A few miles south of Madrid (Spain) there is a beautiful enclave located in a rich and fertile meadow along the banks of the Tagus River, where the Spanish monarchy has left its indelible imprint. A relaxing stroll through its streets, squares and parks is an ideal journey down memory lane. The place is Aranjuez, a Royal Site since Phillip II built his royal castle there in 1560. In 1899 it also acquired the title of Villa, since before that time, only the king’s relatives were allowed to settle the area.
Aranjuez is famous for its royal palace, magnificent gardens, strawberries and asparagus orchards, as well as for providing the inspiration for Joaquín Rodrigo‘s sublime Concierto de Aranjuez. Since 2011, it has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The town itself has the feel of an open-air museum. Its classic radial layout built in the French style, with its beautiful old buildings, many of them open to the public, reminds us of life in the peaceful villa during the golden age of the House of Bourbon. Other Spanish noble families, such as the Godoy, Osuna and the Medinaceli, built magnificent mansions in the area to be closer to the sphere of influence of the monarchy. This was a Royal Court in every sense, with its colorful carriages and unparalleled jewels, attendants and servants dressed in luxurious livery, busily exchanging gossip from the Palace. It was the era of powdered wigs, fake moles placed in rosy cheeks, or in more discrete places, card games and afternoon promenades in wooden barges called faluas, which were luxuriously ornamented and led up the docile and serene waters of the Tagus.
The first sights to visit in Aranjuez are the Royal Palace and the Royal Gardens, set on a bucolic campus that is consistent with the relaxing atmosphere of the surroundings. The palace was built for the king to enjoy the placid weather of spring. It was commissioned by Philip II, and designed by Juan Bautista de Toledo. The initial building was partially destroyed by a fire, but Philip II rebuilt and improved it, adding a monumental staircase and an adjacent structure decorated in high French style. Juan de Herrera, who also designed El Escorial, another magnificent royal site near Madrid, completed the construction in the 18th century, under the reign of Charles III.
Also recommended in Aranjuez: the Royal Chapel, with its agate altar and paintings by Maella and Bayeu; the Porcelain Room, whose walls and ceilings are decorated with porcelain in the Chinese style by masters from Capodimonte; and the Hall of the Throne with rococo furnishings and tapestries from Brussels.
The Royal Gardens are simply exquisite. The Parterre Garden and the King´s Garden stand out for the fusion of creative ideas conceived by the engineer Marchand in 1727, who was able to create a great place of recreation for the kings of yore, and for the curious visitors of today. The New Garden, also called the Parterre Garden is located beside the eastern façade of the Royal Palace, and stands out for its three fountains: The Antaeus, Ceres and Nereids. Also worthy of admiration are the Queen’s Garden, the Island Garden and the Prince’s Garden.
Many visitors to Aranjuez favor the NH Príncipe de la Paz Hotel, set inside an emblematic 17th century building, because of its central location and beautiful views of the palace. Aranjuez is famous for the quality of its produce, so finding a great restaurant is not difficult. For dining in a contemporary setting, the 1 Michelin star Joseph House is a sure bet. If you prefer something a little more traditional, don’t miss Casa Pablo, a restaurant that maintains a kind of timeless patina, with bullfighting references, excellent local ingredients and amazing service. ■