Aranjuez is famous for its 18th-century palace and gardens lavishly furnished and enjoyed by Spain's Bourbon kings. It was their Versailles. Visitors today come for a glimpse of Spanish royalty in the Age of Absolutism. On Sunday, Madrileno families come to the royal gardens for picnics and boating on the River Tagus. Every year in May, the town has its fiesta and bullfight. Aranjuez' greenness makes it an oasis in the dry Castilian plain.
The Catholic Monarchs Ferdinand and Isabella were warrior-monarchs, used to chasing around Spain in wars against the Moors. They never had an established residence. One place they stayed was in a castle near Madrid, which had been built for them by a fraternal order called the Knights of Santiago. This rude castle was the first royal building in the town.
Isabella refuses Columbus an audience: Columbus returned from his fourth (and last) New World voyage to learn that Isabella was ill, and had gone to Aranjuez to rest. Columbus' reputation was at its low ebb, since his stern measures with Spanish settlers in the New World had aroused the ire of many people at Court. Isabella wouldn't even grant him an audience — using her illness as an excuse. Isabella died, and Columbus sank further into poverty, finally dying in Valladolid while in the caravan of King Ferdinand (Isabella's husband).
Philip II's Green Thumb Isabella's later successor, Philip II, was the first to build a garden at the palace. Philip stayed at Aranjuez occasionally, but his dream was to build a new palace from scratch — El Escorial. While he was waiting for El Escorial to be built, he rebuilt the palace at Aranjuez and started up a hobby in gardening. He had plants brought in from the New World, and planted them on an island in the River Tagus. This was the start of the Jardin de la Isla (Garden of the Island). There were elms from England, and "exotic" New World crops like cotton. Philip thus created the first botanical garden in Europe. A menagerie contained exotic animals: jaguars, ostriches, camels, birds of paradise, gazelles — and a buffalo dairy!
A Spanish Versailles It was under the Spanish Bourbon kings of the 18th century that the palace was once more rebuilt, and this is the version that stands today. The style was rococo, brought from France and influenced by the palace of Versailles. The emphasis was on opulence and display, using the costliest materials. Porcelain was a favorite device, vases from China having been recently introduced to Europe. That's why you see many Chinese designs and flowers inside the palace today. Gold, silver, marble, and even platinum were used routinely for decoration.
War of Independence Begins In 1808, Napoleon decided to take all of Spain by the device of having the Spanish king and his son abdicate in favor of him. Napoleon then sent in an army to establish garrisons to enforce his claim to the Spanish throne. The townspeople of Aranjuez rose up on May 2, 1808 against the French, and this sparked the War of Independence which continued until the French were defeated in 1814.
The Palace Aranjuez was beloved of Spanish kings for its dreamy atmosphere, created partly by the warm and humid air of the meadows along the River Tagus. It came to be associated with carefree living, idle pleasures, and distraction from political turmoil — somewhat like Fontainebleu in France. Since the palace was modelled on Versailles, its daily life was marked by genteel ritual.
The main gates of the palace opened only on the morning of a new king's coronation, or else to allow a dead king's funeral procession through. However, no Spanish king ever died while staying at Aranjuez. (Isabella had died away from the town.)
A playfulness was characteristic of rococo palaces, and at Aranjuez there are many visual tricks to entertain the visitor: mosaics so finely joined that they actually look like oil paintings, or flat ceilings painted to look as if they arch upward.
Visitors today are taken from room to room of the royal apartments, past Belgian tapestries, Persian-style carpets, and busts of kings (including Louis XIV of France, grandfather of a Spanish king). Inside the palace is a Museum of Royal Robes.
Garden of the Island Fountains and a variety of trees make for a dreamy effect on the island, the "ideal 18th-century garden," and a far cry from Philip II's original plant collection. There are plane trees, elms, and poplars that reach a great height — quite a feat when you remember that the island was completely bare before Philip II's time.
Garden of the Prince This is the other famous garden — much larger than the Island Garden, but, like it, strung out along the River Tagus. The avenue of gigantic plane trees is three miles long. At night one hears the cuckoo-voiced owls (the cuca in Spanish) calling to one another in a musical voice.
The garden was laid out by a French landscape artist, Boutelou, in 1763 for Prince Charles, the future King Charles IV. Since he was at the time the Crown Prince, the garden was thereafter called the "Garden of the Prince." Just as Versailles had its make-believe hamlet where Marie Antoinette played at farming, so Prince Charles had to have his model farm in the garden. He also had greenhouses built for tropical plants, and stables for exotic animals. Just as Versailles had its English Garden, where trees and shrubs grew randomly, so this too has its English garden. There is also a maze, a popular 18th-century novelty; courtiers dressed in extravagant attire would get "lost" in the maze, as though they had wandered off into deep woods, and with much mock-suspense and expressions of perplexity to startle the ladies, would eventually find the way out. Mazes were also popular with lovers, who would "tragically lose" each other along the way, only to be happily reunited at the maze's center.
In addition to the rich foliage, the garden is famous for its sculpture, much of it in fountains depicting pagan figures: Atlas, Narcissus, Diana, Apollo (shown playing the lyre). There's even a little Chinese gazebo.
The Laborer's House (Casa del Labrador), also built by Prince Charles, is an elegant pavilion built at one end of the Prince's Garden. It was constructed in conscious imitation of the Petit Trianon palace at Versailles. Such "satellite" palaces were common in the 18th century. European kings wanted their own "little place" away from the main palace, where they could escape the complicated etiquette and intrigues of the Court.
The pavilion is called the "Laborer's House" because the land it stands on was originally purchased from a ruined peasant proprietor. The name stuck, perhaps because the anomaly was perfect. The pavilion has many drawing rooms, all elaborately decorated, and the lavatory, where the king "performed" in public, is panelled with platinum!
The Sailor's House (Casa de Marinos) is in another part of the garden, bordering the River Tagus. This is the building in which the royal gondolas were kept. Gondola "voyages" on the Tagus were popular with Spanish kings, just as gondolas were popular at Versailles (which had a moat instead of a river). The vessels of six Spanish kings are displayed today. One of them is made of pure mahogany; many are gilded and lined inside with silk.
Aranjuez Today Agriculture is the chief activity of the town, with many irrigated orchards. Strawberries are large, and the asparagus is shipped all over Castile. Sweet melons are also a product. If Aranjuez seems uncomfortably hot in summer, remember that it was used only for three seasons. In summer, the Court usually moved to the palace at La Granja — cooled by the Guadarrama mountains.
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