MADRID — --The old song speaks of castles in Spain, but one rarely hears about palaces. Yet Madrid's enormous Royal Palace, packed with treasures and open to the public, is one of the Spain's most spectacular sights.
It fills the vista for roughly three city blocks as you emerge from the old quarter. But not until you've trekked around the grounds can you appreciate that it is half-again the size of London's Buckingham Palace. You can observe how it doubles in height to fit the downward slope of land in the rear.
It is just as well that five of the palace's six floors are either empty or contain government offices. What remains on view is enough to fill a morning or afternoon for any visitor.
It's unlikely that you would meet King Juan Carlos or Queen Sofia during your visit. Home for the royal couple is the much smaller and cozier Zarzuela Palace in deer-stocked woods on the city edge and completely off limits to sightseers.
But the Royal Palace remains such a vital symbol of regal authority and continuity that the king or queen still drop by now and then to hold audiences or host gala banquets. Although the palace is closed to the public on those occasions, there are still more than 300 visiting days a year.
The guided tour, available in English, winds for nearly a mile through the opulent private rooms and salons of the present king's Bourbon ancestors. Everywhere you look there is the glint of gold, from the sumptuous furnishings, thick vines of trimming and rococo frames of mammoth mirrors.
If you like antique clocks, the palace has 400, each worthy of a king and keeping perfect time. Paintings? The palace collection fills 14 salons and includes oils by Velazquez and Goya. Tapestries? Renowned Flemish works of the 15th and 16th centuries, many woven with silver threads, cover 11 other rooms.
You can see 52 of the main floor's 69 private rooms and residences (the other rooms are only shown to visiting dignitaries). It is not uncommon to hear tourists gasp at each stage, as the salons compete with one another in coloring, design and dream-like fancy.
My favorite is the Gasparini anteroom, where ceramic tracery adorns walls and ceilings with the vigor of a jungle plant. The floor is a swirl of multihued marble, shimmering under the light of a two-ton crystal chandelier.
The great banquet hall, the palace's largest room, is still the scene of dazzling dinners for visiting heads of state. Ronald Reagan ate from its gold-rimmed plates in May, 1985. But it was during an earlier visit of Richard Nixon that the record for palace settings was established--146.
The guided tour lasts two hours. Add a few hours more if you want to see the magnificent Armory of the palace, whose collection of hand-engraved armored suits was begun by Emperor Charles V about four centuries ago. The Carriage Museum, near the west gate, has the six-horse berlin that was attacked by an anarchist's bomb on May 31, 1906. Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia were returning to the palace from their wedding when the blast occurred (neither was harmed, but 21 others were killed).
It is worth noting, in this 250th anniversary year of the death of Antonio Stradivari, that in the palace Music Museum are five stringed instruments by the famed Italian craftsman that are among the most prized in the world.
Be sure to take a stroll through the vast park of woods, gardens and rolling lawns. At that point you'll probably start comparing the Royal Palace with Versailles.
Versailles was the model for Philip V of Anjou, founder of the Spanish Bourbon line, who ordered the palace built on the exact site where a castle had burned down in 1734. In a way, he was re-creating his childhood, spent at the great French residence of his grandfather Louis XIV, the Sun King.
No one has lived at the palace since Juan Carlos's grandfather Alfonso XIII went into exile in 1931 as Spain declared itself a republic. But on Nov. 22, 1975, the palace became royal again in every respect.
On that day, shortly after the death of head of state Francisco Franco, who had ruled the nation for nearly four decades, the monarchy was restored. The tall, then-31-year-old Juan Carlos stepped out onto a broad balcony over the palace's east entrance as a crowd packed into the Plaza de Oriente and roared, " Viva el rey! (Long live the king!)"
An ideal place from which to conjuring up that historic moment is at an outdoor table of the charming Cafe de Oriente in the rear of the plaza. It is the best snack and dining establishment in the immediate vicinity. Try the bite-size tapas of cheese, meat or fish along with a glass of house wine or a cana or cold draft beer. A basement restaurant that looks like an old monastery offers full-course Castilian specialties for $15 to $20 U.S. per person, wine included.
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The Royal Palace is open Monday through Saturday from 9:30 a.m. to 12:45 p.m. and from 4 p.m. to 5:45 p.m. Mornings only on Sunday and holidays. Have your hotel concierge check the palace anyway to be sure that tours are not suspended for an official ceremony.
The complete visit, including four museums, costs 400 pesetas (about $3.25 U.S.). Museums have no English signs, but an English-language guidebook is on sale at the main entrance.