IN leaving Madrid by the southern route, you traverse an uninhabited country that recalls the poorest provinces of Aragon and old Castile, just as happened on your arrival by the northern. These are vast, yellowish, and dried-up plains; you would say that if you beat upon it, the earth would resound like an empty box, or crumble away like the crust of a burnt tart; occasionally you see miserable villages, of the same colour as the land, which look as if they would ignite like a heap of dry leaves, if any one were to bring a match to the roof of one of the houses. After an hour's travel, my shoulder sought the side of the carriage, my elbow a leaning-place, and I fell into a profound sleep, like a member of Leopardi's Ateneo d'Ascoltazione.
I looked around me: the vast deserted plain was transformed as if by enchantment into an immense garden full of delightful groves, crossed in every direction by great avenues, dotted with little country houses and rustic cabins covered with vines; and, here and there were tossing fountains, shady nooks, flowery meadows, vineyards, little footpaths, and a greenness, a freshness, an odour of spring, a breath of joy and delight that wafted your soul to paradise. We had arrived at Aranjuez. I left the train, threaded my way down a beautiful avenue shaded by two rows of gigantic trees, and in an instant found myself opposite the royal palace.
Castelar, the minister, wrote recently in his memorandum that the fall of the ancient Spanish monarchy was foreseen on the day that a herd of populace with abuse on their lips and anger in their hearts, invaded the palace of Aranjuez to disturb the tranquil majesty of its sovereigns. I was precisely on that spot, where, on March 17, 1808, occurred the events that formed the prologue to the national war and the first word of the sentence, as it were, that condemned the ancient monarchy to death. I immediately looked for the windows of the apartment of the Prince of Peace; I pictured him, fleeing from hall to hall, pale and dishevelled, hunting for a hiding-place, amidst the echoing cries of the multitude that mounted the stairway; I saw poor Charles IV. place the crown on the head of the Prince of the Asturias with trembling hands; all the scenes of that terrible drama passed before my eyes; and the deep silence of this place and the sight of that shut and abandoned palace chilled me to the heart.
The palace is built like a castle; it is of brick with corners of white marble, and covered with a slate roof. Every one knows that Philip II. had it built by the celebrated architect Herrera, and that nearly all his successors embellished it, and lived there during the summer season. I entered: the Interior is splendid; there is a resplendent hall for the reception of ambassadors, a beautiful Chinese cabinet of Charles III., a superb dressing-room of Isabella II., and a profusion of precious ornaments. But all the riches of the palace are not worth the view of the gardens. Expectations are not deceived. The gardens of Aranjuez (Aranjuez is the name of the little town situate a short distance from the palace) seem to have been laid out for the family of Titan Kings, to whom the parks and gardens of our Kings would have appeared like terrace parterres and sheep-folds.
Avenues, extending as far as the eye can reach and bordered by trees of an inordinate height uniting their branches and leaning towards us as if bent by two contrary winds, in every direction cross a forest the boundaries of which one cannot see; and through this forest the wide and rapid Tagus describes a majestic curve, forming here and there cascades and basins; a luxuriant and flourishing vegetation abounds amid a labyrinth of little avenues and cross-roads; everywhere is seen the whiteness of statues, fountains, columns and high jets of water that fall in sheets and rain and spray on all the flowers known to Europe and America; and to the majestic sound of the cascade of the Tagus is joined the song of innumerable nightingales that pour their trills into the mysterious shade of the lonely paths. Beyond the gardens, rises a little marble palace, modest in appearance, which contains all the marvels of the most magnificent royal residence, and where one still breathes the atmosphere of the life of the Kings of Spain. Here are the little secret chambers the ceilings of which may be touched by the hand, the billiard-room of Charles IV., cushions embroidered by the hands of queens, musical clocks that amused the idle children, little stairways, tiny windows that preserve a hundred little traditions of the caprice of princes: and, finally, the richest toilet-room in Europe, due to a whim of Charles IV., and which contains in itself so much wealth that one could draw enough from it to build a palace, without depriving it of the noble preeminence it boasts above all rooms appropriated to the same use.
Beyond this palace, and around the woodlands, extend vineyards, olive-trees, plantations of fruit-trees and smiling meadows. It is a veritable oasis surrounded by a desert which Philip II. chose in a day of good humour, as if to alleviate the black melancholy of the Escurial with a gay picture. On returning from the little marble palace to the great palace of the Escurial down these long avenues, beneath the shade of these large trees, in this profound peace of the forest, I thought of the splendid pageants of ladies and cavaliers that formerly followed the steps of the gay young monarchs and capricious and unrestrained queens to the sound of love-songs and hymns, celebrating the grandeur and the glory of unvanquished Spain, and I repeated sadly with the poet of Recanati:
" . . . All is peace and silence.
And one speaks no longer of them. ..."
Aranjuez by Edmondo de Amicis. Note: From original text; may contain OCR errors.