(As I mention in this melodramatic post, I happened to visit Aranjuez on an inopportune day. I have subsequently visited many times; and now I think it is one of the nicest day trips from Madrid. For more, see my addendum at the end of this post.)
“Oh God, not again! Why can’t we get anything right?”
We were standing in front of the Royal Palace of Aranjuez. It was big but not imposing, perhaps because of its playful pink color. The building’s two wings seemed to stretch toward us like a man reaching for a hug. On the top of the building the Spanish flag was fitfully blowing in the wind.
“Why!?” I whined. “We managed to come the only day that it’s closed! Why didn’t I just check the hours? This always happens!”
It was Monday, the only day of the week that the palace isn’t open for visits. We’d just taken the train from Atocha station in Madrid. It was the day after our trip to Chinchón, and the weather was still gloomy and overcast. I wasn’t in a good mood.
“Shut up,” GF said. “It’s not a big deal.”
We began walking around, somewhat aimlessly. In the area surroundings the palace there is a lot of monumental architecture, with large open courtyards surrounded by stone walls. Rounded archways run along nearly every surface, which, along with the reddish color, gives the complex a unified aesthetic. But I wasn’t in the mood for appreciating architecture.
“We’ve been in this country for months,” I said. “And still we mess up even these basic things.”
“It’s not a big deal,” GF said.
By now we were standing in front of the Iglesia Real de San Antonio, the church that forms part of the palace complex, and I was still sulking.
“This sucks,” I said.
“Come on,” GF said. “Let’s go eat.”
We walked into town, found a restaurant, and sat down. The food was surprisingly good, and also cheap. By the time I finished, I was in a considerably better mood. And in that spirit, we went off to see the gardens.
It was a miserable day for this. The trees were bare and skeletal; the flowers were nowhere to be seen; the place was empty and desolate. The wind was blowing freezing air, the endless gray clouds cast a dreary shadow over everything, and in general the world looked bleak.
The only light relief from this brooding picture were the geese. At least I think they were geese, though they didn’t look much like the Canadian geese I’m used to. There were dozens of them sitting in the river. And as we passed by a few geese wandering around the park, they began honking at each other. It was a comical sight. It looked like they were having a petty argument, and perhaps they were.
With nothing much to interest me, my mind began to wander. I had just begun watching Kenneth Clark’s landmark television documentary, Civilisation; and that program had brought to the fore a question I’d long thought about.
“You know, I’ve been thinking,” I said. “It’s supposed to be good for you in some way to travel to all these famous monuments. You see these beautiful buildings and paintings, and ostensibly the experience ennobles you. But how, specifically does that work? How does it improve people to appreciate fine architecture, for example?”
“Uh, well it’s historically significant,” GF said, “and it’s important for people to understand history.”
“That’s true. But it seems that it’s something more than just history. After all, you could just read a history book. Why do people spend all this money to visit places so they can see fine architecture?”
“Because it’s nice to look at?”
“I guess. But lots of things are nice to look at. Lots of models, for example, are nice to look at, but not many people think looking at celebrities makes them ‘cultured’.”
“And of course, seeing beautiful art doesn’t necessarily do anything for you. If somebody is naturally uninterested in or insensitive to fine art, he won’t be improved no matter how many museums you force him through.”
By now she had completely zoned out and I was talking to myself. I gave up and started turning over the question in my mind. But I didn’t make any progress, and soon my mind was someplace else.
We kept going, crossed a bridge, and found ourselves walking along a road lined with sycamore trees, their overhanging branches leafless and emaciated. To our left and right were fields of farmland—empty.
More than anything else I’ve seen in Spain, this wintry and desolate landscape reminded me of home. I felt like I was in upstate New York, taking a wintertime stroll. The wind whipped up and send a chill to my bones.
A wave of homesickness came over me as I walked. What am I doing here? Where am I headed? I didn’t know. What is my mom doing? And my brother? What’s happening with my friends? Didn’t know, either. What will happen next year? What will I do when I get back home? And when will that be? How will I be changed? And how will home be changed?
The road extended into the distance, empty and dreary. And as I looked down that road, I could imagine nothing but sadness ahead of me. This sadness wasn’t just for myself. I was seized by that tender, reflective melancholy—what Virgil calls lacrimae rerum, or “the tears of things”—when you realize that the universe is indifferent to your happiness, that all pleasure is temporary, that death is permanent, and that all your hopes and dreams, and those of the people you love, might come to nothing. It’s the realization—so painful we do our best to forget it—that tragedy is an inevitable part of life. And though this fact is unbearably sad, it is the source of beauty; for beauty is so precious because, like all things, it is doomed to pass away.
In this pensive state of mind, perhaps just a result of the weather and the new year, we walked down the long road, turned a corner, and kept on going. We talked about our plans for next year, and expressed anxiety about how we’d cope if we had to go long distance. And then we fell into silence as the leaves crunched underneath our feet and the light leaked out of the sky, and we said little as we dragged our weary feet to the train and left.
Addendum: The city of Aranjuez is located south of Madrid, easily accessible via the Cercanías trains. Situated at a lower altitude than Madrid, and at the confluence of two rivers, the Tajo and the Jarama, Aranjuéz is a verdant place. Trees grow notably taller here than in Madrid, and the city is also famous for its fields of strawberries and asparagus. These picturesque fields inspired the composer Joaquín Rodrigo to write his famous Concierto de Aranjuez, one of Spain’s most iconic musical works.
In the spring and summer, an antique train takes visitors from Príncipe Pío in Madrid to Aranjuez, traveling through the lush surrounding countryside. This is the Tren de la Fresa, or Strawberry Train, and is one of the first train lines ever opened in Madrid.
Aranjuez is most notable for its palace, which was commissioned under the reign of Philip II, and designed by the same architect who designed the Escorial, Juan Bautista de Toledo. Judged from either its exterior or interior, the palace is magnificent, one of the finest in Spain. Unlike so many palaces, the outside of the building manages to be grandiose without opulence. The same cannot be said for its interior decorations, however, which are certainly palatial.
Next to the palace is the Plaza and the Church of San Antonio, an extension of the palace complex. A big open square surrounded by brick arches, the plaza leads to the lovely baroque Church, which was built to be used by the monarchs.
Even more charming than the palace are the surrounding gardens. These are divided into multiple, interconnected sections, each of which has its own character. The royal gardens are arguably the finest in Spain, more varied and inviting than the comparatively sterile ones of La Granja, especially considering the Tajo River which flows through the center. It is also worth exploring the surrounding farmland of Aranjuez, which competes even with the gardens for bucolic splendor.
The town of Aranjuez itself is notable for its grid-like street layout, a consequence of its royal planning. There are some excellent restraurants to be found here, such as De Pikoteo. In sum, it makes for a first-rate day trip—just don’t go on a Monday in winter.