Meandering through glorious buildings, exploring exquisite gardens and sleeping in regal comfort, Cathy Packe makes stately progress around Spain

ARE ALL SPAIN'S PALACES ROYAL?

ARE ALL SPAIN'S PALACES ROYAL?

Certainly many of the country's most impressive palaces were built for members of the royal family, but that would be a narrow definition of the term. A number of palaces, such as the one in Vic, near Barcelona, were built for archbishops. There are plenty of other buildings that qualify despite being designed as homes for members of the aristocracy, not royalty. A good example of this is the Palacio del Marques de Dos Aguas in Valencia, a fancy Baroque building on Calle Rinconada Garcia Sanchis (00 34 963 516 392; mnceramica.mcu.es), which now contains Spain's National Ceramics Museum. It opens 10am-2pm and 4-8pm daily except Sunday afternoons and Mondays, admission €2.40 (£1.75).

There are some outstanding palaces in the Montcada district of Barcelona, the most accessible of which are the five that now house the Picasso Museum at Carrer Montcada 15-23 (00 34 933 196 310; www.museupicasso.bcn.es). They are open 10am-8pm daily except Monday; entrance is €6 (£4.30). While most people visit the museum for the paintings, it is worth seeing for the buildings alone, all of which retain some of their original 13th-century elements. In other parts of Spain there are several palaces that were built by a ruling dynasty, but not necessarily by ancestors of the present royal family.

SUCH AS?

The Alhambra in Granada, a mixture of palace and fortress that was built in the 14th century by the Nasrids, the last Islamic dynasty to rule Spain. It is hard to imagine a more stunning building. It sits on a hill above the rest of the city, with the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains in the distance.

The hill was the site of a fortress, the Alcazaba, as far back as the 9th century, and this now forms the north-western end of the complex. Enclosed alongside it, within the walls of the Alhambra, are a number of gardens and palaces. The Nasrid Palace is built in Islamic style around two courtyards, while adjacent to it is the Palace of Emperor Charles V, a later addition in Renaissance style. Though the more modern palace is an exquisite building of its period, it is the Moorish structure, with its ornate carvings, pools and courtyards, that is the more impressive.

On Calle Real, outside the walls but within easy reach of the Alhambra, is the Generalife, a 14th-century summer palace that is surrounded by pleasant gardens, pools and shady terraces. Entrance to the Alhambra and Generalife is on Calle Real (00 34 958 227 525, www.alhambra-patronato.es), and the complex is open 8.30am-6pm daily, and 8pm-9.30pm Friday and Saturday. Tickets cost €10 (£7.15). You can book in advance on 00 34 91 537 91 78 or at www.alhambratickets.com.

WHERE ELSE CAN I SEE MOORISH AND CHRISTIAN ARCHITECTURE?

The Alhambra has a lot in common with the Alcazar in Seville, another Andalucian city that for a long time was dominated by the Moors. The Alcazar has its origins in the 12th century, but all that remains of the original structure built by the Almohads is one of the courtyards, the Patio de Yeso. The complex now includes two palaces that were added later - the Gothic Palace, which was built on top of the Almohad remains during the 13th century, and the Mudejar Palace, built in a combination of Moorish and Christian styles a century later. This is the oldest royal palace in Europe still in use; the king and other members of the royal family stay here when they are visiting this part of Spain. Until the end of March the Alcazar (00 34 954 502 324; www.patronato-alcazarsevilla.es) is open 9.30am-6pm from Tuesday to Saturday, and 9.30am-4.30pm on Sundays. During the summer, it opens until 8pm from Tuesday to Saturday, and until 6pm on Sundays. Entrance costs €5 (£3.60).

WHERE IS THE KING'S MAIN HOME?

King Juan Carlos and his wife live in the palace of La Zarzuela on the north-eastern edge of Madrid. It was built during the 17th century by King Philip IV as a hunting lodge, but the expansion of the city means that it is not the rural retreat it once was. La Zarzuela was seriously damaged during the Spanish Civil War and was subsequently redesigned to meet the needs of King Juan Carlos, but the original room layout remains.

The king receives some visitors here, but most official entertaining is done in the Royal Palace, or Palacio Real, on Calle Bailen near the Plaza Mayor. Unlike La Zarzuela, which remains a private home, the Royal Palace (00 34 914 548 800; www.casareal.es) is open to tourists from 9.30am-5pm Monday to Saturday (9am-6pm from April to September) and 9am-2pm on Sundays (until 3pm in summer). Opening hours can change when there is an official reception taking place. Entrance to the palace, the pharmacy and the armoury costs €8 (£5.75). Built after the existing palace burnt down in 1734, it was the official residence of the Spanish royal family until the fall of the monarchy in 1931. The rooms accessible to the public include the throne room, the banqueting hall and two music rooms, all elaborately decorated and furnished.

IS THIS THE OLDEST ROYAL HOME?

No. When Philip II became king in 1556 he decided to choose a new capital. He selected Madrid - the geographical centre of the country - and commissioned the building of the Monastery of San Lorenzo el Real. Part monastery and part palace, El Escorial, as it is usually known, is 30 miles outside Madrid in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama; trains depart from Atocha station in Madrid to the small town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. The palace (00 34 91 890 59 02; www.patrimonionacional.es/en) opens 10am-5pm from Tuesday to Sunday, until 6pm in summer, and entrance costs €7 (£5). The decor, as befits the function of the building, is a mixture of the austere and the grandiose. King Philip II and his Habsburg descendants enjoyed El Escorial and lived here in considerable comfort, although their apartments, built around the church, were modest when compared with those later occupied by their Bourbon successors. These rooms are hung with tapestries made at the Royal Tapestry Factory at Calle Fuenterrabia 2 (00 34 91 434 0550; www.realfabricadetapices.com). It is open to visitors 10am-2pm from Monday to Friday, admission €2.50 (£1.80).

Generations of royals are buried in an ornate pantheon across the courtyard from the state apartments. And near the main palace complex are two mini-palaces, described in Spanish as casitas, or little houses, which hardly does justice to their design or furnishings. The Casita del Principe and Casita del Infante were built for the sons of Charles III in the 18th century, and can be visited on a guided tour. Although Charles III and the other Bourbon kings used El Escorial from time to time, they are said to have preferred the other palaces around Madrid.

WHICH ONES?

They were particularly keen on Aranjuez, 30 miles south of the capital, a place perennially popular with the royals whatever their dynasty. It was built in the 14th century, enlarged by Emperor Charles V and again by his son, and made grander still in the 18th century by the Bourbons, who used it as one of their main residences. It burned down a couple of times but was restored and added to. One of the most charming additions is the Casa del Labrador, ("Builder's House") which, despite its name, would have been well beyond the means of the average labourer. The Palace of Aranjuez (00 34 91 891 1344; www.patrimonionacional.es) is open 10am-5.15pm daily except Monday, until 6.15pm in summer, admission €4.50 (£3.25); it costs an extra €5 (£3.60) to visit the Casa del Labrador.

Aranjuez is easy to reach by train from Atocha station, which is also the starting point for a trip to the Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso in nearby Segovia. The indulgent La Granja with its impressive gardens was built by Philip V (grandson of Louis XIV of France) to remind him of Versailles, where he spent his childhood. La Granja (00 34 921 470 019; www.patrimonionacional.es) opens 10am-1.30pm and 3-5pm from Tuesday-Saturday, 10am-2pm on Sundays, and in summer 10am-6pm from Tuesday to Sunday; admission €5 (£3.60).

I'D LIKE TO LIVE IN A PALACE

Assuming you have no plans to marry a king, the easiest way to take up residence in palatial surroundings is to book into one of a number of palaces that have been turned into hotels. Most of these are paradors (020-7616 0300; www.paradores-spain.com or www.keytel.co.uk), a collection of high-quality hotels, many in historic buildings, that offer excellent service and meals that are typical of the local region. It would be hard to find any hotel in a better location than the parador in Granada, which is inside the grounds of the Alhambra. As a result it is the most popular of all the paradors, and you will need to book months in advance. Rooms start at €262 (£187), without breakfast. Other palace paradors include those in Avila, where the hotel backs on to the city walls; Caceres, a town in the Extremadura region that has been designated a World Heritage Site; and Zamora, where the hotel is in a Renaissance palace built on the site of a Moorish fortress. Some paradors have religious antecedents: in Ubeda the building was formerly the home of the Dean of Malaga; while in Siguenza, a 12th-century Moorish palace was captured by El Cid and converted into the bishop's palace before it became a hotel in the 1970s.

ARE THERE ANY PALACES WITH REAL BISHOPS IN?

Yes, and you can visit some. Among the most impressive is the one in Santiago de Compostela, next door to the magnificent cathedral that is at the end of the pilgrims' route into the city. Known as the Palacio Gelmirez, and now part of the Cathedral Museum (00 34 981 560527; www.santiagoturismo.com), it contains several rooms that are open to the public, including the magnificent Synod Hall. The palace is open 10am-1.30pm and 4-6pm from Monday to Saturday and 10am-1.30pm on Sundays in winter; 10am-2pm and 4-7.30pm from Monday to Saturday and 10am-2pm on Sundays in summer; admission €5 (£3.60). Meanwhile, in Tortosa, not far from the Mediterranean coast between Barcelona and Valencia, is an interesting Gothic chapel in the bishop's palace (00 34 977 44 07 00).

WHERE DOES THE KING GO FOR HIS HOLIDAYS?

Like many European holidaymakers King Juan Carlos heads for Mallorca - although, unlike the rest of us, he has the use of a classy residence in the heart of Palma. The Royal Palace of la Almudaina (00 34 971 21 41 34; www.patrimonionacional.es) was built originally by the Moors as a fortress; the kings of Mallorca converted it into a palace during the 14th and 15th centuries. It is now one of the present king's official residences. La Almudaina opens 10am-1.15pm, and 4-5.15pm from Monday to Friday year-round; Saturday opening times are 10am-1.15pm in winter, 10am-5.45pm in summer. Entrance costs €3.20 (£2.30).

HOW DO I GET THERE?

The biggest scheduled operator that flies to Palma de Mallorca is easyJet (0871 244 2366, www.easyjet.com). The airline runs services from Bristol, Gatwick, Liverpool, Luton, Newcastle and Stansted, and - from 2 July - Belfast. Fares start at around £50 return. Many other scheduled and charter airlines, such as BMI (0870 6070 555; www.flybmi.com), also fly to the island. To reach Granada, Ryanair (0871 246 0000, www.ryanair.com) has just launched daily flights from Stansted to Granada, and on 26 April will also fly to the city from Liverpool. On 25 February it will begin flying daily to Seville from Stansted, in competition with British Airways (0870 850 9850, www.ba.com) and Spain's national carrier, Iberia (0845 850 9000; www.iberia.com).

A HOME FIT FOR A DICTATOR

The Palace of El Pardo in Calle Manuel Alonso, on the northern outskirts of Madrid, was built by Philip III in the 16th century after the original, used by his father as a summer retreat and hunting lodge, had burned down. It was remodelled over time to suit the needs of various generations of royals, but in 1939, after the end of the civil war, it was taken over by General Franco, who used it as his main residence for the next 35 years. Now returned to the royal family, it is used by official guests when they are visiting Madrid. When no one is staying, it opens to the public 10.30am-5pm from Monday to Saturday, until 6pm in summer, and 10am-1.40pm on Sundays, from 9.30am in summer (fax 00 34 913 761 585); admission €5 (£3.60). Inside is a collection of tapestries, many of them based on the cartoons of Goya. El Pardo is still surrounded by the oak forest in which the royal family used to hunt.

A NEW WORLD PALACE

The Palacio del Almirante, or Palace of the Admiral, at Cuesta del Almirante 153 in Cuzco, Peru (00 51 84 23 7380), was built soon after the conquistadores arrived, and is one of the most impressive colonial buildings in the city. It takes its name from Admiral Francisco Alderete Maldonado, who lived in the house for a number of years until his death in 1643. It then became home to the archbishop and the viceroy of Peru, was briefly Government House and is now part of the national university and home of the Inca Museum. It contains a collection of ceramics and other artefacts, and opens 8am-5pm from Monday to Friday, and 9am-5pm on Saturdays. Admission 10 soles (£1.60).

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