In Hemingway’s book, Death in the Afternoon, he mentions his favorite things to see in Madrid:
“But when you have the Prado and the bullfight season at the same time with El Escorial not two hours to the north and Toledo to the south, a fine road to Avila and a fine road to Segovia, which is no distance from La Granja, it makes you feel very badly, all question of immortality aside, to know that you will have to die and never see it again.”
All of these places I had seen, except La Granja. Naturally I had to go.
The Palace of La Granja is found in the town of San Ildefonso, in the province of Segovia, near the Guadarrama mountains. From Madrid, there isn’t a direct way to get there on public transportation. First we took a train to Segovia; from the train station we took a bus to the city’s central bus station, and from there you can take a bus to La Granja. The whole process takes well over two hours.
We went straight to the palace. When seen from the direction of the town, it is not stunning. Its main distinguishing feature is a large cupola that towers above everything else in the town. I suppose the kings who lived here were not especially concerned with awing the few citizens of the town; rather, this palace was originally a kind of royal retreat, where the kings spent their summers to go hunting in the forests nearby.
The palace itself dates from the 1720s, under the reign of the first monarch of the Bourbon dynasty, Philip V, after the chaos of the War of Spanish Succession. The war ended with a French family on the Spanish throne, and thus this palace bears the mark of French taste. Specifically, it is modeled on the palace of Versailles, built by Philip V’s grandfather, Louis XIV. Like its forebear, La Granja even has its own splendid French gardens, of which we will see more later.
Our visit began with a museum of tapestries. Now, I’ve seen my fair share of tapestries in Spain, and normally I do not find them terribly interesting. But these were magnificent. The palace had tapestries dating back to the reign of the Catholic Monarchs (the late 15th century). But the most impressive were made during the time of Charles V. They were massive, well over 12 feet tall. The surfaces were covered with elaborate, allegorical scenes, with damsels and knights, sages and demons, each personifying a virtue or a vice. There were also mythological beasts and historical figures woven into the panoply of images. There was Hercules holding up the heavens, and a representation of Boethius’s Wheel of Fortune, as well as Plato, Seneca, and Solomon the Wise. I wish photos were allowed.
Then we went into the palace proper. The first room had portraits of Philip V and his family, all of them bedecked in frilly outfits and white wigs, all of them smiling gaily. Their smile reminded me of Kenneth Clarke’s episode on the French Enlightenment, in his marvelous documentary, Civilisation. It is an ironical, bemused, dispassionate smile, a smile that Clarke dubbed the “smile of reason.” This was, after all, the Enlightenment.
As usual in palaces, the rooms were beautifully furnished: still-lifes, portraits, and religious paintings hung on the walls; delicately carved and upholstered chairs stood awaiting the royal bottoms (which, alas, do not appear nowadays); and elaborate chandeliers hung in every room. Each ceiling was covered in a large painting, usually of a mythological scene amid a heavenly background.
When I walk through the former abodes of the ultra-wealthy, I tend to feel a little queasy. It all seems so frivolous and so profligate. Nobody should be this rich. Palaces are not warm, welcoming places; they crush you under the weight of all their finery and splendor. I cannot imagine that living in a palace has a positive effect on your psychology. Every single piece of furniture, every clock and candelabra, bespeaks wealth and power. And how do you keep your head and govern a country when your entire world is a never-ending chant to yourself? How do you manage a kingdom when you live in a world apart?
Nevertheless, the royal apartments in La Granja were so tastefully decorated that my usual misgivings about palaces didn’t bother me. We walked through the bedrooms, dressing rooms, the study, the banquet hall, and then went down the stairs to the ground floor. By comparison, this floor was quite empty. The most lovely thing to be seen is a beautiful fountain full of bronze figures, with a backdrop made from seashells. Other than that, however, the ground floor is full of neo-classical statues. These were of very poor quality, I thought—bland and lifeless.
But it wasn’t long until we went through the entire floor and had gone outside to visit the gardens. Now this was the real palace. The gardens of La Granja are massive; indeed, judging from the map, the gardens are bigger than the whole town of San Ildefonso! For the most part, they consist of long, straight avenues lined with trees and bushes that connect several plazas; and in each of these plazas is a fountain. The fountains are the most impressive part, even when they are turned off (as they were during our visit). The most eye-catching is the long, terraced fountain that runs down a hill next to the palace; small statues line the walkway on both sides, and at the top are more statues in bronze. From here you can see the palace at its most impressive. Clearly, this is the facade that was meant to be seen.
Philip V must have felt quite smug with himself after having these gardens built; they represent the dominance of French royalty over Spanish affairs. But I did not feel even an inkling of the splendor that the gardens were supposed to represent. Rather, the place was cold and empty. The trees were still bare; a chilly breeze blew threw the gardens; the snow-covered peaks of the Guadarrama stood in the distance; and the fountains sat amid this wintry landscape, dry and silent.
From an anthropological perspective, I thought the gardens embodied certain unmistakable ideals of the Enlightenment: orderly rows of hedges, straight paths, circular plazas, Greco-Roman sculptures. It is easy to imagine Philip V strolling through with his ironical smile and white wig, admiring his taste and power. The garden was planned like a city, with main avenues and connecting streets. There is no Romantic love for untamed nature, no mystical communion with the chaotic. Nature is domesticated, ordered, disciplined, brought into line with the dictates of reason. The result is impressive, but it lacked what I most crave from parks: life.
We strolled around for about half an hour, and then we left. It was lunch time. I was really excited for this, because the last time I visited Segovia I had some excellent food. We had one meal in mind, the two classic dishes of Segovia: Judiones de la Granja and Cochinillo. The first is a bean stew, and the second is roast suckling pig. They are so popular that almost every restaurant offers a daily special with the two dishes, the first as an appetizer and the second as the main course. The problem is that it’s expensive. We walked around for about twenty minutes, comparing prices, before settling on one restaurant with decent prices and full with clients. (If a restaurant is full of Spaniards eating, it’s probably pretty good.)
Luckily there were seats. We ordered the special, and waited with stomachs grumbling and mouths watering. First came the Judiones. Judiones are big and tender white beans, grown locally. They are served in a stew, along with chorizo, pancetta, and morcilla (blood sausage), a combination that gives it a distinctive smoky, peppery flavor. We finished the stew, mopping up the last of the sauce with our bread. Then came the cochinillo, a huge hunk of meat served over a bed of fries. The skin was crispy, the meat was tender and juicy, and everything tasted of savory oil. I enjoyed it so much my hair stood on end. I stuffed myself and then sat back with a satisfied sigh. It was easily one of the best meals I’ve had here.
Because of the bus schedule, we had about an hour and a half to kill before the next bus to Segovia. Luckily, we happened upon the perfect solution: the Royal Glass Factory of La Granja. Originally it was a factory established by Philip V to make glass products for the La Granja palace. Nowadays it’s not a factory anymore, but a museum dedicated to all things glass.
Most surprising was simply the museum’s size. It has everything. Inside you can find historical examples of the machines used in glass manufacturing—massive metal contraptions that I did not understand. There were also fine examples of stained glass, bottles and jugs stretching back centuries, and an entire wing dedicated to modern practitioners of the art of glassblowing, with some really spectacular examples. But coolest of all, they had two (somewhat unenthusiastic) glassblowers giving demonstrations. The nonchalance with which the glassblower stuck the rod into a fiery furnace and then turned in the red-hot mass into a lovely vase was remarkable.
Indeed, the museum had so much that I wished I could have spent more time inside looking around. But, alas, the bus was coming. We left, took the bus back to Segovia, and then the train back to Madrid.