Story and photography by Sharon King Hoge
Touring Madrid with the American Friends of Versailles
A private guide is leading us through the Bourbon rooms of El Escorial outside Madrid. Totally lined with extraordinary tapestries woven in the 18th century from designs by Goya, their vivid colors and charming scenes are astonishingly well preserved. Customarily, these rooms are not open to the public, but because they were created by Bourbon kings of Spain a group of the American Friends of Versailles have been granted special access.
We owe our visit to the French Bourbon Queen Marie Antoinette, or, to be specific -- to her ceiling. Back at Versailles, the painted dome over the room that housed the guards in her suite of apartments is disintegrating badly. Hundreds of pieces of "tape" are holding fragments of paint on its canvas until it can be restored. Indirectly that is our mission. Our benefit "Voyage Fantastique" trip to Madrid is raising the funds necessary to preserve this important painting. For a fee that included substantial contributions to the Guard Room restoration, about two dozen AFV patrons, from Chicago, Texas, New York, Ohio and Florida, including AFV founder Catharine Hamilton and her husband David, spent four days visiting museums and exhibits and being entertained by Spanish aristocrats and nobles.
Escorted throughout by Her Royal Highness Princesse Beatrice de Bourbon-Siciles and the ebullient Prince Charles-Philippe Marie Louis of Orleans, Duke of Anjou, who organized the events, we started at the city's historic Ritz Hotel where we were staying. The French doors of my balcony overlooked the Prado Museum, and the morning after the elegant "launch" meal where we introduced ourselves to each other, we crossed the street to the museum. A Curator of the Prado welcomed us and turned us over to a guide who showed us through the rooms hung with the works of Velasquez, Bosch and El Greco, among other celebrated painters.
After a lunch of creamy shrimp and squid on the Ritz Terrace, we boarded our coach to the Royal Palace. There we visited the private rooms where ambassadors and foreign dignitaries are normally greeted. From there our guide led us to highlights of the extensive new Thyssen Bornemisza Museum, from which we walked back to the Ritz to dress for dinner at the exclusive Casino de Madrid, a private club. Chef Paco Roncero, who worked with legendary Chef Ferran Adria at the Costa Brava's famed elBulli, prepared for us an amazing meal of mini-dishes including guacamole with toasted corn, black olive and cream cheese Oreo, frozen gazpacho rock, salmon marinated in miso with deconstructed tartar sauce, fake calamari risotto with green curry, and a sweet charcoal dessert that looked like an ashy burnt log.
Boarding our coach the next morning we drove to visit rooms of the Royal Palace at Aranjuez with a stop at the Casa del Laborador, a little 18th century jewel of a hunting lodge which is only infrequently open to public view. We were surprised looking at a room lined with silk embroidered landscape scenes and admired a red velvet throne of a commode.
Proceeding on to Toledo we were greeted by the Duque and Duchess of Tarifa who had flown in from Marbella to host an extravagant luncheon at the Tavera Palace, which has been in the family since it was built. After cocktails on the balcony, we went down to the library of archives where a long table with 18 seats on each side was set with flowers and crystal. The seated lunch concluded with a goblet of creamy cheese, honey, raspberries, ice cream and yogurt -- possibly the most amazing dessert I've ever tasted.
After strolling through the narrow medieval streets of Toledo we drove back to Madrid, just in time to switch to casual dress for dinner at Casa Lucio, a favorite of the Spanish kings and queens. At two round tables we shared appetizers, the omnipresent Serrano ham, French fried potatoes mixed in with soft boiled eggs, and then ordered delicious grilled sole followed by three versions of flan and rice pudding for dessert. Before stepping out into the crowded streets we stopped to take photos with the "celebrity" owner who came out to meet us.
Sunday we drove up north to visit the monastery/palace El Escorial followed by an amazing outdoor luncheon cozily hosted by Piru Ferandez and her family at Los Molinillos, their private country estate furnished with an historical array of artifacts, boots and bonnets, and taxidermy animals.
Back in Madrid that evening, we walked from the Ritz to the home of antique and art expert Perez Hernando where we supped on hors d'oeuvres while admiring the significant paintings.
Shopping was optional Monday morning. Others of the group toured the extraordinary collection at the Lazaro Galdiano House Museum and then sipped sherry at the gallery run by Mrs. Hernando who had invited the group the night before.
A descendant of the Admiral who won the Battle of Lepanto, Alvaro Fernandez Villaverde & Queta Bosch, Marquises of Santa Cruz entertained us at a seated lunch followed by a tour of his collection of artifacts and gigantic carved ship lanterns. From there we strolled to the exceptional city residence of the Duchess of Alba, the Palace of Liria, set within a spacious garden right in the middle of town. Although the Duchess wasn't home, we were shown through the rooms where she lives, a sumptuous suite of spaces as luxurious as the apartments in Versailles.
In contrast that evening, we visited a contemporary mansion. One of Spain's most wealthy individuals, Mrs. Alicia Koplowitz, Marchioness of Bellavista y del Real Socorro has a collection spanning centuries. Arriving just before sunset we wandered through the gardens, past Anish Kapoor and Richard Serra installations to a pavilion exhibiting sculptures by Calder, Artschwager, and Miro. Sipping cocktails in the house we admired her contrasting portraits of women painted by Goya, Picasso, Toulouse Latrec, Lucian Freud.
The next morning most of the group proceeded to Seville for a similar tour of that city. For those interested in cultural travel that provides access to unique sites while fostering Franco-American friendship and historic preservation, the American Friends of Versailles may be organizing future visits to Portugal, St. Petersburg, northern Spain, and Italy.
Link to the American Friends of Versailles www.americanfriendsofversailles.org/contact.html
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