I threw up last night. I think it was the combination of too much heavy food too soon before I went to bed. That’s what I get for eating dinner at 9 o’clock at night. But I didn’t really care. You know why? Because I was super excited for what Marisol and I had planned for today – El Palacio Real! Who wouldn’t be excited to spend the day wandering around a huge, lavish building built for kings, even if only a relatively small part of it is open to the public? We even got up early (…9 am…) in order to spend as much time as we could being tourists.
After finally figuring out some weird conjunction of metro stations, we made it, and since the threatening skies weren’t pouring forth rain, we decided to take advantage of the moment and walk through the Jardines de Sabatini right behind the palace. The name Sabatini came up fairly regularly when we were actually inside, so I think he must have been one of the favorite designers/decorators of one of the kings. However that may be, the garden, although nothing in comparison with El Retiro, was charmingly laid out with mazes of low shrubs spreading out from an elegant pool with splashing fountains and statues of various regal figures. The weather seemed uncertain though, so we made our way around to the front of the palace to buy our tickets. (Lucky us, we only had to pay less than half the normal price because we brought our student IDs!)
The first thing you see after buying your ticket and passing through the souvenir shop is the courtyard. And it’s huge. An expanse of paving stones marked intermittently by sophisticated black and gold lampposts. Behind is the huge iron fence with gilt spearheads and filigree. On either side are two wings hidden behind arch-topped colonnades. In themselves, they would be impressive, but they are far overshadowed by the main building in front. It towers overhead, rows of ornate windows, columns, and arches leading up to the beautifully decorated peak. It’s completely made of stone, completing the heavy feel of majestic grandeur (the original building burned down in the 1700s, so they rebuilt in stone to avoid running into the same problem again). It’s quite easy to imagine carriages sweeping up to the staircase of the main entrance, ladies in rich ball gowns being handed down by men in fancy suits, liveried servants running hither and thither to complete the tasks given them by the high and mighty. Since 1931, the royal family has not actually lived in the palace, although it is still used for official functions and celebrations, but imagine the amount of people that used to run about the place, swarming like bees around their hive. I think I heard one tour guide say that all told, there used to be about 6 thousand in the palace, give or take a few. Of course, the crowd probably looked a little different in the early 1900s than it did in the mid 1700s, but the numbers are still huge.
Inside, everything we saw was, needless to say, sumptuous. The throne room was nearly covered with red velvet, and filled with untold statues and paintings. One salon had an exquisite marble floor that was laid out in an incredible floral design and unbelievable hand-embroidered wall cloth (what in the world do you call cloth that is used as wall paper???). Another was completely covered in a pristine porcelain fresco made in the porcelain factory that used to be in El Retiro. A third was decorated in bright Chinese porcelain tiles depicting all sorts of animals. A fourth housed five Stradivarius masterpieces, each worth 3 million euros and still in use today for ceremonial events and such (if not used and maintained, they would lose their legendary tone and quality). The dining room was huge and magnificent, with 15 chandeliers and a seating capacity of around 140 people. Nearly every room was lit by ponderous chandeliers that hung suspended from the ceiling by chains beautifully dressed in damask, velvet, or whatever other rich material was used elsewhere in the room. The armory housed an amazing array of royal armor, most of it so ornate that it’s doubtful it was ever used in battle. Some of the details made artistic masterpieces out of shields and helmets, swords and early handguns. Really, I could have stood for over an hour in front of any one of a number of them, and there were hundreds!
There was so much detail everywhere that I find myself at a loss for words in trying to describe it all. How can one give a complete picture of something so incredibly and overwhelmingly detailed? There are of course the adjectives I have been using so far: majestic, regal, amazing, awesome, impressive, weighty, charming, elegant, rich, ornate, exquisite, etc. But these words are all simple nebulous ideas, tools to create a fuzzy mental picture, something more impression and hypothesis than real and tangible. So although El Palacio Real is huge, and we spent a good few hours in it, I can think of nothing more to really say. It is what it is. We came, we saw, we admired, we filled our eyes with beauty and our minds with memories, and we left.
So now as I sit here at my little desk, the rooms parade before my mind’s eye (as the old man in his study across from my window can’t seem to get his throat quite well enough cleared), and I can see the gold, the porcelain, the silver, the marble, the paintings, the tapestries, the armor, the furniture, the sculptures, and the inlaid wood. I laugh at one luckless monitor trying to keep people from taking pictures, turning to the raised camera on one side only to turn around at the flash of someone else who has just come in. I hear the words of the tour guide whose group I got not unwillingly stuck in while in one particularly narrow passageway. I remember emotions, thoughts, impressions. Now perhaps, I will take these remembrances with me on an evening walk through El Retiro, thinking things over and storing it away in my brain for future reference. Or maybe I’ll just watch the mobs of people that descend on the park every weekend evening. Or even just walk to expedite the digestive process so that my body doesn’t reject its dinner again tonight when I go to bed. Maybe by the time I get back the old man across the way will have finally gotten his throat cleared.