If you only had a day to visit Madrid and had to choose only two attractions to visit, what would you choose? Though there will surely be wildly differing answers, it’s a sure bet that for many people, that answer would include either one or both of the following: the Plaza De Oriente and the Palacio Real.
Local Colour in the Plaza de Oriente
In a city famed for its many gracious and historic plazas, there are few which can quite compare to the Plaza De Oriente. Spacious, shady and eternally popular with the locals, the Plaza de Oriente is one of the most famous squares in Madrid, and like its counterpart Trafalgar Square in London, almost every visitor to Madrid will pass through this plaza at least once during their stay.
For puzzled visitors with an acute sense of geography, the Plaza de Oriente (East Square) is so called because though it sits on the western side of Madrid, it is on the eastern side of the Palacio Real. However the plaza’s located, there’s no denying that it has been at the heart of Madrid life for centuries. During Franco’s time, many of his speeches – and the demonstrations against them – were held here. In more peaceful days today, the square is a favourite place for families, friends and young couples often gather here to chat, stroll and relax. Many visitors stroll through here to get a sense of how the locals live and relax, and despite the large number of people who wander through the plaza every day, it still retains a soothing air of tranquility.
Along one crescent curved edge of the square, visitors can relax and enjoy the human scenery in the series of cosy sidewalk cafes which overlook the plaza. Most visitors see the square in the bright light of day, but for many, the best time to really appreciate the square is at night, when the spotlights are switched on and the whole square is bathed in a soft glow. One particularly famous cafe is the Cafe De Oriente, which has particularly good views of the plaza, and a wonderfully inviting atmosphere.
Like many of the squares in Madrid, the Plaza De Oriente has a long history behind it, much of which has to do with the French, or more specifically, one particular Corsican — Joseph Bonaparte, brother to the little general and famously nicknamed El Rey de Plazuelas because of his penchant for tearing down public buildings and constructing grand plazas in their place. When the French ruled Madrid, Joseph decided as first project to build a grand boulevard in the same vein as the Champs Elysee. Unfortunately for him, his brother’s constant warring interrupted his plans and Joseph never managed to complete his grand designs. Fortunately for the city of Madrid, what was completed was a spacious and elegant square.
Plaza de Oriente may have been commissioned by a Corsican, but nowadays, it is pure Spanish in spirit, not least because of the long double line of statues which decorate the square. Kings and Queens every one of them, the statues depict 44 of the monarchs who once ruled the Iberian peninsula, from the Gothic period all the way to the reunification of the country. Some of the statues are solemn and others fierce but if you look closely, all are disproportionate. The statues were originally meant to be set on pedestals, where their proportions would have looked correct, but in the end, the architects decided the statues would be too heavy and left them in the square.
Now, the only statue in the square that looks properly proportionate is King Felipe IV, who sits on his rearing horse smack in the middle of the Square, as his statue had always been designed to be placed on the ground from the very beginning. Interestingly, the design of the statue had help from no less illustrious a source than Galileo Galilei. The original sculptor was afraid the horse would crumple under its own weight, but with advise from the eminent astronomer, solved the problem by making the front of the horse hollow and the back solid.
Grandeur at the Royal Palace
To the west of the Plaza de Oriente, and visible from most angles in the square is the magnificent bulk of the traditional seat of the Spanish Royal Family, the Palacio Real. Formally known as the Palacio de Oriente (though almost noone calls it by that name), the Palacio is particularly popular with foreign visitors not only because it is the seat of royalty, but also because for many, it is the pinnacle of Spanish grandeur and elegance.
Like all palaces, the Palacio Real was built to impress — and sure enough, few leave it without being impressed. When the previous palace which burnt down in 1734, the king of the time decided it would be the perfect opportunity to build a dazzling symbol of Spanish might. It took 26 long years of construction before the new palace was unveiled and the end result was, indeed, awesome. Staggeringly big as it is now, the original plans for the palace called for a building four times bigger! Little wonder then that the modern royal family chose to live in the more modest residence of the Zarzuela just outside Madrid.
Among its many wonders, the new palace has a record 2800 rooms, more rooms than any other European palace; a library with one of the biggest collections of books, manuscripts, maps and musical scores in the world; an armoury with an unrivalled collection of weapons dating back to the 1400s; miles of exquisite rococo decorations and a mind-boggling amount of gilded or bejewelled ornaments.
Nowadays, the Palacio Real is only used for state ceremonies and functions: if there are two flags flying over the Palace, then a function is being held and the public will not be allowed to visit. On any other day however, 16 rooms are open for public viewing. Even though less than 1 percent of the total rooms are open, take your time in exploring the rooms — each is a veritable Aladdin’s cave! Among the rooms on view are the Throne Room, where Tiepolo’s last masterpiece — The Majesty of the Spanish Monarchy, appropriately enough — adorns the entire ceiling; the Porcelain Room, where 134 oriental panels decorate the walls; and perhaps most intimate of all, the Stradivarius Room, where many of the master’s instruments are encrusted with mother of pearl and jewels.
Of course, there are plenty of other attractions to choose from in Madrid – monuments, museums, parks, clubs and a whole list of other delights are available, just waiting to be explored. But for those who only have a short time free and want to get a sense of Madrid as quickly as possible, a walk around the Plaza de Oriente and a visit to the Palacio Real is a good way of soaking up Madrid life and learning some of the city’s history – at least, until you have more time the next time around.