4th April 2023: La Granja and Riofrío (Spain)

King Felipe V of Spain was born Philippe, Duke of Anjou, in France. He was appointed successor to the throne by his great-uncle Carlos II, who died childless. He was never very interested in being a monarch, or at least King of Spain, which he became in 1700. Around 1718, he fell in love with a hunting area and decided to buy it. Today, this area has become the municipality of Real Sitio de San Ildenfonso (Spain), the Royal Site of Saint Ildephonse. He ordered a palace be built “without disturbing what was already built”. The result was the palace known as Palacio de La Granja de San Ildefonso (The Farm at San Ildefonso), in honour of the hermit church and farm that were there when the King bought the hunting grounds.

Legend has it that the palace is extremely uneven because the King ordered that no parts of the church were demolished, so the walls were built around the old construction – however, it is such a massive building that seeing the irregularities from the inside is hard. The palace, built between 1721 and 1724, was commissioned to Spanish architect Teodoro Ardemans. Later, the garden façade was remodelled by Italians Filippo Juvarra and Giambattista Sacchetti. A fire destroyed part of the building in the 20th century and a lot of the paintings were lost. The gardens – the most famours feature of the site – were designed by Frenchman René Carlier in 1721 and finished by Étienne Boutelou when the former died in 1722.

Today, the palace is managed by the Spanish Heritage Network Patrimonio Nacional – which means that photography is not permitted inside. It is technically one of the royal residences, so of course you have to go through security and X-rays and whatnot. We headed there on what was technically a working day before Easter break, so we were not sure how much traffic we would find, or how many visitors there would be. Thus, we had booked our tickets online for 11:00, anticipating a two-hour-and-a-half drive. In the end, we were in front of the palace around 10:15 and were able to enter at 10:30. Before that, we saw some impressive trees, including a sequoia, which I don’t think I had ever seen before.

Baroque Palace of La Granja peering behind a few large trees

The palace is Baroque, showing the likings of the time in which it was built. A monumental staircase gives access to the first ward, rebuilt after the fire into an area to display part of the royal tapestry collection – Museo de Tapices. The oldest tapestries date from the 16th century, before the Spanish tapestry school was founded. Tapestries are not my favourite form of art, but these were pretty impressive. A collection of nine pieces allegorise some of the virtues, mixing classical mythology with Christianity and historical figures.

The interior of the palace displays the private rooms of the monarchs, on the first floor, and the different ballrooms and social rooms on the ground floor. The private areas are decorated with paintings, and the public ones try to emulate the Palace of Versailles (France). They are furnished with marble and mirrors, and decorated with sculptures and statues.

La Granja: Dizzingly-decorated large hall in golden and white marble, with large open wooden doors

The ground floor opens to the well-known gardens Jardines de La Granja. These are considered the best “French gardens” in Spain. They cover almost twenty thousand square metres. Sprinkled throughout paths, hedges, parterres and trees, there are 21 fountains, most inspired by characters taken from classic mythology. The fountains are made out of lead, painted in bronze colour, and even if built 300 years ago, they still work and are indeed turned on during the summer season, fed from local reservoirs. They were not running during our visit – except for one dragon which leaked a bit. Spring seemed not to have arrived in the gardens yet, and it looked strangely like autumn.

La Granja: Italaian façade of the pakace from the top of the waterfall fountain, which was turned off. A number of bronze statues representing mythology characters line the waterfall

From the top of one of the fountains, called “the waterfall” Fuente de la Cascada Nueva, there is a good view of the Italian façade of the palace. Other fountains include “The Fame” Fuente de la Fama and “Diana’s bath” Fuente de los Baños de Diana. One of the most complex fountains is Fuente de las Ocho Calles (Fountain of the Eight Streets), a complex of eight fountains in a sort of “square” created by the intersection of eight garden paths. The fountains were built to only run when the King approached them, and today they are turned on in a rolling schedule, and very rarely all at the same time. This is to take care of the pipe system, still the original one, and because some of them need a lot of water to function.

La Granja, outside. Two large fountains crammed with bronze figures representing mythological beings. Both are turned off.

After we were done with the palace, we continued off to what I found the highlight of the day, the Royal Factory of Glass and Crystal of La Granja Real Fábrica de Cristales de La Granja. It was also established by Felipe V in 1727, and even today people use the old techniques to make glass items there! Even though it is called a “factory”, the process is completely artisan. The place also doubles as a museum to explain the how glass is (and was) made, exhibiting different traditional instruments. Of course, it has a shop. However, the coolest thing is that you can visit the furnace workshop to see how glass is blown, and the decoration workshop to see the engraving process. We hung around the furnace area and the experts can make a whole goblet in three minutes and a half, from incandescent blob to ready-to-engrave product.

Glass museum: diferent machines used to process glass in the 20th century, and a reproduction of the original glass furnace

Workers at the Glass factory: making and engraving a glass

After the factory, we headed towards the Parador de La Granja, a mix of a modern and historical building where we were to have lunch. We shared some cured beef cecina de León, and I tried the local speciality judiones de La Granja, a hearty bean-and-pork stew.

Collage of the inner patio of the Parador building + lunch: dried meat and a bean stew

When we finished lunch, we took the car to the secondary palace in the area, called Palacio Real de Riofrío, a hunting pavilion also managed by Patrimonio Nacional (though apparently, pictures are okay here, which is cool). The building is surrounded by 600 hectares of forest and hunting grounds. It was originally commissioned by Felipe V’s wife Isabel de Farnesio, who actually never got to live there since when she became “queen mother”, her son Carlos III had her move to Madrid.

We drove past the forest, where some storks were happily wandering around. The SatNav flipped on us because it could not find the correct gate, but we managed to make it on time to spend an hour or so there. Also, the entrance was weird – it is actually closed, and there is a guard inside. If we had not arrived just as another car was exiting, we would have thought it was closed and left.
Baroque palace of Riofrío. It's large and pink, with lots of archeways

The palace is also Baroque, and the areas which can be visited include some bedrooms, dining rooms, and the areas where the servants waited to be called. The palace has been organised as a Romantic museum Museo Alfonsino, that honours King Alfonso XII, who mourned his first wife there. It was actually decorated by his father, King Consort Francisco, Isabel II’s husband, and later “enriched” with paintings from other Royal Sites. The most interesting item was the billiard room, because it actually felt rather unexpected.

Another area of the palace has been transformed into a “hunting museum” Museo de la Caza, to honour the fact that these were the King’s hunting grounds. It mostly hosts taxidermy representations and a collection of pelts and skulls. To be honest, some exhibits were a bit unsettling.

Collage showing the inside of Riofrío: the hyper-decorated rooms, the staircase and taxidermy of local deer

As we left, the SatNav warned us of a 40-minute jam on the way back, so we forgave its previous flop. The warning allowed us to take a detour to avoid it – we had to pay the toll but it shaved off almost an hour.