The Palacio Real feels a lot like Buckingham Palace: stately, restrained, and lacking in spice.
But the earth has a great deal of pedigree. For many centuries, the Royal Alcázar of Madrid stood on this ground, a Moorish palace that became a royal residence. It held countless treasures from the Spanish empire.
On Christmas Eve, A.D. 1734, a fire broke out in the rooms of the Court artist, Jean Ranc. The alarm was raised at 15 minutes past midnight, but many people confused it with the festive bells for matins. To prevent looting, the doors of the Alcázar were also initially kept closed.
The result was a disaster. Paintings that were fixed to the walls, including La Expulsión de los Moriscos by Velázquez, went up in flames. Silver was reduced to molten metal. Jewels, cash, and other artwork—including Las Meninas—were hurled from the windows.
After four days, the Alcázar was a pile of smoking rubble and in need of an upgrade.
The palace that you see here was built between A.D. 1738 and 1755, and first inhabited by Charles III, the cheerful “Mayor King.” One of the best reasons to take the tour—despite the feeling of being corralled like a sheep—is to see Charles III’s private apartments.
To get a sense of the forgotten world, have a look at the Museo del Prado’s painting of Charles III Dining Before the Court by Luis Paret.