Spain opened up travel between regions so we dashed out west to visit this town in the Province of Segovia.
La Granja de San Ildefonso (pronounced: la gran-ya day eel-day-fawn-so), like many Spanish towns, is known by more than one name. This small town of ~5,000 residents is often called San Ildefonso or La Granja. With the historical ties to France we weren’t overly surprised to see nearly every building in town decorated with the art technique trompe-l’œil, or trampantojo, as it is called in Spanish. More than once we had to look close to see the optical illusion.
La Granja de San Ildefonso is located 50 miles (80 km) north of Madrid in the Province of Segovia, in the Castile and León Autonomous Community, of central Spain. We prviously toured the beautiful city of Segovia in the spring of 2019 and you can view our photos and read about the sites we visited here: Segovia, Spain
The weekend we travelled to La Granja de San Ildefonso the temperatures hovered in the mid 60’s F, (18 C), perfect for walking outside. Back in Valencia the temperatures crept up into the 90’s (33C), so we were happy we headed northwest and into the mountains.
We left Valencia at 09:40 on a high speed train and arrived at the Atoche station in Madrid less than 2 hours later. Next we grabbed a taxi, slingshotting around Madrid to the Chamartín train station. Our second train of the day lasted only 30 minutes before we were deposited into Segovia. Our second taxi ride delivered us to the Parador Hotel in the village of La Granja de San Ildefonso.
We were all checked in and had our bags unpacked by 14:00. We had traveled halfway across Spain by train and it was such a comfortable, convenient and carefree way to travel.
Palacio Real de La Granja de San Ildefonso (Versailles of Spain)
The French King Louis XIV built the extraordinary Palace of Versailles in France in 1661. 40 years later, in 1701, Louis XIV’s grandson, who was born and raised in Versailles, left France to become Spain’s first Bourbon King. When the grandson ascended to the Spanish throne as King Felipe V he selected land on a vast open plain located in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains, adjacent to the tiny village of La Granja de San Ildefonso, as the site where he would build his Royal Palace.
In 1720 King Felipe V bought a San Ildefonso farm from the Hieronymites, a Catholic religious order of hermit monks. He commissioned and modeled his Royal Palace after the Palace of Versailles and construction began in 1721. The finished palace is actually a blend of French Baroque and Spanish Baroque styles with a few Italian touches thrown in that can be attributed to Felipe V’s Italian-born Queen, Isabel Farnesio.
The finished Royal Palace quickly earned the nickname “Versailles of Spain”.
The inside of the palace is only partially furnished and there are a couple of rooms showcasing large-sized Flemish created tapestries hung on the walls. The lights illuminating the 16th and 17th century tapestries are kept dim to protect the historical Royal Tapestry Collection. No photos were permitted inside the palace.
It is the gardens and parks and exterior of the palace where the splendor of La Granja de San Ildefonso truly lives on. In the header photo of this writing is an extensive marble water stairway, flanked by both bronze figurines and white marble statues. The statues are all cast in lead to prevent corrosion, and painted over to simulate bronze or lacquered over with white oxidised lead to imitate marble.
The fountains had not yet been turned on during our visit but normally water would be jetting from the figurines and flowing down the marble steps to the basin located just outside the palace doors.
The gardens were also inspired by the design of the gardens of Versailles, with numerous fountains filled with Greek mythological figures and dozens of statues mirroring the extensive fountains and gardens Felipe V grew up with in France.
The gardens are so large – 1500 acres – we spent two days exploring the various pathways. We discovered a stunning lake, an old wooden bridge made from crooked branches, delicate wildflowers, numerous species of trees, including the magnificent native Californian giant Sequoia trees, a bat sanctuary, dozens of marble and bronze-like figurines and 26 eye-catching fountains.
We saw figures of dragons, horses, many, many Greek Gods, heroes, nymphs, dolphins and frogs.
The spectacular Fountain of Diana was one of the larger fountains we found and was well worth the walk. The basin has bronze nymphs and water spouts in front of a stone and marble pavilion. Wish we could have seen the fountains working.
La Real Fábrica de Cristal de La Granja
In 2020 the Royal Glass Factory of La Granja celebrated its 250th year since inception. The group of buildings equals more than an astounding 6 acres of usable space (25,000 m²) with some walls more than 30 inches (80 cm) thick. Although large, the museum that is open to the public is a fraction of that size. Visitors can observe the glassworkers creating and decorating pieces at specific times in the mornings, although we elected to visit the museum later in the day.
The museum had a model made of the circular furnaces that were once used. There had been 2, each with 8 openings and located beneath the ventilated domes of the building providing needed ventilation for the 1400° C temperatures that were required to melt glass.
The Royal Glass Factory displays dozens of machinery including a mill with huge stone wheels that were used to crush raw materials. The most common type of glass from Spain was silica glass, made from sand, sodium carbonate that was extracted from seaweed ash, and lime or calcium oxide. Potash could also be added to reduce the melting point of the sand and potash was obtained by burning forest plants and pine bark. Various other materials were added to create colored glass.
The factory once produced luxury items for the royal palaces and residences, including tableware, decorative pieces, jars, bottles, chandeliers and the first ever gigantic plate glass mirrors in Spain. The factory currently has more than 4500 moulds that have been collected from various glass producers around the country.
The museum has a number of exhibitions. One displays more than 500 glass objects, from the 18th and 19th centuries. Another displays 300 smaller glass translucent green containers from the 16th-19th centuries. The green glass was used to create glass for bottling, storage, transportation and the perfume, tobacco and pharmacy industries. A third set of rooms showcased current contemporary glass art from around the world.
At the end of the tour was an excellent gift shop, full of tempting glass pieces all made locally in the factory.
Did you know glass is said to be the perfect recyclable material? It can have infinite lives and unlike other recycled materials, glass does not lose quality if processed correctly.
Palacio Real de Riofrío
12 miles (20 km) from La Granja de San Ildefonso, set within a picturesque park is the Royal Palace of Riofrío.
Built between 1752-1759 it was meant to be the home of the dowager Queen Isabel Farnesio after she was widowed in 1746. King Felipe V was succeeded by his son, Isabel’s step-son, Ferdinand VI and to ensure that Isabel would remain away from the court, King Ferdinand VI agreed to build an Italian style palace at Riofrío for her. However, the palace was never completed, nor the formal gardens ever begun and during the reign of her step-son, the Queen continued to reside in the Royal Palace of La Granja de San Ildefonso.
King Ferdinand VI died childless in August 1759 and the dowager Queen’s natural son, then King Carlo VIII of Naples succeeded to the Spanish throne becoming King Carlos III of Spain.
Riofrio Palace was primarily used as a royal hunting lodge and is surrounded by 1500 wooded acres (625 hectares) home to herds of deer and other animals. Riofrío also houses an excellent museum dedicated to the history of hunting and animals of the area.
Over the centuries Royals occasionally resided in the palace for short periods of time. Today the property is owned and managed by the state and is open to the public. The palace is beautifully decorated with tapestries, art, interior decor and furniture and we enjoyed our visit immensely. The Palace of Riofrio retains a feeling of ease and comfort without being ostentatious.
Nearly every city in Europe has at least one unique dessert or pastry that is claimed to originate in their city. We have tried many but of all the specialties we have tasted, at least in Spanish cities, the traditional cake created in 1926 called Ponche Segoviano and served in every restaurant in La Granja de San Ildefonso, easily became our favorite.
When baker Frutos García Martín arrived in Segovia he opened his shop, El Alcázar, Confitería Bombonería. He created a wonderful sweet treat that was unique to his shop and named it Ponche Segoviano. After receiving rave reviews from the locals, he sent a gift of the cake to the current monarchs living in the palace. Soon after he received a letter from King Alfonso XIII and Queen Victoria Eugenia expressing their gratitude and delight with the delicious Ponche Segoviano. They urged the baker to submit his cake to the 1929 Universal Exposition in Barcelona. He took home the gold medal and the rest is history.
Parador in Spain
A parador in Spain is a type of hotel and each parador is unique because they are often located in historic buildings, castles and monasteries. They are state owned and it is a way to preserve these treasured old sites.
Located about 1000 feet away from the main palace, we stayed in a Parador that once was the Casa de los Infantes. It was built in the 18th century as a residence for the royal children.
We spent a wonderful few days visiting La Granja de San Ildefonso and as much as we loved exploring the sites and tasting the food, it may be the fresh mountain air that we will remember the most. The town sits at 3900 feet (1193 m) above sea level and the air was absolutely intoxicating.
Salud from these granjeños,
Ted + Julia