3 sumptuous palaces to explore on your vacation in Spain

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One of the most important cultural events in Madrid in recent years was the public inauguration, just before the pandemic, of a collection that had been kept for about 200 years behind the closed doors of a private palace.

The Liria Palace, the grand 18th-century home of the Alba family, one of the oldest and most famous aristocratic families in Spain (and Europe), is located in a quiet garden just steps from the bustling Plaza de España in the Madrid center. Often compared to the Prado Museum and the Royal Palace of Madrid for the masterpieces it contains and the noble residents who lived there, the house is filled with works by Titian, Rubens, Velázquez, Goya and other artists favored by the Spanish court. . There are also vast literary and historical archives, as well as letters written from America by the explorers Columbus, Pizarro and Cortés.

Since assuming the title in 2014, the 19th (and current) Duke, Carlos Fitz-James Stuart, through the Casa de Alba Foundation, decided to share his family's treasures with the world, an effort that began in 2015 with the opening of other unique family properties such as the Palacio de las Dueñas in Seville and the Palacio de Monterrey in Salamanca. Below is a tour of those three sumptuous palaces, along with a stop in the small town of Alba de Tormes.

The Duchy of Alba, created in 1472 when King Henry IV of Castile elevated Don García Álvarez de Toledo from count to duke, takes its name from an ancient family seat in Alba de Tormes, near Salamanca. Over the centuries, the dukes and duchesses of Alba have distinguished themselves in various ways. In the 16th century, the third duke, sometimes called the Iron Duke, was known for his military campaigns in the Eighty Years' War. In the 18th century, the 13th Duchess deceived the painter Goya, who portrayed her several times.

Along the way, the Alba lineage became deeply intertwined with the lineages of other noble families. Titles were accumulated. The 18th Duchess of Alba, whose name was María de Rosario Cayetana Paloma Alfonsa Victoria Eugenia Fernanda Teresa Francisca de Paula Lourdes Antonia Josefa Fausta Rita Castor Dorotea Santa Esperanza Fitz-James Stuart y Silva, Falcó and Gurtubay, had more noble titles (more than 40 ) than the names. Doña Cayetana, as she was called, was the most titled aristocrat in the world and, until her death in 2014, kept Alba's name in the public eye, mainly by doing and dressing exactly as she liked, sometimes scandalizing a public that adored

Until now, her eldest son, the current duke, has kept a lower profile and that is why the three palaces he has opened retain the imprint of his mother's passion for displaying family photographs and small precious objects, enhancing the feeling of home versus museum.

Shielded from the street by towering cedars and ancient magnolias, the clear baroque façade with lily columns can only be glimpsed when one is inside the garden. Designed primarily by architect Ventura Rodríguez in the late 18th century and largely rebuilt in the 20th century, according to plans by British architectural heavyweight Edwin Lutyens, the Liria Palace is the grandest house in Alba and remains the The duke's main residence, with family cars in the driveway and dogs frolicking on the lawn.

For 15 euros, or about $16.40, visitors get a 65-minute listening tour of 14 glorious rooms, including the library, which houses, among other treasures, the oldest Bible in Spanish, a second edition of the “Don Don Quixote” by Cervantes and nearly half of Columbus’ extant correspondence, including his hand-drawn maps of Hispaniola during his 1492 voyage.

Beneath a luminous dome, the main staircase leads to a gallery with portraits highlighting family links to Britain's Stuart monarchs. A row of connected rooms reveals in surprising succession the rich history of the Alba family illustrated through a splendid art collection.

There is a Flemish room, with works by Rubens, Jan Brueghel the Elder and Jacob van Ruisdael, and a portrait of the third duke by Anthonis Mor, all illuminated by a Meissen chandelier from which hang hanging clusters of colored porcelain flowers dark purple. The Italian Room stars Perugino, Palma Vecchio, Tiziano, Luca Giordano, Guercino and Andrea del Sarto under an equally impressive Murano chandelier. The Spanish Room has works by Velázquez, Zurbarán and Ribera, and the Goya Room has several works by the artist, including his portrait of the 13th Duchess of Alba, his friend and muse, perhaps the most famous work in the collection. .

The Monterrey Palace, from the 16th century (9.50 euros for a 50-minute audio guide) illustrates the vicissitudes that many noble homes experienced. Its imposing façade suggests a splendid family home, although a fraction of the size it was intended to be, as financial constraints meant that only one wing was built. Marriage introduced him into the Alba family around 1700.

While not as grand as expected, the façade is among the finest examples of the Spanish Plateresque architectural style, with its carved floral and figurative motifs animating the towers, cornices, windows and entrance.

The palace was used as a school in the 19th century and then abandoned until the interior was restored in the 1940s and 1950s by the 18th Duchess of Alba and her father. It is now the coziest and simplest of the three houses, although it has a bedroom that was used by former King Juan Carlos I, a family friend, when he was a teenager.

Among the most charming details is a mid-20th-century bathroom lined with 18th-century blue and white tiles, as well as a small study with William Morris wallpaper and Art Nouveau furniture. Doña Cayetana herself created the dried flower arrangements that adorn the walls of the dining room.

Aristocratic DIY projects aside, there are museum-quality works in virtually every room, including 17th-century Flemish tapestries and a pair of paintings found in a basement labeled “Italian school” that turned out to be the only two known landscapes of the Spanish baroque. teacher José de Ribera.

Little remains of the once splendid 16th-century Renaissance palace in Alba de Tormes, where operas and plays were premiered for the third duke and his guests, including King Ferdinand II of Aragon.

Nowadays you can only visit a tower with some frescoes (entrance, 3 euros). A climb to the top offers panoramic views of the gentle Castilian plains and the wide, slow meander of the Tormes River, suggesting what life may have been like in 1582, when Saint Teresa of Ávila, the Carmelite nun, mystic and philosopher, was summoned by the third duchess to bless the birth of her son. Heeding the call of the duchess despite being ill, Saint Teresa died shortly after her arrival and was buried in Alba de Tormes. The fathers of the Ávila Church insisted that she be buried in her hometown and her body was returned.

However, at the request of a later Duchess of Alba, a papal decree was granted to return the saint to Alba de Tormes, where her body, or what remains of it, remains. At each transfer of her corpse, multiple parts of her body were taken to satisfy the then-burgeoning market for saints' relics. His fingers, arms, heart and part of her jaw are enshrined in remote churches. Her tomb in Alba de Tormes attracts thousands of faithful visitors each year and requires five different keys to open it, one of which is the property of the Duke of Alba; another is preserved in the Vatican.

The bougainvillea façade of the Palacio de las Dueñas (entrance, €12) is a jaw-dropping expanse of brightly colored papery violet flowers clinging to the guest wing, and with more than 30 rooms, it adds up to a lot of purple. A year after its opening in 2015, Dueñas became one of the five most visited sites in Seville.

Built between the 15th and 16th centuries in Renaissance style, it presents Gothic and, especially, Arab influences, especially the concept that houses should look like fortresses on the outside and paradisiacal on the inside. The palace's design includes 11 courtyards and gardens and nine fountains, including two tiled ones that have been gurgling for almost 500 years. Inside there are works by 16th century artists such as Sofonisba Anguissola and Jacopo Bassano.

The Alba family acquired the house in 1612, when the previous owner needed ransom money to rescue a relative who had been kidnapped and taken to North Africa. Dueñas was the favorite home of the 18th Duchess, where, well into her eighth year, she danced flamenco every morning for exercise. There's even a flamenco-inspired room filled with her dresses, as well as bullfighting memorabilia and other Andalusian relics. The poet Antonio Machado was born in the house when his father was administrator of the estate, and he evokes its beauty in several poems.

Beyond the lush, jasmine-scented gardens, the walls and archways are lined with acres of tile mosaics and stucco. There are tapestries hung over the tiles and paintings hung over the tapestries, adding to the sense of splendor.

There, in the green and balmy embrace of Dueñas, it is easy to turn a little green with envy.


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