It's worth shelling out €4 for the audio guide, which will greatly enhance your appreciation of all the opulence.
Madrid's Royal Palace is a site of turbulent history. The Royal Alcázar of Madrid was erected here by Muhammad I, Umayyad Emir of Cordoba, between 860 and 880; after the Moors were driven out in the 11th century, it came into Spanish hands. The Habsburg Emperor Charles V extended and renovated the castle in 1537; Philip II made Madrid his capital in 1561 and continued the renovations, as did Philips III through V until 1700.
A fire on Christmas Eve in 1734 destroyed the Alcázar, as well as many precious works of art held there. Luckily, the King had moved much of his art collection to Buen Retiro Palace beforehand. Several works, including Velazquez's Las Meninas, - which in fact depicts figures from the Spanish court in a large room of the Alcázar - were saved by being thrown out of a window. The new baroque palace was finally completed (slowed by the death of its original architect) in 1764, and there have been numerous additions since.
After all this, there's plenty to see here. The main façade faces the grand colonnaded Plaza de la Armería; the Plaza de Oriente, which features statues of the Gothic Kings, joins the palace's eastern façade to the Teatro Real. The Campo de Moro gardens, landscaped in Romanticist style, are named so because the Muslim leader Ali ben Yusuf allegedly camped here with his troops in 1109 during an attempted reconquest of Madrid; the 20th century Sabatini Gardens to the north follow a symmetrical French design.
Inside, all is opulence in a royal residence that rivals that of Versailles. The ground floor alone is spectacular, with the Royal Library only a small part of the legacy of kings and queens. The Royal Pharmacy includes fascinating jars and pottery from the 18th and 19th centuries, and the Royal Armoury is matched in grandeur only by the Imperial Armoury of Vienna. It displays arms dating back to as early as the 13th century, and magnificent tournament pieces made for Charles V and Philip II - including the armour that Charles V wore in his 1548 portrait by Titian, which is housed in the Prado.
The first floor comprises the old royal apartments, which are full of important sculptures, tapestries, frescoes and paintings: Charles III's throne, sceptre and crown are also on display, and the Stradivarius Room contains a viola, two cellos and two violins by supreme luthier Antonio Stradivari. Don't miss the Palacio Real for a glimpse at royal glory.
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