El Escorial, Madrid, Spain, Monday, April 9, 2012
The Oxford English dictionary gives the meaning of the word real as “actually existing as a thing or occurring as a fact, not imagined or supposed”. Madrid does actually exist, in spite of being hidden under its layer of spring smog created by Los Angeles- style traffic. Real Madrid, as any football fan will know, “actually exists” as a soccer team, but their meeting with Barcelona in the Champions league final is “imagined or supposed”, as Chelsea and Bayern Munich may well have something to say about it. My Collins gem Spanish dictionary tells me that in Spanish the word real not only translates as the English word real, but also and perhaps more commonly, translates as royal.
It was the Royal side of Madrid that we investigated at the end of March.Having seen Madrid’s Palacio Real (well the outside of it, anyway) in January, we were keen to see the Hapsburg summer palace at El Escorial (40 miles or so northwest), the Bourbon summer palace at Aranjuez (40 miles or so south), a former seat of the monarchy, Toledo (40 miles or so southwest) and another former seat of the monarchy, Segovia, (40 miles or so northeast). All this, together with a day in Madrid itself to visit the third of the three major galleries, would best be achieved by staying a few days at Aranjuez, then a few days at El Escorial.
The journey from Kiko Park across Castille-La Mancha towards Aranjuez was uneventful, but for the fact that we ended up on a motorway that neither our maps or our sat nav would acknowledge. When we hit Aranjuez the directions to the campsite from the south were very straightforward. Leave at junction 52, drive straight through the town and at the Green Frog roundabout follow the camping signs. What we were not expecting was for the town’s streets to be cobbled and for the last block before the Green Frog roundabout to be closed for road works. The Green Frog roundabout is at the entrance to the town’s only river bridge, which made matters even worse. There was a diversion sign telling us to turn left into a narrow side street with cars parked both sides and then no further signs. Having driven round in circles (or should I say squares) for half an hour along a grid patterned one way system with random decisions as to priority or give way, with a zebra crossing on each corner hidden by parked cars, I decided to cut our losses and leave town the way we came in and try from the north. I missed the turn, didn’t I. We followed signs for Madrid and left the town to the west instead of to the south, along a remarkably undulating, lumpy and downright disgraceful main road until we finally found the motorway again. Then north for 20 miles to the exit the campsite instructions gave us. As we hit town from the other side we pulled in a few cars behind another English caravan and decided to follow him! The instructions and the satnav were telling us to fork left, so we manoeuvred into the left lane, but the van in front did not. Fortunately for him I held back, because at the last minute he realised his mistake and got stuck half way between lanes while the cars between us honked and shrieked. I flashed him in and we arrived at the site together.
Having chosen our pitch and set up camp we opened the fridge to find no beer left. We had no choice but to go across to the bar for refreshment, where we met the owners
of the caravan in front and enjoyed a chat. Later we went to the huge Leclerc hypermarket and stocked up.
On Tuesday we drove to the station, free parking , and took the train into Madrid, which at €3.45 each way for a 45 minute journey is incredible value. In Madrid our main aim was to see the Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, the vast collection of old masters acquired by the state from the baron of that ilk. The collection ranges from primitive Italian 13th century through 16thcentury Dutch, Impressionists and post Impressionists to modern day Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko, all very well set out in chronological order. A most impressive collection.
After a tapas lunch we wandered through the Parque del Buen Retiro, a broad swathe of trees, lakes and fountains draped across the east end of the city behind the Prado. It was interesting to see the Madrilenos at play, boating on the lake, jogging energetically, pumping iron at the exercise machines which are a feature of all Spanish parks. It’s no wonder they need such a long lunch break, to fit all that in.
Wednesday morning we walked into Aranjuez through the Royal Gardens, which are directly across the river from the campsite. Unusually the gardens here are not only pleasant places to stroll, but they also fulfil a more practical purpose, growing fruit and veg for the royal table. Here we saw something neither of us had seen for many years, a red squirrel, sitting happily chewing a nut, long feathered ears alert and listening for trouble. Then, on the Green Frog roundabout, we had a coffee outside the Green Frog Restaurant, before crossing the vast gravelled square to the palace itself.
The original 14th century palace, occupied by the Catholic Monarchs (Ferdinand and Isabella), was remodelled by the Bourbon Charles III in the 17th Century with the vast Versailles- like palace we see today. In fact the whole layout of Aranjuez is very reminiscent of Versailles. As with all palaces, one is only allowed to see a small part of the building, but the range of rooms on view here are notable for their variety more than their quality. The visitor glides from extreme rococo decoration to Chinese tiles to Moorish reproductions without really getting an idea of why. On the ground floor is an exhibition of the clothes of the current Royal Household, including the wedding dresses of Queen Sofia, the two Infantas, Elena and Christina, and the daughter in law Letizia.
It is so strange that Spain threw out the monarchy in 1931, one of the many reasons being the vast and expensive Royal household. Then after a long civil war Franco’s dictatorship recognised that a monarch will return. Lo and behold they come back after Franco’s death and immediately start spreading again. Juan Carlos’ current titles include King of Spain, of Castile, of León, of Aragon, of the Two Sicilies (Naples and Sicily), of Jerusalem, of Navarre, of Granada, of Toledo, of Valencia, of Galicia, of Majorca, of Seville, of Sardinia, of Córdoba, of Corsica, of Murcia, of Menorca, of Jaén, of Algeciras, of Gibraltar, of the Canary Islands, of the East and West Indies and of the Islands and Mainland of the Ocean Sea; Archduke of Austria; Duke of Burgundy, of Brabant, of Milan, and of Neopatra (New Patras); Count of Habsburg, of Flanders, of Tyrol, of Roussillon and of Barcelona; Lord of Biscay and of Molina. He is a direct descendant of Ferdinand and Isabella and also of our Queen Victoria, sharing the title of Great Great Grandson with our own Charles. One thing we have seen more and more as we visit palaces and galleries all round Europe is how closely related, nigh incestuous, the whole of Europe’s Royalty is and has been for centuries, and if Spain is an example, we’ll never get rid of them.Enough of the political ranting for now. It may well restart when we get to El Escorial and Franco’s tomb.
Meanwhile, lets go to Toledo.
Toledo was capital of Spain in the first century and seat of the Visigoth kings. It was capital again after the Moorish rebellion in 1012 and again after the Christian reconquest in 1085. Later, after the reconquest of Granada the monarchy lost interest, although it technically remained capital until 1561. Its golden age was in the 13th century, when Christians, Moors and Jews lived and prospered side by side. In spite of the subsequent expulsion of the Jews, then the Muslims, their influence in the architecture and the atmosphere of the city remains.
We parked outside the city walls, passed through the Puerta Nueva and climbed the steep alleyways towards the old town centre. Half way up we came across an old church, which on further inspection turned out to have been a Visigoth church built on the foundations of a Roman Temple, later converted into a mosque. When the city was taken from the Moors a lamp miraculously appeared in the mosque illuminating a crucifix, so it became the church of Cristo de la Luz. Toledo was full of tales like that.
We reached the top of the town and the Plaza de Zocodover, the main square in Toledo. Here there was a gathering of strikers and protesters, waving flags and chanting, as it was the day of Spain’s second general strike of the year. Many of the shops were shut and some offering limited service. A Tabac we visited was not selling stamps, as he would not work for the government during the strike. We had a coffee in a café off the square which was selling all sorts of marzipan goodies, one of the local specialities. I have been putting weight on too fast this trip and was persuaded not to indulge. I had to be dragged away kicking and screaming.
The Cathedral is a grand mixture of French and Spanish Gothic, good looking on the outside and awesome on the inside. As with many cathedrals of this age the nave is dominated by a central Coro and Capilla Mayor, with some superbly carved choirstalls and an overly flamboyant retable behind the altar. There were a number of interesting side chapels, but most interesting were the chapter house, which was in Mudejar style and could easily have been in a mosque, and the sacristry, which contained a small art gallery which many cities would be envious of. It included numerous paintings by El Greco who was born in Crete but spent most of his working life in Toledo.
After the cathedral we just wandered around the old city admiring the buildings and soaking up the atmosphere, stopping for lunch to soak up a beer and toasted sandwich en route. We did not visit the Royal Palace (Alcazar) as it had been destroyed and rebuilt so many times after destruction by invading armies, most recently in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, that we felt it would not have much to offer. However, the reconstructed fortress does dominate the Toledo skyline.
One other place we visited while we stayed in Aranjuez was the strangely named town of Chinchon. Not many people have heard of Chinchon, including me, but its name is given to a substance without which many pre-prandial drinks would not be possible and without which many would suffer even more from a terrible disease. The Conde de Chinchon was sent to Peru as Viceroy in the 17th century, and his wife, the Contessa, was an amateur botanist. She discovered a tree whose bark had medicinal qualities. It was named Chinchona after her, but is more commonly known in English as Quinine, the active ingredient in tonic water and alleviator of the symptoms of malaria.
Next we upped camp and headed to the Northwest of Madrid, to El Escorial, negotiating Madrid’s maze of motorway ring roads reasonably successfully. Just as London has one major gallery (plus many important smaller ones) and one M25, so Madrid which has three major galleries has to have three M25s. Even then the traffic is chaotic.
El Escorial is set in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the range which separates the plains of Castille-Leon from the plains of Castille-La Mancha and Extremadura. It is an ideal summer retreat from the heat and fumes of the capital, and it was here that the Hapsburg king Philip II decided to found a monastery dedicated to St Lawrence, in gratitude for his victory against the French in 1557. It seemed such a waste for such a lovely spot to be just a monastery, so he had a palace incorporated into it as well. So 1,200 doors,2,600 windows and 21 years later the palace was open for business. Such was his religious fervour that it was built so that he could see directly into the main basilica from his bed. His queen’s bedroom was on the opposite side with a similar view. One wonders how their love life fared.
It is certainly an impressive structure, set in carefully manicured gardens with a view right across the plain, and in turn seen from across the plain. Yet the Bourbons did not care for it much and moved to Aranjuez. What a waste. The tour of (yet again) a small part of the building was very interesting, almost as interesting as the regulations. There were signs everywhere for silence, but all the time there were loud crackles and walkie-talkie type comments from the radios held by the guards in every room, there was the loud hubbub of countless school parties haring around. Yet when Lesley dared to make a quiet comment to me about minding my head on a low door she was pounced on by one of the guards!
Deep in the basement is the Pantheon, where sarcophagi containing the remains of every Spanish king since the Emperor Charles V are stacked on shelves. Next door is a
long series of rooms where the sarcophagi of countless Infante are stored, the children of kings who never got a chance to rule themselves and the mothers of children who became kings. Some are very recent. Yet another example of how a Royal family
can just spread and spread.
Just outside El Escorial is the Valle de los Caidos, a tomb of a different kind. This monstrous mausoleum can be seen for miles, and the gigantic cross which dominates the hill above it is a flight hazard for planes landing at Madrid airport 30 miles away. At 152.4 metres the cross is actually the tallest memorial cross in the world. Franco had the building started in 1940, to be a monument to peace and to be built in the style of “the grandeur of the monuments of old, which defy time and forgetfulness". The exterior is grand enough, but the interior is awe inspiring. Hollowed out in the mountain is a basilica (including dome) which is larger than St Peter’s in Rome. In fact, for reasons of diplomacy, an internal partition was put in place so when Pope John XXIII consecrated the basilica it was not, technically, bigger than his own church. Franco arranged for the founder of his Fascist Falange partry, de Rivera, to be buried in the centre at the front of the altar, and for the bodies of the thousands who “gave their lives for Spain” in the civil war to be interred in chambers at the side. One assumes that at the time “those who gave their lives for Spain” would just be on his side, although it is claimed that both sides are represented. After his death Franco was buried opposite de Rivera. As his and de Rivera’s bodies are the only ones within the basilica, it is hard not to believe that rather than a monument to peace this is a monument to Fascism.
From El Escorial it was a scenic and breathtaking drive over the Sierra to Segovia. From the heat of El Escorial, to the pass of Puerta de Navacerrada 1,860 metres up in the mountains was quite a change. At the top of the pass is a very Alpine ski village, and the ski lift was working and there were people on it carrying skis. There was quite deep snow at the side of the road. A bit of a culture shock, having spent most of the last three months in the warm then hot deserts of Andalucia!
Segovia, originally a Roman settlement, was the seat of both Alfonso the Wise and Henry IV. On the outskirts is yet another royal palace, Riofrio, built in the 18th century as a hunting lodge and used considerably by Isabel II and Alfonso XII. By this time we had had enough of palaces, so we drove by and entered the city close to the aqueduct. We sat with a coffee (yet again is the cry) and looked across the square to this amazing monument. Built by Trajan it is still in excellent condition, over 700 metres long and 28 metres at its highest point. The aqueduct continues underground when it hits the city walls, all the way across town to the Alcazar at the far end.
It was a steep climb up to the old town, at the top
of the aqueduct, and we wandered through the old streets taking in a wide selection of architectural styles and periods. The Plaza Mayor was impressive, with the cathedral on one side. The cathedral had been destroyed during the Communeros revolt
in 1511 and was rebuilt by Charles V in Gothic style.
The walk down from the cathedral to the Alcazar, through narrow streets lined with restaurants and souvenir shops, was very reminiscent of Assisi, quite appropriate as the husband of Isabel II was Francisco de Asis de Bourbon. The Alcazar itself, once a 13th century fortress, was converted into a royal palace (here we go again) by Henry IV and Philip II. Charles III turned it into the Royal Artillery School, but the teaching there cannot have been very disciplined as the whole thing caught fire in 1862 and had to be rebuilt. It looks impressive from the outside, but as all the interiors were either reconstructions or brought from other palaces we did not go in.
A wander through some more interesting back streets took us past a number of other significant churches, including one where a young lad was playing target practice with a football in the cloister and another, which is the oldest Romanesque church in Segovia, had been converted into a home and studio by a local artist. As an antidote to all this culture and history we each bought a cheesy souvenir of the city – Lesley’s was a tee shirt with a picture of the aqueduct covered with cartoon cats, and I bought a bright red truncheon with a picture of Che Guevara on – don’t ask! Lunch that day was a bit different. Close to the Aqueduct, with tables on the pavement, we found a kebab shop. Lesley had a plate of falafel, rice and salad, and I had a Turkish flavoured pizza. Very traditional and very Spanish!
From El Escorial we had a long trip to Barcelona, then up to the Costa Brava, where we are now. Full details of those hectic days in the next episode.