I am standing in front of the Palacio Real, one of Spain’s greatest national treasures, and I am being interrogated by an incredulous security guard, who thinks I must be either an imbecile, or a terrorist, or both. I emerged only seconds ago (along with Lora) from behind the palace while slipping through a crack in a security gate marked “Authorized Personnel Only”, and I am trying to boldly saunter past his post right under his nose, like I know some kind of cheap Jedi mind trick….except I don’t, and I perceive this because he immediately accosts us, and because I know, from long, painful experience, that the Force is rarely, if ever, with me. I am now standing as gape-mouthed as a guppy in front of him, sweat stinging my eyes, and wondering if I will spend the rest of my vacation in a Spanish prison learning how to dance the Flamenco for my new boyfriend, Raul, when a brilliant idea occurs to me-that I can plead ignorance. Of course, granted, I am an imbecile, but I think I have an Ace in the hole-that I am an American also, and, as such, determine that I can reasonably sell the guard on the fact that I don’t understand a word he’s saying to me unless it is in excellent English.
“What are you doing? You are forbidden here!”, says the guard in Spanish.
“Nosotros perdido”-We lost, I respond, in perfectly unacceptable Spanish. Lora is with me, and she remains wisely silent, since her Russian accent, together with our minor episode of breaking and entering, might cause the authorities to suspect that, while we may not be terrorists, we could be KGB spies, albeit of the bumbling Boris and Natasha sort.
“Americano”, I explain helpfully, but I think he knows this just from looking at me, dressed as I am in Florida casual clothing, which is to say, flip fops aren’t just for church anymore.
After a few more equally unhelpful exchanges, which include him eventually rolling his eyes, he tells us to wait where we are while he contacts a superior, who shows up in the form of a hot brunette babe (Lora believes to this day that the Spanish use Face Control to hire their policia), and she, unfortunately, knows exactly what we did, which was to stroll through the sprawling Sabatini Gardens until encountering a pathway marked “NO ENTRY” in two languages, which we promptly ignored, both because I was too stubborn to admit that I should have approached from the front of the building like all of the other tourists and because it would be just what they’d be thinking we’d do. No, that was too easy, so we continued around to the rear of the palace, ignoring all of the other signs until we arrived at our current location. In other words, we had broken into the palace grounds on one end and were simply trying to break out on the other side.
There had been two brief moments when I thought it might be better to simply retrace our steps.
One was when we surprised a group of Chinese tourists who had actually paid (Yes! Some do!) to get into the attraction. They were standing on the western terrace above us taking pictures as we made our approach from below on the Forbidden Steps like sappers approaching a target. The curious looks they gave us were priceless. I could see that the only barrier to our entry was another tiny security fence that I figured I could hurdle easily and quickly using my cat-like reflexes, but Lora reminded me of the fact that my knee can set off the metal alarm at the airport, that I’d spent most of our trip in a brace, that my bumbling coordination was legendary, and that she was wearing an expensive Italian designer outfit that, if damaged, would be irreplaceable using my non-existent salary.
The other time was when we saw the guard before he saw us. He was sitting in his truck, and we knew we had only one way past him-through the gap in the security gate about 20 feet away. We peered at him from around the back corner of the palace as we pondered our position. By then, we’d been walking (mostly uphill) for about an hour in 90 degree heat, and we were determined to simply roll the dice, come what may. Of what steel courage are legends born.
Or maybe not.
But since you’re reading this, you know that eventually the guards let us pass. Honestly, from their reaction, I don’t think it had ever happened before, and they didn’t know how to handle it. Or perhaps, they didn’t want to admit to their superiors that their airtight security could be breached by two lost tourists. In any event, the hot officer just walked off, leaving the guard to tell us to please, just PLEASE go, immediately if not sooner, especially after Lora kept asking him where the bathroom was in Russian-accented Spanish, which is to say, in utter gibberish.
But I am happy to say that the trip was worth it. The palace is certainly the highlight (along with the Prado) of any trip to Madrid. It is a baroque (18th century) masterpiece, the largest in Europe, and is extremely well preserved, though the royal family hasn’t lived there for nearly a hundred years. The highlights of the visit for me are the royal armory, which contains the full suit of armor that Charles V used in battle to defeat the Protestants at Muhlberg (also featured in a famous Titian painting in the Prado), the stunning black and gold chapel and its tall cupola, and the grand staircase, which is the only place within the palace that you can take pictures. It is worth seeing for the artwork alone…or the furniture…or even the wall coverings. Rich beyond imagining, really, but it was hard to keep up with the Joneses, or even your own family, after all, when they were living in Versailles.
That Spain still has a royal family is itself, of course, an anomaly in today’s egalitarian climate. I won’t bore you with all the details, but suffice it to say that today’s royal family can be traced all the way back to the kingdoms of Castile and Aragon, though of course, in typical royal fashion, intermarriage has created a complex national bloodline that includes Greek and Austrian blood as well. It’s a long story, but today, the current figureheads (they have no real political power) are actually French (from the Bourbons).
You can see the portrait of the royal family in the magnificent palace, and they’re a good looking group, which I’m sure helps contribute to their enormous popularity. The current king, Felipe VI, is a tall (6’5”) naval pilot married to a former infobabe for CNN.
People often ask, when speaking of kings and queens, what good they do. Why are they necessary? The short answer is, of course, that they aren’t, but a more nuanced answer would be, they are no more necessary than the great display of ostentation and power that is represented by the magnificent parade they hold on these same royal grounds every month, and yet…I’m VERY glad that Spain has such a show, because it is truly a sight to behold, and it shows that they cherish their traditions and the blood of those who came before them. Perhaps the natives here feel the same way about their royalty. It certainly is in keeping with the Spanish temperament which I have chronicled elsewhere. That’s what makes these people special. That’s why, I believe, that Spain will always endure.