Murano chandeliers, glittering jewelry, Venetian mirror-clad ballroom, Instagram-ready staircasewelcome to Madrids little-known throwback to turn-of-the-century aristocracy.”>
I looooooove Seville.
I looooooove Barcelona.
Those are the sentences I always hear when I tell a fellow American Im headed off to Spain again.
Spains capital city, with its labyrinthine layout and its craven failure to be perpetually awash in sunlight, sadly is often less loved by tourists. Charm is not a word often ascribed to Madrid, nor is enchanting. Sure, it has the Prado, the Palacio Real, the Gran Via and the Almudena Cathedral. But for many, more delight is to be found in picture-postcard places like Gaudis Park Guell and Sagrada Familia in Barcelona, or the Alcazar and Calle Sierpes in Seville.
But while Madrids charms may yield themselves more slowly, there is no doubt that those charms do exist, including one of Spains most beguilingand least knowntreasures. Just across the street from the far more famous Templo de Debod sits a building that I guarantee will charm and enchantthe Museo Cerralbo.
This mansion built by the 17th Marqus de Cerralbo, Enrique de Aguilera y Gamboa, between 1883 and 1893 is a perfect step back into turn of the century Spain. Halls of weapons and armor, over-the-top Murano chandeliers, a shimmering mirror-clad ballroom, galleries for jewelry and art, and one of the most enviable entrances Ive ever encounteredthe house is full on period-piece porn. It also provides a glimpse into the life of one of the eras more eccentric and famed figures: the Marqus was one of Spains premier archaeologists, collectors, and statesmen who was married to a woman 30 years his senior. Think Sir John Soanes Museum in London, but with a Spanish flavor.
Given the look of confusion on my Madrileo friends faces when I said I was going to check it out (they insisted I must have meant the Museo del Romanticismo) the Cerralbo is also still one of the citys best-kept secrets.
Walking through the doors into the palaces iconic entryway with its dramatic marble and iron staircase and impeccable trompe loeil marbled walls will certainly give every visitor pause, and in that breath its worth considering the man who between 1883 and 1893 built this edifice with a dual purpose: it would be his home but it would also serve as a museum to hold his vast collections of art and artifacts.
Enrique de Aguilera y Gamboa was born in 1845, the seventh of 13 brothers in a family with an illustrious pedigree. By the age of 24, he had joined the Carlist party, which supported the claims of the pretender Carlos de Bourbon, Duke of Madrid. For most of the 19th century, the Spanish were enmeshed in a series of civil wars known as the Carlist Wars. The fighting revolved around the question of who truly had the right to the Spanish crown. It continued as a political issue in the early 20th century until Franco solidified control.
The most important rooms, however, would have been the three galleries connecting the previous rooms to the ballroom There were the rooms that housed the collection for which the Marqus was renowned. While the dramatic portraits, genre paintings, and a dazzling collection of jewelry do catch the eye, the best, albeit not the most tasteful, part may be the gaudy giant Murano chandeliers, a number of which might be charitably described as Quinceaera couture gone wrong.
But the pice de rsistance comes at the end of the tourthe ballroom. Light twinkles off gigantic Venetian mirrors, casting a glow on panels of agate and marble, an eye-catching French mystery clock, as well as an oil painting on the ceiling depicting a dance of the gods.
Gazing upon this magnificent jewel box of a ballroom with its illusory sense of space and light (it measures only 720 feet squared), its easy to imagine the lavish parties it once held. And while Im not sure Id love to have lived that life (modern medicine and all that), I did find myself walking away charmed and enchanted.
At certain times of the day, this obscure palace museum can find itself literally under the shadow of two towering monuments to Francos Spainthe Edificio Espaa and the Torre de Madrid on the Plaza de Espaa. These edifices loom at the end of Madrids heavily trafficked iconic and aptly named Gran Via with its sensational smorgasbord of architectural styles. The next time youre in Madrid and are tired of being jostled while clamoring for that perfect shot of the Schweppes sign on the Edificio Carrion on the Gran Via, just slip down the street, cut across the plaza, and duck into the unique time-traveling dreamscape that is the Museo Cerralbo.