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Lonely Planet review
You can almost imagine how the eyes of Felipe V, the first of the Bourbon kings, lit up when the alcázar (Muslim-era fortress) burned down in 1734 on Madrid’s most exclusive perch of real estate. His plan? Build a palace that would dwarf all its European counterparts. The Italian architect Filippo Juvara (1678-1736), who had made his name building the Basilica di Superga and the Palazzo di Stupinigi in Turin, was called in but, like Felipe, he died without bringing the project to fruition. Upon Juvara’s death, another Italian, Giovanni Battista Sacchetti, took over, finishing the job in 1764.
The result was an Italianate baroque colossus with some 2800 rooms, of which around 50 are open to the public. It’s occasionally closed for state ceremonies and official receptions, but the present king is rarely in residence, preferring to live somewhere more modest.
The Farmacia Real (Royal Pharmacy), the first set of rooms to the right at the southern end of the Plaza de la Armería (Plaza de Armas; Plaza of the Armoury) courtyard, contains a formidable collection of medicine jars and stills for mixing royal concoctions, suggesting that the royals were either paranoid or decidedly sickly. West across the plaza is the Armería Real, a hoard of weapons and striking suits of armour, mostly dating from the 16th and 17th centuries.
From the northern end of the Plaza de la Armería, the main stairway, a grand statement of imperial power, leads to the royal apartments and eventually to the Salón del Trono (Throne Room). The latter is nauseatingly lavish with its crimson-velvet wall coverings complemented by a ceiling painted by the dramatic Venetian baroque master, Tiepolo, who was a favourite of Carlos III. Nearby, the Salón de Gasparini (Gasparini Room) has an exquisite stucco ceiling and walls resplendent with embroidered silks. The aesthetic may be different in the Sala de Porcelana (Porcelain Room), but the aura of extravagance continues with myriad pieces from the one-time Retiro porcelain factory screwed into the walls. In the midst of it all comes the spacious Comedor de Gala (Gala Dining Room). Only students with passes may enter the Biblioteca Real (Royal Library).
If you’re lucky, you might just catch the colourful changing of the guard in full parade dress. This takes place at noon on the first Wednesday of every month (except August and September) between the palace and the Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Almudena. There’s also a less extravagant changing of the guard inside the palace compound at the Puerta del Príncipe every Wednesday from 11am to 2pm.
The French-inspired Jardines de Sabatini lie along the northern flank of the Palacio Real. They were laid out in the 1930s to replace the royal stables that once stood on the site.