Spring seems to arrive early in Madrid (at least by my Midwestern standards) marked by daytime highs that can flirt with the upper 70’s as early as March. It was on a warm and sunny Saturday morning when my friend and I boarded a commuter train from Madrid’s Puerta del Sol station headed for a destination that I knew little about, Aranjuez. I later realized that the very brief paragraph I found in my Spain guidebook about this small city was unjust for the grandeur that would ensue.
Aranjuez is truly one of Madrid’s hidden gems fit for a king. Located just 28 miles (46km) south of the Spanish capital, this UNESCO World Heritage Site is most prominently known for its sprawling royal gardens and the Palacio Real (Royal Palace). After about an hour-long train ride, we arrived at the Aranjuez station that was architecturally impressive designed in the Moorish neomudejar style.
As with most daytrips from my home base in Madrid, I did very little pre-planning and decided the day before to make the short journey from the city. With this said, I naively figured that a royal palace would be visible from the train station or at least down a well marked pathway. I guessed wrong. As usual my lack of direction was fortunately compensated by my reliance on the Google Maps app on my phone (this is something I’ve been working on since I started traveling).
Ten minutes later after walking down a wide dirt road, we were faced with the summer residence of Spanish royals dating back to the reign of Felipe II. Unlike other daytrip cities from Madrid like Toledo and Segovia, which are given a lot of hype (and for good reason), Aranjuez is not on the typical tourist’s itinerary when visiting Madrid. Although this might explain for the serene landscape with a much less touristy feel, it is a shame that more people do not know about this underrated sight. Here are my favorites from the day.
Royal Palace & Gardens
The plans for this royal complex began in the 16th century and the grounds have been evolving ever since. We opted for the self-guided tour and the interior of the palace was what one would expect with baroque pieces, beautifully painted ceilings, and heavy fabrics. Unfortunately after touring one Spanish palace, you feel like you’ve seen them all. On such a perfect spring day the gardens take center stage. You could spend hours upon hours wandering through the several gardens that are adorned with bubbling fountains and statues. From traditional busts and urns to whimsically trimmed hedges, these green spaces will not disappoint.
Museum of Royal Barges
Well, they are not quite barges and more like massive (recreational) rowboats built for Spanish monarchs such as Charles IV and Ferdinand VII to take a leisurely cruise down the Tagus River. This museum is very small, yet it is included with the admission ticket for the palace and perfect for maritime enthusiasts. It was incredible to see the skillful craftsmanship of these half dozen wooden sea craft that are outfitted in lush fabrics to appease royal tastes, of course. One boat had even ‘sailed’ in the once royal gardens of Madrid that is current day Retiro Park.
Plaza de Toros (Bullfighting Ring)
Can you believe that I had been living in Spain for seven months and still hadn’t step foot inside of a plaza de toros? Well, that quickly changed as I wandered into the brightly painted red and yellow bullfighting ring of Aranjuez housing one of Spain’s oldest traditions. To my surprise, it included a bullfighting museum, but it was too late for us to enter – darn! Although I’ve heard many local opinions on this controversial Spanish pastime, my feelings for bullfighting are still up in the air. I hope to attend one next year and decide for myself.
Have you ever traveled somewhere you felt was underrated? How did you discover it?
Note: historical facts found and/or verified at http://www.spain.info