Soak in the splendour of the Royal Palace of Madrid

Inside Madrid’s Royal Palace…

You turn a final corner and there it is in front of you…the grand 18th-century Palacio Real de Madrid (Royal Palace of Madrid). Protecting the largest royal palace in Western Europe is an elegant, gilded decorative iron fencing in bold black and gold, offsetting the purist white of the magnificent structure beyond.

Polished gilt-tipped arrows gleam on the main gates and the emblem of royal arms communicate to you wordlessly. You tread on the greys and creams of the vast courtyard of the Plaza de la Armeriàa, never dropping your gaze from the architectural delight of granite from the Sierra de Guadarrama and white Colmenar stone. The commanding square-shaped facade of the four-floor high palace is studded proportionately with small square windows. Graceful galleries, Ionic columns and Doric pilasters add to the symmetry, while white stone statues of Spanish kings poised gracefully on the roof balustrade, complete the picture.

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Clearly, Bernini’s sketches for the construction of the Louvre in Paris inspired the design…a few degrees less opulent, but an exquisite tribute, nonetheless! 3,000 ornately decorated rooms, 870 windows, 240 balconies, 44 sets of stairs, 110 doors, and a floor space of 1.5 million square feet. We all see the immaculate perfection and take it for granted, never thinking of the tireless effort that goes in to keep it that way.

No chance for a glimpse of Prince Felipe, the reigning monarch of Spain, waving at cheering crowds from his balcony…he and his Royal Family prefer the modest seclusion of the Palacio de la Zarzuela on the outskirts of Madrid. Unlike his ancestors, who had their fill of the sumptuous interiors from 1765 to 1931. In fact, the site goes way back in history…here, at the highest point of the city, the Moors had established the 10th-century Alcázar overlooking the Manzanares river (Al-Magrit or source of water). Manzanares…the source of Madrid itself!

The long walk in the summer heat is exhausting, and the ticket queues are long. But your tiredness melts away the moment you step inside the entrance doors. Ahead is an imposing, double staircase designed by Sabatini…one flight of steps for the king and one for the queen, dare you presume? You stare up at the high, vaulted ceiling adorned by an 18th century fresco by Corrado Giaquinto, “The Triumph of Religion and the Church”, as you ascend the 70-odd steps to the main floor. Light streams in through circular glass windows above, enhancing the flowery gold-braided borders and soft colours of the gigantic rectangular fresco. You feel like nobility…alighted from a carriage and being escorted upstairs to attend a grand dinner, in the presence of His Majesty. Hold your head up snootily, put on your haughtiest expression. From the top landing, survey the tourists standing below. Your are Queen, albeit for a few moments. Did each of the 900,000 visitors ascending this sweeping stairway every year feel the same?…you muse, shaking yourself out of your reverie.

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The ornate late-baroque style of Italian architects is evident in the impressive hallways and the luxurious state rooms. Wander through salons overflowing with art treasures, antique furniture and lush tapestries. There’s gilt and bronze sculptures, chandeliers, rococo decoratives, jewelled clocks, delicate porcelain, damask, mosaics, stucco and frescos by Tiépolo, Velázquez, Goya, Giordano and Mengs. An unending, proud display of riches and power! Some rooms are large enough to house a tennis court! Here are my four favourite stops inside the Royal Palace of Madrid.

1. Throne Room: Unashamed luxury at its best. Velvet-draped walls weaving an unbelievable story of intricacy. An elaborate Rococco ceiling fresco, a tribute to the old monarchy and glories of Olympus. Massive mirrors from the Royal Glass Factory of La Granja and rock crystal chandeliers from Venice screaming grandeur. A gold-coated ceremonial throne with four Roman bronze lions fitted at its steps…its opulence heightened by the fact that it is no longer a utilitarian piece of furniture for the king and queen.

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2. Gala Dining Room: Made for a royal wedding back in 1879, now the venue for stunning state ceremonies and formal receptions. Entrancing with its fabulous Chinese vases in the window recesses and glorious chandeliers. An elaborate ceiling fresco depicting Christopher Columbus down on his knees, presenting exotic souvenirs to the royal couple, Ferdinand and Isabel. And the highlight…the glossy dining table, which can seat 140 people along its bowling-lane length. Two chairs, reserved for the king and queen, slightly higher than the rest…the first and second among equals.

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3. Private apartments: Pure extravagance is the word for the private apartments of the palace’s first resident, Charles III. The dressing room, the Gasparini Room, overflowing with mosaics and rococo stuccoes, art treasures and antiques, chandeliers, paintings and hand-embroidered wallpaper with real gold and silver embroidery climbing up the walls to the ceiling’s plaster-sculpture of a canopy. The small but gorgeous Porcelain Room, covered entirely in porcelain relief walls. And the collection of antique musical instruments by Antonio Stradivari including two violins, two cellos, and a viola (‘The Spanish Quartet’) valued at more than 100 million euros.

4. Armoury Room: Displays over 2000 pieces of weapons and armoury worn by the royal families since the 13th century. Life size statues in ceremonial armour taking you back to the centuries when knights wooed ladies with tournaments and macho contests. A rewind into yesterday…when the powerful reign of Spain was at the height of its glory. A lifestyle that is long gone, leaving behind stories as fresh and absorbing as ever. A fitting end to a palace trail.

If its a Wednesday, witness the Changing of the Guard. Then head for the wonderful green trails of the palace gardens, Campo del Moro, if you have the energy. Else, move on towards the square on the west. The European aura of the Plaza de Oriente is unmistakable…an imposing re-creation of Felipe IV on horseback and a Royal Theatre, flowerbeds packed with box hedges, cypress, yew and magnolia of small size, and rows of limestone statues of Spanish kings bounding the gardens.

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Madrid has the largest population of trees of any major European metropolitan city…large parks, small parks, pretty parks, majestic parks…lots of parks. People are resting, children playing. It is a sanctuary. The roads are relatively emptier now and smaller stores are closed…is the national siesta time a reality, you wonder. Plonk down on the grass for a brief shut-eye. Its tradition. When in Spain, do as the Spaniards do!

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My first impressions of the lovely French city of Lyon

Lyon, France’s second city, is my first choice…

Taking a train from Provence through the peaceful countryside into the bustling train station of Gare de Lyon Part Dieu can be a jolt of sorts. There’s a buzz in the country’s second-largest metropolitan area, home to over 1.6 million people…and you can feel it even as you hail a cab. At 7.30, people are already on the roads, driving to work, waiting at bus stops, opening their boulangeries and coffee shops. The laid back, relaxed atmosphere of Southern France is behind you…this is city life, busy and bustling…after all, you’re closer to Paris. Ready up to discover the country’s gastronomic capital.

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Dwell on the delights of beautiful Barri Gotic in Barcelona

Simple charms of Barcelona’s Barri Gòtic…

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In the quest for peace and pines at Palampur

Palampur makes an ideal, offbeat hill destination

It is a dream. You’re walking down a lovely, long mountain road, shady with a thick cover of graceful, tall pine trees rising from mysteriously plunging slopes. Even without touching the deep green leaves, you can sense their velvety softness. Again and again, you reach out to steal a fistful of the elusive mist, in vain. Its a gentle glide on undulating waves of serenity as the pines whisper sweet-nothings.

Melt dreams with reality. Choose Palampur, an offbeat hill destination in the Kangra valley, at the foothills of the majestic Dhauladhar mountain ranges. Its claim to fame is that its the only tea-producing region of North India. But more importantly, you’ll have it all to yourself.

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15 Turkish delights in Istanbul worth travelling for

Iconic symbols of Istanbul, beyond the mega sights…

Its a city straddling two continents. Its skyline of ancient mosques and pencil-thin minarets is a photographer’s dream. Its imperial history is the stuff dreams are made of. And it boasts of some of the most sought-after mega sights on the planet. But for me, the real magic of Istanbul lies in its everyday scenes, its people, its streets, its waters, its very air. Unveiling my list of favourite Turkish delights in Istanbul. Icons in their own right, one and all.

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An ode to the most eternal of Paris experiences (Part 2)

Classic experiences on the Right Bank of Paris…

Its the pulsing heart of art, culture and fashion, where the creme de la creme has lived for decades. The buzzing commercial center of the city, and home to a majority of big businesses and banks. Overflowing with grand boulevards, manicured gardens, symmetrical squares and majestic monuments. Also too many people and too many cars. How can anyone resist the sparkling vitality, exuberance and indomitable spirit of the Right Bank of Paris? Dive right in with these all-time favourite experiences…

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An ode to the most eternal of Paris experiences

Classic experiences on the Left Bank of Paris…

Roman-founded Lutetia Parisiorum (mud town of the Parisii or Celt settlers) to epitome of all things classy…the antithesis is complete. And how! The French capital of today is a symbol of urban sophisticate…larger-than-life grandeur laced with old-world charm. Illuminated by the pure glow of intellectual and artistic heritage. And wrapped in a timeless enigma. First visit or not, some eternal Paris experiences will never lose their appeal for the romantic at heart. So, flag-off with the Left Bank of the Seine…

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