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The Palacio Real is one of the most popular attractions in Madrid. The largest royal palace in Europe has 870 windows, 240 balconies, 44 staircases and 2,800 rooms – big enough to spend an entire day exploring. But there are even more grandiose witnesses of the unbridled indulgence of the Spanish royal family around the capital.
The King’s residential palace is not open to the public, but the following 3 royal residences can be visited. With 2,675 windows, 86 staircases and 4,000 rooms, El Escorial is definitely larger than the Palacio Real, except that it is not a palace but a castle, hence the lack of balconies. The elegant fairytale-like palace in Aranjuez contrasts sharply with the harsh granite of El Escorial. And finally, there is the dictator General Franco’s palace, which stands on a mountain in El Pardo.
San Lorenzo de El Escorial is a remote mountain village in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains. It would never have existed had Philip II, King of Spain and Lord of the Netherlands, not built this immense monastery castle here in the 16th century. El Escorial is a square, granite tower block (no less than 200 m on each side), massive and hideous. Monastery, basilica, seminary, library, pantheon and palace in one, it is the perfect example of megalomania and was promptly added to the list of World Heritage Sites.
Another palace built by King Philip II was his summer place and the contrast could not be greater: as hideous as the Escorial is, the Palacio Real de Aranjuez is charming. King Philip chose this location for good reason: this fertile valley along the banks of the Taag is unique in the otherwise dry and barren plateau where Madrid is located.
Of all the palaces in and around Madrid that are open to the public, the 16th-century Palacio de El Pardo is the least visited and the most controversial. The despised dictator General Francisco Franco lived here for decades. He is often described as a man of simple taste, yet he felt quite at home amidst the thousands of kilometres of silk and velvet, crystal chandeliers, shining marble and glitz. Surrounded by 15,000 hectares of hunting grounds, the palace stands atop a mountain so that intruders could be observed and shot from a distance.