Versailles and its Gardens

Versailles and its Gardens

Europe is full of palaces. There are so many, in fact, that the persistent traveler can grow a little weary of them. After all, each palace tends to offer the same sorts of attractions: fine furniture, richly decorated rooms, expansive architecture. You get the idea. But even if you are quite uninterested in the pomp of power or the fineries of royal life, there is one palace that must be visited: Versailles. Built for Louis XIV, the so-called Sun King, it is the prototype of virtually all of the palaces built afterwards. From Spain to Austria, Versailles has been scrupulously imitated. It is, in other words, the palace of palaces.

The palace of Versailles is not within the city of Paris itself, but situated in the suburbs. Like Philip II with El Escorial, Louis XIV wanted to be away from the city, in an environment completely under his control. This decision did make the palace slightly inconvenient for the modern traveler to visit. Fortunately, Versailles is well-connected by all forms of public transportation. The cheapest and easiest way to get to Versailles from Paris is on the RER (Regional Express Trains), which stops quite close to the palace. This was not an option when I visited, however, as there was a train strike that day (hardly a rare occurrence in France). Yet this strike only affected these local trains. Long-distance trains from Montparnasse station also have a stop in Versailles (Versailles – Chantiers). This is the option I used.

Even though the walk from Versailles – Chantiers is slightly longer than from the RER stop, the strike worked to my advantage. There were significantly fewer people in the palace than usual. This is not to say that I had the place to myself. Versailles is typically packed; many visitors complain that the crowds ruin the experience. When I visited there were quite a lot of visitors (aside from the visitors by trains, there are dozens of tour buses lined up in the parking lot outside the palace), but not enough to make the place suffocating or claustrophobic. The palace was just mildly stuffy.

If you spend a few minutes to walk around the town of Versailles, you will notice that it looks rather different from the center of Paris. Partially this is because the streets follow a grid layout—a dead giveaway of the Versailles’ past. Before Louis XIV decided to move his court to this spot, the only thing on the land was a small village and a royal hunting lodge. In other words, it was mainly wilderness. The town took shape quickly around the palace; and like the royal gardens, it has been meticulously planned. This is not unusual for palace towns. The town of Aranjuez in Spain, for example, also follows a grid plan—a striking exception to the normal chaos of Spanish towns.

As you approach the enormous palace, several things come into view. There is Louis XIV heroically mounted on a stallion, sporting appropriately regal headwear. Immediately beyond this image of royal power are the tour buses, which give an even greater image of the power of international tourism. Then there is the line. When I visited, it was several hundred feet long, spanning almost the entire length of the palace’s front. Beyond this impatient mass of humankind there is the ornate fence and the even more ornate façade. Both are bright and gold; Louis XIV did not want to leave any of his wealth to the imagination. On the molded gateway, under a floating crown, there is the sun himself, the French king’s favored symbol. As you can see, he was a flagrantly powerful man. But as I had bought a timed entry ticket—thus allowing me to skip the line—I was feeling flagrantly powerful myself.

Before we go inside, I should give you some of the most basic information about the palace and its maker. Though not always successful in his foreign wars, Louis XIV was arguably the most successful monarch in French history at consolidating power within France itself. At the time, simply being king was not enough by itself. Early in Louis XIV’s long reign, when the monarch was only a boy, the nobles of France attempted a rebellion, called the Fronde. The rebellion was eventually put down; but the threat of unruly aristocrats must have sunk deep within Louis’s consciousness. As soon as he was old enough to take control for himself, Louis set about centralizing the state and making his authority as absolute as possible. Unlike his predecessors, for example, he did not rely on ministers to carry out the real duties of governing, but insisting on acting himself,

The palace of Versailles was part of his scheme. Situating the palace outside of Paris allowed the king to escape many of the conventional pressures of both the populace and the wealthy. Instead, anyone who wished to pay their respects at court had to do so on Louis’s territory. And this meant submitting oneself to a byzantine set of rituals and etiquette that Louis established, which governed everything from what to wear to when to speak to how to eat. Louis’s whole routine was a spectacle. Aristocrats watched as the king dined and dressed, biding their time until, with any luck, they had their chance to access the monarch’s ear. It was a ritual perfectly devised to keep underlings in their place.

Considering this historical background, it is wise to view the palace for what it is: a monumental piece of propaganda. Louis XIV wanted Versailles to send an unambiguous message to every visitor: that he occupies the center of France. Thus, the palace’s architectural scheme irresistibly draws the visitor’s eye to the center of the building, where all of the lines meet. It is here that I began my tour.

The first space which caught my eye was the royal chapel. This is a tall and narrow space; greek columns are supported by a row of arches, leading up to a richly decorated ceiling. Once again, the architecture here is perfectly calculated to convey a message. The narrow width of the space makes the ceiling seem especially tall, seeming to squeeze and dwarf the visitor; and the repeating columns and arches unmistakably communicate a sense of orderliness. We are entering a world where even prayer is subservient to the state, and where even religious worship itself is part of the pomp of power.

Next we enter into the State Apartments. These are sumptuously decorated rooms, used by the king for receiving courtiers and visitors. The walls and ceilings of these rooms are covered with designs and paintings. The most notable of these may be the Meal at the House of Simon the Pharosee, by Veronese—a lovely work of the high Italian renaissance. The color gold is everywhere in these rooms, and the ceilings are full of cherubs, clouds, and crowns. The king himself is ever-present, not least in the magnificent bust by Bernini, which manages to make the king into a truly heroic figure. Next in the visit come the royal apartments, where we can see the luxuriant beds where the king and the queen slept. As usual, no matter the luxury, I did not find envying these places of rest. I would not want to sleep in an enormous, empty room—even if it was on the finest silk.

Note the Veronese painting at the far end.
An example of the ornate ceilings.

Then we come to the so-called Grand Gallery, the most opulent rooms in a building full of opulent rooms. In the War Salon we see Louis XIV yet again, in a relief by Antoine Coysevox, looking martial and kingly on his horse. This leads directly to the most famous space of all: the Hall of Mirrors. Nowadays, of course, mirrors are nothing special; but at the time they were extremely expensive, largely because Venice had a monopoly on their production. Louis XIV was committed to using products made in France, but he actually enticed some glass-makers to defect from Venice to France to work for him (whom the Venetians later tried to poison for their betrayal). This hallway served Louis XIV in his endless courtly rituals as a place where he could stroll back and forth, giving underlings a chance to make requests as he passed. Many years later, the Treaty of Versailles—which put an end to WWI, and set the stage for WWII—was signed in this room. 

The king presiding over the War Room.
Expensive or not, the mirrors do not work very well.

The visit next brings you to a newer part of the palace: the Galerie des Batailles. This was built during the reign of Louis Philip I (1830 – 1848), and it replaced several apartments in the original design. It is modelled on the Grand Gallery of the Louvre (to which it looks remarkably similar), and is full of busts and portraits of famous French military men. Unsurprisingly, Napoleon dominates the scene, as painting after painting represent his martial glories. Unless you are an intensely patriotic Frenchman, this room will likely not excite profound emotions. Yet propaganda is seldom more glorious and more impressive that this display. 

This pretty well completes the basic visit to the palace. But the best part of Versailles is still to come: the gardens. Now, gardens come in many varieties; and a major split is between English and French gardens. English gardens are romantic in spirit, seeking to evoke the wildness and grandeur of nature. French gardens are the exact opposite: they represent humanity’s dominance over the natural world. Thus, one finds neat hedge-rows, straight aqueducts, and heroic sculptures. The gardens of Versailles are the most perfect example of this type. Standing at the back of the palace, one sees an entire landscape laid out in perfect symmetry, a harmonious composition that meekly submits to the visitor’s glance. As usual, the environment bespeaks centralized power.

While I normally dislike French gardens (I prefer natural parks to these monuments to neatness), I must admit that walking through the gardens of Versaille is an absolute delight. At every turn there is yet another charming fountain to see, yet another sculpture to please the eye. Most of the imagery used in these gardens comes from ancient Greece and Rome, drawing apparent links between the reign of Louis XIV and these sources of Western culture. Louis XIV seems to invite comparison with Augustus himself. The perfect musical accompaniment to a walk in these gardens is, undoubtedly, the compositions of Jean-Baptise Lully—Louis’s court composer. Like the palace and the gardens, the music conveys pomp and power; it is trim, ornate, and grandiloquent. 

This is my alley.

Eventually, the walker comes across the Grand Trianon. This is a chateau that served as a kind of getaway for the king, much as the Generalife served as a getaway for the residents of the Alhambra. The idea of having a smaller, secondary palace within a fifteen-minute walk from the central palace may seem a little silly; certainly it does not seem like much of a vacation. However, the Grand Trianon served an important function for the kings of France: as a place to be with their mistress. Famed for being the country with the highest tolerance of infidelity, the kings have France have long enjoyed the privilege of supplementing their marriage. (This tradition has, apparently, continued into modern times; Françoise Hollande—Macron’s predecessor—made little effort to hide his own dalliances.) The Grand Trianon would be a resplendent residence in another context, and yet when compared with the monstrous Versailles it appears positively humble.

The Grand Trianon.

Nearby is the Petit Trianon, another supplementary palace. This was built during the reign of Louis XIV’s successor, Louis XV, for his mistress and advisor, Madame Pompadour. Unfortunately, that great woman died before she could move in, and so it was used by her own successor as the head mistress, Madame du Barry. Its most famous resident, however, is undoubtedly Marie Antoinette—not a mistress, but a queen. (Louis XVI was one of the few faithful French monarchs.) Like the kings before her, she came here to escape the demands of court life. As such, the palace was designed for as little interaction as possible between the young queen and the servants. As its name suggests, the building itself is fairly small—though, of course, carefully decorated. 

The Petit Trianon

Directly next door is the Hameau de la Reine (the Queen’s Hamlet). This is a kind of artificial village, built to give the illusion that the Petit Trianon lay deep in the countryside. Thus, there is a farm, a barn, a dovecote, a watermill, and all the other trappings of country life. The architects succeeded in their design, for the little village is quite beautifully rustic. The gardens surrounding this area are quite distinct from those in the rest of Versailles. The influence of Romanticism is clearly marked here: instead of neat hedgerows, trees are scattered about naturalistically, sheep and cows graze in the grass, and the pond is full of hungry fish. It was quite a visual relief after the relentless parallel lines of Versailles and its gardens. 

This brings us to perhaps the most famous scene in the history of the palace. It was in these gardens that, on October 5th, 1789, Marie Antoinette became aware of the crowd approaching the palace. This was the Women’s March, a crowd of Parisians who had walked all the way to Versailles, driven by hunger and scarcity of bread. The king and his ministers ultimately proved unable to pacify the crowd; and a violent confrontation between the citizens and the guards led to the royal family being led away to Paris, where they spent the remainder of their lives as virtual prisoners. It is a myth, by the way, that Marie Antoinette said “Let them eat cake” in response to the demands for bread. (The quotation comes from a passage in Rousseau’s Confessions, which he wrote long before the Revolution.) But she was an unpopular queen in any case, partly because of her taste for extravagant luxury, and partly being a foreigner (she was Austrian by birth).

The mirrors in the Grand Trianon work better.

The revolution proved a major turning-point in the history of Versailles. The monarchy would never return. In the following years, parts of the palace fell into disrepair. Indeed, the cost of maintaining the palace, and supplying the water needed for all of its gardens, is enormous by any standard—a testament to the power wielded by Louis XIV. History has shown, however, that the power was ultimately fragile, since it was not enough to keep the people of France happy. 

At present, the palace of Versailles stands as a monument to a dead idea: that one single man should occupy the center of a state. It is an impressive and even a beautiful place. Its beauty, however, is that which can be bought wealth and power; it is the beauty of fine materials, unlimited resources, and exquisite craftsmanship. Lacking anything beyond naked self-aggrandizement to animate it, the palace and its gardens have a certain sterility, as if the glorious exteriors have little of value within. Compare this stone behemoth to the Alhambra, which looks like hardly anything from the outside, but whose interior possesses an otherworldly beauty. Perhaps this is because, instead of having images of a king on its walls, the Alhambra has a line of text: “There is no victor but God.”

The Palace of San Ildefonso de La Granja

The Palace of San Ildefonso de La Granja

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.

Granja Trees

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.

Granja Palace

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. 

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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.

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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.

Granja Glass Factory

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.

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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.

Day Trips from Madrid: Aranjuez

Day Trips from Madrid: Aranjuez

(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’.”

“Right…”

“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.”

“Okay…”

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.


Aranjuez Palace

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.

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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. 

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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. 

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