the King of Spain - the Palacio Real, and the Almudena cathedral right in front of it.
Yesterday, I had been dog tired when I got back from seeing the Prado and the botanical garden - the jetlag, the disrupted sleep schedule and the lack of lunch all added to the aching feet. Slow walking in museums always leads to ‘barking dogs’ and the poor fellows have to support my very heavy weight!
Add to that the fact that I was wearing heavy hiking shoes this time, instead of my usual sneakers…the Antarctica boat guys insisted on waterproof hiking shoes…or at least SHE WHO MUST BE OBEYED thought that they insisted on such things. But when I saw videos of people who had done these voyages, they pooh-poohed the idea and said that there was no need for them…the boat would issue high gum boots for going ashore on Antarctica and sneakers were fine aboard ship. I wanted to carry sneakers as well, but there was no room in my baggage!
Bharathi growled at me and said ‘INFIRM OF PURPOSE! CARRY ONLY THE HIKING SHOES! I COMMAND YOU!’ And that was the end of that. So I bought some fancy Decathlon hiking shoes which are rated to walk on snow and stuff.
I must say that for shoes which are intended to be for walking very long distances, they are not comfortable! Hopefully I will get used to them. But till then…OW OW OW.
Anyway - as I was saying, I got back from the Prado by about 4 and thought I would lie down and rest my eyes for just a while - and the next thing I knew, it was 7.30!
I reluctantly got up and went out to make a very important purchase - A local SIM card! There was a huge Vodafone store in Plaza Sol but I saw that Vodafone Spain was as incompetent and consumer-unfriendly as Vodafone India, and the shop guys ignored me entirely! So I went to the Orange store nearby and they gave me a nice SIM with unlimited calling and 35 gigs of data for 20 Euro. The SIM was issued by machine! You just punch in what you need, show your passport to the camera - and that’s it! The machine ejects a SIM!
I mean, sure - the human being could have done exactly the same thing in much less time and for much less capital cost… but what a cool machine!
I roamed about for a bit in the plaza, but the teeming crowds got to me. Ugh. I couldn’t see the point of hanging about there, neither did I relish eating alone in a jam-packed restaurant. I picked up packed sandwiches and some beers from a convenience store and ate and drank peacefully in my room and crashed for the night.
The next morning, it was quiet and peaceful when I went down to the cafe and had some desayuno - huevos and bacon and fries and coffee - and set out for the Palacio Real.
I had a most pleasant walk to the Palace - it was just 10-15 minutes away and the walk was very scenic
The Royal Palace of Madrid (Spanish: Palacio Real de Madrid) is the official residence of the Spanish royal family at the city of Madrid, although now used only for state ceremonies. The palace has 135,000 m2 (1,450,000 sq ft) of floor space and contains 3,418 rooms!
It is the largest functioning royal palace and the largest by floor area in Europe.
The site was original a moorish alcazar, or castle - an outpost created by the Muslim kings of Cordoba. Spain, as you know - was a moorish possession for centuries, ruled over by Muslim dynasties. It was a repository of light of knowledge during the dark ages, and the Muslim learned people kept the lamp of civilisation alive when the rest of Europe was in deep shit. I read about this fascinating era in the Louis L’Amour book ‘The Walking Drum’ and was totally …err…fascinated. Do check it out.
Then the Christain kings started the ‘Reconquista’ where they kicked out the Muslim Moors in 1083 ( ‘The Moors last sigh’ actually refers to the …er…last sigh of the moorish shah as he looked back at the capital he was leaving behind as he retreated from the conquering Christian spainiards.)
After waffling here and there for a few centuries, King Felipe II moved his court to Madrid in 1561 and settled down in the old Moorish Alcazar.
On Christmas Eve 1734, the Alcázar was destroyed by a fire that originated in the rooms of the French painter Jean Ranc. Response to the fire was delayed due to the warning bells being confused with the call to mass. For fear of looting, the doors of the building remained closed, hampering rescue efforts. Many works of art were lost, such as the Expulsion of the Moors, by Diego Velázquez. Others, such as Las Meninas, were rescued by tossing them out the windows. Fortunately, many pieces were saved because shortly before the blaze the king ordered that much of his collection be moved to the Buen Retiro Palace. This fire lasted four days and completely destroyed the old Alcázar, whose remaining walls were finally demolished in 1738.
After it burned down in 1734, King Felipe V ordered a new palace built on the same site. Construction spanned the years 1738 to 1755.
Wonder where the royal family lived till then? In tents? Or did they kick some noble out of his palace and live there?
Much like many Mumbaikars waiting for their homes to be redeveloped, Old Felipe died before he could move in - and his successor King Carlos III was the first occupant in 1764.
In the 19th century, Ferdinand VII, who spent many years imprisoned in the Château de Valençay, began the most thorough renovation of the palace. The aim of this redesign was to turn the old-fashioned Italian-style building into a modern French-style palace. However, his grandson Alfonso XII proposed to turn the palace into a Victorian-style residence and got quite some work done for that too.
The age of the kings got over with Alfonso XIII though, and he was kicked out by the ‘Second republic’ and the President of the Second Republic occupied the palace. This president was in turn kicked out by General Franco - and so on and so forth - and in due course of time the Palace was transferred to the government and they started allowing common people to come inside and gawk at the wonders within.
Which is good for me - because obviously I would not get admittance in this place unless I was crowned King Ketan the 1st or something like that, and was invited here by the King of Spain for a royal visit.
Since that is a pretty long shot, one must say thanks to the revolution and the spirit of democracy and all that.
So while this huge pile is the official residence of the Royal Family of Spain, they don’t actually stay there - and only use it occasionally for formal functions and getting married and state dinners and suchlike.
I wondered what the current King and Royal family might feel about this place? Do they regret not being able to stay here in style like their forebears? Or are they happy to be out of it?
Like I said, the place is so large that only a selection of the best rooms are on the visitor route at any one time, the route being changed every few months.
I had to stand in line and fork out 13 quid for the privilege of getting in - and after yesterday's experience at the Prado, I was careful to wear a mask!
This mask thing is weird - they enforce it strictly inside establishments…even the Orange mobile guy asked me to put on a mask…but out of doors, no one seems to care. Half the people wear masks, half done - no one polices it. I suppose there must be severe fines for the establishment from the health department if a health inspector catches people not wearing masks, so the establishment owner is very strict about it.
Anyway - I went for my Palacio Real tour - and it was simply magnificent!
What art! What scale! What taste! What riches!
The interior of the palace is notable for its wealth of art and the use of many types of fine materials in the construction and the decoration of its rooms. It includes paintings by artists such as Caravaggio, Juan de Flandes, Francisco de Goya, and Velázquez, and frescoes by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, Corrado Giaquinto, and Anton Raphael Mengs. Other collections of great historical and artistic importance preserved in the building include the Royal Armoury of Madrid, porcelain, watches, furniture, silverware, and the world's only complete Stradivarius string quintet.
As in the Prado, the sheer scale of the place just overwhelms! And it is so well maintained! Everything is shiny and gleaming and looks as if it is ready for the inspection of a keen-eyed Major-domo!
Your breath gets taken away as soon as you enter the building and see the ‘Grand staircase’!
It is composed of a single piece of San Agustin marble. Two lions grace the landing, one by Felipe de Castro and another by Robert Michel. The frescoes on the ceiling is by Corrado Giaquinto and depicts Religion Protected by Spain. On the ground floor is a statue of Charles III in Roman toga, with a similar statue on the first floor depicting Charles IV. The four cartouches at the corners depict the elements of water, earth, air and fire.
And things become even better and more grand as you enter the palace - unfortunately you are not allowed to photograph them. There were huge crowds here too - mainly locals probably enjoying Chrismas vacations or something, and there were a lot of guided tours, but only in Spanish. I looked rather enviously at the groups - the guides looked passionate and well spoken and watching their expressions and gestures was enjoyable even without knowing the language. And their script was good too - as you could tell from the interested expressions of the listeners and the guffaws they erupted into when the guide told a funny story.
But nothing in English, alas. And to be fair, I would probably not have taken the tour anyway…It would be a lot of gyaan about local people and local history you know nothing about and care even less. And also because I am tight-fisted and kanjoos.
Some of the rooms which really impressed were the ‘Royal Chapel’ with its amazing ceiling frescoes by Giaquinto, including The Trinity, Allegory of Religion, Glory and the Holy Trinity Crowning the Virgin - and the ‘Throne Room’ which features Tiepolo's ceiling fresco, The Apotheosis of the Spanish Monarchy. Bronze sculptures include the Four Cardinal Virtues, four of the Seven Planets, Satyr, Germanicus, and four Medici lions flanking the dual throne.
I mean - I could keep throwing names at you, but I think your eyes are glazing over already.
To make a long story short - It was most impressive!
And this was in spite of them not showing us some of the awesome stuff - the Royal Armoury and Royal Pharmacy and stuff like that!
But I was happy. Any more might have been overkill. And if I ever come back, there would always be the chance of seeing something totally new!
After all, they have more than 3000 rooms to choose from!
I blog about my travels - and the thoughts they set off! Sometimes the simplest destinations can be the most thought-provoking!