Half an hour of train and we found ourselves in Aranjuez, one of the sites the Spanish royalty liked to summer in. Going there, I expected the usual: a castle or palace at the top of a hill surrounded by houses tripping down to the flats.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Sure, there is a town on top of a hill with houses running down each side of it. What it doesn’t have, is a castle at the top. The Aranjuez Palace is at the bottom, a ten-minute walk from the train station. There are several reasons for that. It wasn’t built in times of war therefore didn’t need to be defended. The palace was initially built as a hunting lodge and was far less impressive than it is now. Then Philip II moved the capital city from Toledo to Madrid and he needed a place to escape the heat in summer. But it’s only after it was almost destroyed by fire in 1748 that the king hired the great architect Francesco Sabatini to rebuild and enlarge. Thus we now have a main building flanked by two wing that form a “u”, surrounding in part a great plaza. Another reason for the situation of the palace was that later on, Isabel II had the train from Madrid stop at her door, something she couldn’t have done up on a hill.
The interior, including the main staircase, can only be qualified as grandiose. Silk wallpaper or rare Dutch tapestries cover the walls, damask and embroidered tulle or velvet and satin cover windows and seats, the furniture is gilded, the ceilings sport frescoes with allegorical or religious stories with the recurring theme of the monarchy’s good government, and marble floors designed by the best Italian architects.
One room is entirely covered with rococo-style porcelain from the Royal Porcelain Factory of Buen Retiro that Philip II had brought back from Italy. Even the walls are covered with porcelain plaques screwed into beams at the back. The room as a Chinese theme as was the fashion of the time and took its creator Giuseppe Gricci from 1763 to 1765 to create. Even the candelabra is porcelain: it is shaped as a palm tree under which there is a “Chinaman” with a fan and a monkey on his shoulder.
Another room of note is the Mozarab-style room decorated with muqarnas similar to those of the great Alhambra. Instead of the usual mosaics, it was created with plaster and painted. The effect is somewhat dizzying, as every inch of wall is covered with decorations in the Arabic style. It was the only place in the palace where men could smoke.
Isabel II, the last queen of Spain, put her stamp on mainly every room in the palace. Most of the rooms have been preserved as they were in her time.
If you go to Aranjuez, a visit to the gardens is a must. They surround the palace and the city has encroached on some of the 750 acres of gardens that are now maintained by the historical branch of the Spanish government. The grounds teem with working fountains (although they stop working after one o’clock to start again later in the day). Grand, straight alleys made for horseback riding are flanked with immense plantain trees, some as tall as 120 feet (38 meters) and more than 200 years old. As you walk away from the palace and deeper into the gardens, deep silence is broken only by the sound of the Tagus river flowing, the wind stirring the leaves and the chirping of birds.
I have always been fascinated by Joaquin Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez. The music tries to transport you to another place and another time. Rodrigo said that his music tries to capture “the scent of magnolias, the singing of birds and the water sounds of the fountains” of the Aranjuez gardens. They are truly an instrument of inspiration.