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The Royal Palace, Madrid


Where Gumbo Was #489

Let me start by saying that I'm not generally a fan of royal and noble palaces; their opulence and size is often a reminder of how much the rulers cost the ruled. But I also have to say that once in a while, the effect is so stunning that I actually enjoy my visit.


Still, it must be remembered that this palace, which was built from scratch at huge cost in the mid-18th century, was only possible because of the riches Spain collected from its huge territories in the New World in the two hundred and some years before the building began.


Worth keeping in mind as we walk through this month's selection of rooms open to the public! With 3,418 rooms available, only a relatively small and rotating selection is open at any given time, although some major rooms and the armory are always included. It is the largest royal palace in Europe by area with nearly 1.5 million square feet, twice the size of Buckingham Palace.


Despite being the official residence and office of the King of Spain, no one actually lives or works in the palace these days; the royal family live in a modern mansion on the grounds of the Zarzuela Royal Palace, 15 km north. Aside from being open to visitors for a fee, it hosts state events and banquets.


One room, for instance, bears a marble plaque stating that it's the room where King Juan Carlos I signed the agreements by which Spain joined the EU; it doesn't have one for his abdication in the same room amidst a cloud of financial scandal.


Although the Royal Palace is not yet 300 years old, young by some measures, it's not the first palace on the site. An earlier one, the Alcazar of Madrid, was built in the 800s by the Emir of Cordoba, who founded the city during Muslim rule of most of Spain. When Madrid fell into Christian hands two centuries later, the new rulers moved into the Alcazar and started adding and renovating.

P1240865P1240866In the Royal Chapel

They were still at it on Christmas Eve in 1734 when a fire started in the workshop of a French artist working on a commission. The fire spread quickly, the damage made worse by a decision to lock all the gates to avoid looters. Many paintings and other objects were lost; the only ones that survived were those that quick-thinkers threw out the windows before the entire building was gone. Fortunately, much of the King's collection had been moved earlier.

P1240851P1240852In the Hall of Columns, tapestries based on designs by Raphael.


Four years later, work started on the present building, originally designed to be neo-classical, and the royal court moved in in 1764. Less than a century later, Ferdinand VII hired an architect to turn the Italianate palace into a French-style one. Not forty years later, his grandson Alfonso XII started on a plan to Victorianize (is that a new word?) the building.


The itch to remodel may go a ways to explain the very varying decor of rooms along the tour, and some of the, let's say, eccentric pieces on display.


The palace is rich in paintings and sculpture, although many of the best-known pieces are not always to be seen. On hand are works by, among others, Caravaggio, Goya and Velasquez, as well as frescoes by Tiepolo and Anton Raphael Mengs.


Fans of medieval warfare will not be disappointed, either. The Royal Armory, housed in one wing has an amazing collection of arms and armor, including many made for various Spanish kings. Walking the cases and seeing the styles change from working cavalry to ceremonial display over the years is quite interesting.


As is the question of what role was envisioned for the armored dog, and how did they get the dog to stand still for it!


The Royal Palace is located a bit west of the city center, on a bluff looking down on the city, as palaces and forts often are. It's across the street from the city's cathedral, a relative newcomer built mostly in the last century, but occupying the site of early Madrid's main mosque, converted to a church after the Christian conquest.

Congratulations to this week's solvers, PortMoresby and George G.



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The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

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