Dominated by the imposing Palacio Real and the elegant Plaza de Oriente, Ópera is one of the most pleasant and relaxed barrios in the city. The area contains the lavishly restored Teatro Real, the tranquil gardens of the Campo del Moro and the city cathedral, while the two unobtrusive monastery complexes of La Encarnación and Las Descalzas Reales conceal an astounding array of treasures.
A couple of blocks north of San Ginés is one of the hidden treasures of Madrid, the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales. It was founded in 1557 by Juana de Austria, daughter of the Emperor Carlos V, sister of Felipe II, and, at the age of 19, already the widow of Prince Don Juan of Portugal. In her wake came a succession of titled ladies (Descalzas Reales means “Barefoot Royals”), who brought fame and, above all, fortune to the convent, which is unbelievably rich, though beautiful and tranquil, too. It is still in use, with shoeless nuns tending patches of vegetable garden.
Whistle-stop guided tours conduct visitors through the cloisters and up an incredibly elaborate stairway to a series of chambers packed with art and treasures of every kind. The former dormitories are perhaps the most outstanding feature, decorated with a series of Flemish tapestries based on designs by Rubens and a striking portrait of St Francis by Zurbarán. These were the sleeping quarters for all the nuns, including St Teresa of Ávila for a time, although the empress María of Germany preferred a little more privacy and endowed the convent with her own luxurious private chambers. The other highlight of the tour is the Joyería (Treasury), piled high with jewels and relics of uncertain provenance. The nuns kept no records of their gifts, so no one is quite sure what many of the things are – there is a bizarre cross-sectional model of Christ – nor which bones came from which saint. Whatever the case, it’s an exceptional hoard.
The Palacio Real, or Royal Palace, scores high on statistics. It claims more rooms than any other European palace; a library with one of the biggest collections of books, manuscripts, maps and musical scores in the world; and an armoury with an unrivalled assortment of weapons dating back to the fifteenth century. If you’re around on the first Wednesday of the month (except July & Aug) between 11am and 2pm, look out for the changing of the guard outside the palace, a tradition that has recently been revived.
Guided tours in various languages are available, but a more relaxing option is to hire an audio-guide (€4) and make your own way through the luxurious royal apartments, the Royal Armoury Museum and the Royal Pharmacy. This will give you more time to appreciate the extraordinary opulence: acres of Flemish and Spanish tapestries, endless Rococo decoration, bejewelled clocks, and pompous portraits of the monarchs.
The palace also houses an impressive exhibition space, the Galería de Pinturas, which displays work by Velázquez, Caravaggio and Goya, among others, and also hosts temporary exhibitions.
The Habsburgs’ original palace burnt down on Christmas Day, 1734. Its replacement, the current building, was based on drawings made by Bernini for the Louvre. It was constructed in the mid-eighteenth century and was the principal royal residence from then until Alfonso XIII went into exile in 1931; both Joseph Bonaparte and the Duke of Wellington also lived here briefly. The present royal family inhabits a considerably more modest residence on the western outskirts of the city, using the Palacio Real on state occasions only.
The Salón del Trono (Throne Room) is the highlight for most visitors, containing the thrones installed for Juan Carlos and Sofía, the current monarchs, as well as the splendid ceiling by Tiepolo, a giant fresco representing the glory of Spain – an extraordinary achievement for an artist by then in his seventies. Look out, too, for the marvellous Sala de Porcelana (Porcelain Room) and the incredible oriental-style Salón de Gasparini.
The palace outbuildings and annexes include the recently refurbished Armería Real, a huge room full of guns, swords and armour, with such curiosities as the suit of armour worn by Carlos V in his equestrian portrait by Titian in the Prado. Especially fascinating are the complete sets of armour, with all the original spare parts and gadgets for making adjustments. There is also an eighteenth-century Farmacia, a curious mixture of alchemist’s den and laboratory, whose walls are lined with jars labelled for various remedies. The Biblioteca Real (Royal Library) can now only be visited by prior arrangement for research purposes.
Immediately north of the palace, the Jardines de Sabatini provide a shady retreat and venue for summer concerts, while to the rear the larger, and far more beautiful, Campo del Moro (access only from the far west side, off the Paseo de la Virgen del Puerto) is an English-style garden with shady paths, monumental fountains and a splendid view of the western facade of the palace.