“I came on the Royal gardens of La Granja – acres of writhing statues, walks and fountains rising from the dust like a mirage. A grandiose folly, as grand as Versailles and even more extravagant” – Laurie Lee – ‘As I walked out one Sunny Morning’
After breakfast we checked out and were reunited with the little Chevrolet Matiz that we hadn’t used for two days and we set off on our planned route back to Madrid. We could have used the new motorway link that tunnels through the mountains but our plan was to use the mountain roads and go over the top.
This was going to be approximately seventy kilometres and I calculated that there was exactly the right amount of fuel left in the tank to get it back to the airport on just about as close to empty as I dared. We left the town and headed south towards our first destination of San Ildefonso o La Granja about ten kilometres away in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama and the location of a fabulous Royal Palace.
After driving through Nuevo Segovia we soon arrived in the town where there were a lot of road works and building activity, which made it difficult to find where we were going but we parked the car just outside of the town and walked through the gates into the Baroque streets and sauntered in what we supposed to be the direction of the Palace. Kim wasn’t feeling so well this morning and she had a stiff neck from watching the Storks so we found a little café and as the streets were still quite cool sat inside and had a coffee and a slice of tortilla (actually I had a beer!).
The town was quiet and there weren’t many visitors and we walked to the Palace through the front garden and to the pay desk where admission was free on Wednesday if you could demonstrate European Union citizenship so we flashed our passports and avoided what was actually a very reasonable €4 admission charge.
The Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso is a palace set in extensive gardens in the French style of Versailles that was built for Philip V in the early eighteenth century and remains today an official residence of the King of Spain. The Spanish Royal family used to like to leave Madrid in the baking hot summer months and take up residence in the mountains where the climate is cooler and more agreeable and looking around the place it was easy to see why.
Inside the dark rooms it was quite cool and an attendant in woollies and a topcoat looked at me in my shirt sleeves as though I had escaped from an institution and gave a surrogate shiver as we examined the exhibition of Flemish tapestries before moving through a succession of state rooms all of which had magnificent views of the adjacent gardens.
Best of all was the Royal bedroom with a perfect balcony vista overlooking the fountains in the garden. I didn’t get a sense that King Juan Carlos actually uses this room any more and he probably has an apartment somewhere hidden away, which has a twenty-first century specification with wireless Internet access and Sky TV that this one certainly didn’t have. It was nice inside the Palace but when the sun is shining I prefer to be outside so I suppose I rushed us through the rooms a bit hastily and after finishing in the predictable shop selling lots of Royal souvenirs that we didn’t want we emerged into the gardens and the very pleasant sunshine.
From the Palace we walked through the King’s back garden along the row of fountains all of which represent themes from classical mythology, including Greek deities, allegories and scenes from ancient myths. They are cast in lead to prevent corrosion, and painted over to simulate the nobler material of bronze, or lacquered over white oxydised lead to imitate marble. Amazingly the original waterworks and piping are still functional: they rely purely on gravity to project water up to the forty-meter height of the fountain jet of Perseus and Andromeda because an artificial lake, El Mar, lies secluded at the highest point of the park, and provides a reservoir and water pressure for the whole system.
Today, only a few fountains are active each day and only during the real tourist season but twice a year, on the feast days of San Fernando and San Luis all twenty-six fountains are set to work, providing what must be a truly memorable aquatic show. To try and imagine just what it might be like I have to rely on the account of Laurie Lee:
“A hundred fountains were playing filling the sky with rainbows and extraordinary dreamlike clamour. Marble Gods and wood-nymphs, gragons and dolphins, their anatomies studded with pipes and nozzles, directed complex cascades at one another or shot them high over the trees…. Lakes, pools, jets and falls, flooded grottoes and exotic canals, all throbbed and surged at different levels, reflecting classical arbours, paths and terraces, or running like cooling milk down the statuary.”
Other Royal Palaces in Spain: