Calle de la Princesa, Madrid
Walking down Calle Princesa, a long, straight thoroughfare shaded by an army of chestnut trees, you would never guess that it plays host to one of the most important palaces in Spain. The crowded street, named for 18th century Princess Maria Isabel Francisca de Asis, is lined with run-of-the-mill shops and the occasional high-class fashion boutique. It stretches from the Moncloa bus station to Plaza Espana and serves as a useful connector between disparate parts of the city, as well as Madrid’s outskirts and north-central Spain. Its main attraction is its proximity to the Parque de la Montana, which features the famously transplanted ancient Egyptian Templo Debod
. No, like a hammer or a fork, Calle Princesa is sparsely elegant in design but mostly simply functional. It is a plain Madrid street whose only other landmarks, a Saudi Arabia Airlines office and the Dublin city café (offering British fry ups and other junk food), do not suggest the kind of extravagance that actually awaits.
The Palace of Liria (Palacio de Liria) occupies 20-22 Calle Princesa and belongs to the most titled family in Europe. The House of Alba, whose descendents still own the house, has its roots in the war of Spanish Succession in the eighteenth century. James Fitz-James, the illegitimate son of James II of England, came to Spain to fight for King Philip V, and when he helped win the important Battle of Almansa, he was rewarded with the Duchy of Liria Jérica.
The artistic and historical treasures housed in the Palace are unparalleled. Lucky visitors may chance upon an exhibition with choice pieces on display. A selection of works first made its rounds in 1987 in Madrid and Barcelona, while in 2009/2010 another set of about 40 pieces was shown in the Museum of Fine Arts of Seville. Among the most important work is a portrait series of various Dukes of Liria by a list of artists--which itself paints a pictures of the luxury and culture that have followed the House of Alba. Artists like Titian, Mengs, Goya, Sorolla and Vazquez Diaz top the list, and “Portrait of the Grand Duke of Alva” by Titian and “Duchess Cayetana In a White Dress” by Goya are especially noteworthy.
The palace’s masterpiece list goes on, icluding “The Madonna of the Pomegranate” by Fra Angelico, a painting of Westminster Bridge in London by Canaletto, and what is believed to be one of three Rembrandt paintings in existence in Spain (the other two are in the Thyssen Museum
and the Prado
.) The current Duchess has continued the collection, acquiring paintings by masters of impressionism and surrealism such as Dali, Picasso, Joan Miró, Coro, Renoir and Chagall.
Art aside, the palace also houses an incredible cache of historical documents. The library contains 30,000 books, including six letters from Christopher Columbus. The collection also includes the will of King Ferdinand the Catholic, a first-edition copy of Don Quixote, and a very rare pre-Inquisition bible called the Alba bible.
Unfortunately, the building is closed to the public during many months of the year, although guided visits are possible via the Fundacion Casa de Alba. However, it’s still worth a peek over the elaborate wrought-iron fence, if only to catch a glimpse of the largest private residence in Madrid (featuring 200 rooms, 26 of which are lounges.) Gaze across the rolling lawns or imagine dinner in a banquet hall ornamented with elaborate tapestries-- the building has 40 in all. Or consider a stroll in the formal English-style gardens, which feature a pet cementary of epic proportions, including favorite pets going back hundreds of years. Unlike most Spanish palaces, the rectangular building features two long facades that seem designed to enhance the perceived volume—almost as if the palace is asking to be admired. Take a moment to do just that, before continuing your Madrid adventure wherever Calle Princesa carries you.
Location: Calle Princesa runs between Arguelles stop (grey and yellow lines) and Plaza Espana
stops on the yellow line. The Palace of Liria is just in front of the Ventura Rodrigues metro stop on the yellow line.
Article written by Alissa Greenberg. Photo of the Calle de la Princesa street courtesy of M. Martin Vicente