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shimmers like a desert oasis on the dusty Castillian plateau,
and the river Tajo runs through it. Five years ago UNESCO awarded
the city World Heritage status for its "complex relationships
between nature and human activity." After a day spent wandering
there, I can understand why.
I arrived mid-morning by train from Madrid. The RENFE system departs from
Atocha station every hour, and costs only 6.50euros for a return ticket.
The ride takes forty-five minutes or so, pushing south through crowded
suburbs and industrial wastelands whose only redeeming qualities are the
unlikely clusters of wild red poppies growing alongside the tracks. But
once the train shrugs off the last traces of Madrid, the landscape unfolds
into horse farms and freshly tilled earth.
I forwent the clattering bus at the station in Aranjuez, and chose instead
to walk the five minutes to the city centre, under shade trees and dappled
sun. I was rewarded when the street opened up into dew-covered parkland,
and the summer palace came into view. Shining pink and white in the sunlight,
the Palacio Real is a superb example of Bourbon neo-classical design.
Formerly a 16th century Hapsburg hunting lodge, the palace was renovated
and expanded by the Spanish kings Philip V and Charles III. Inside, the
highlights include a collection of elaborate clocks and the famed Chinese
Porcelain Room, delicately fitted and built in the Buen Retiro factory
Around the palace, other stately buildings border the Plaza San Antonio,
including the Casa de Caballeros (Knights Quarters) and the Casa
del Infantes (Infants Quarters), which would have been used to house the
hundreds of royal servants required to run the summer court. Their elegant
arcades form a sort of colonnade that ends with the Church of San Antonio,
itself an interesting architectural curiosity with a curved portico and
triangular gable, designed to conform with the palace.
The Bourbons also took advantage of the natural delights in Aranjuez,
augmenting them with carefully planned gardens along the green river Tajo
which flows quietly past the palace in a bow-shaped course. Three gardens
in particular are worth visiting.
However, it is the
175 acre Jardin del Principe which is most impressive. I entered the park
outside Plaza Rosinol, and immediately left the city behind. Its wide
promenades are lined with live oaks, whose bowers close in above you.
The deliberately plotted forest, full of foreign species from Spains
New World holdings, is thick and textured. Doves and owls coo and hoot
in almost hypnotic harmony, shattered fleetingly by the sharp cries of
Jardin del Parterre, at the rear of the palace and across from the
Plaza San Antonio is the smallest of these. It is, however, the
most playful and the most colourful, with its numerous flower gardens
and Baroque fountains. The Jardin de la Isla sits across the river
from the palace and is populated with a variety of exotic trees
and quiet pathways. Sections of the riverwalk are so lush, it is
easy to think yourself in the deepest Everglades.
Fountains and ponds appear like mirage through the dense foliage. But
none is more beautiful than the Chinese Garden, with its domed gazebo
and painted pagoda reflected narcissistically in a shaded forest pool
amid ducks and other water fowl.
I lost myself searching for the two other royal halls that can be found
here. But each was worth the effort of discovery. The Casa del Marinos
(Sailors House) now houses a water-craft museum, and the more stately
Casa de Labrador (Farmers House), which appears at the edge of green meadow,
is lavishly furnished in period decor. The height of its rich and colourful
interior is the Gabinete de Platino (Platinum Room), which houses a collection
of exotic wood curios inlaid with platinum and gold.
Spring is the perfect time for a visit to Aranjuez. The temperature hovers
in the mid-twenties, and sunshine abounds. If you travel during the week,
the city is still relatively sleepy and rural despite its grandeur. However,
you can also take the Tren de Fresa (Strawberry Train) a replica
of a 19th century steam train from Atocha station on the weekends
and celebrate Aranjuez delights with visiting madrilenos.
The Feast of San Fernando, at the end of May, features a running of the
bulls and special corridas in conjunction with an agricultural fair and
a ceramics show.
The citys proximity to Madrid makes it the ideal day trip; however,
if you wish to stay longer, the NH Principe de la Paz on San Antonio offers
86 rooms and two suites in a converted 18th century palace. Bring your
checkbook, rates start at 200euros for a double room.
Dining, as with any place in Spain, is always a delight. For lunch, I
tried the El Rana Verde on Plaza Rosinol by the river. It is the oldest
restaurant in Aranjuez and offers a view of the Palacio Real as well as
the Fountain of Hercules in the Jardin del Parterre. But no matter what
you order as your principal dish, be sure to end your meal and
your visit with strawberries and cream.
© Brent Robillard May 2007
lbrobillard at ripnet.com
Brent is the author of two novels, Leaving Wyoming and
Watch for Leaving Wyoming and Houndini's Shadow wherever good books
are sold, or check out www.leobrentrobillard.com
for more information.
The moment I stepped off the bus in Chinchon, the rain stopped. An
hour later the first rays of sunshine broke through the cloud cover.
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