There aren’t a lot of allotments in downtown Madrid. In fact, I’ve only ever seen one, and that’s a bit of a secret. As I took a shortcut through the Corte Inglés department store in the heart of the city, I was pretty sure I was the only one of the thousands in there who was heading for the Monasterio de las Descalzas Reales.
Hidden away in a little square behind the store, it is both a convent and one of Madrid’s most fascinating museums. Not only does it contain a wealth of artistic treasures, it also conceals a garden where the nuns who live there grow their own vegetables.
The Descalzas Reales dates back to the 16th century and gives a fascinating insight into the Habsburg royal family, who reigned in Spain for nearly two centuries, from 1516 to 1700. It was during this time that Philip II made Madrid the capital and it evolved from a small town to an important player on the world stage. This led to a great flourishing of artistic and literary talent in the city from the late 16th to the late 17th centuries, a period that became known as the Golden Age.
The Descalzas Reales was originally a palace, where Philip II’s sisters, Juana and María, were born. Juana turned it into a convent in 1557, which attracted the daughters of other royal and aristocratic families – and a lot of rather valuable donations. Some of these are now in the Prado museum, but you can still see paintings by El Greco, Titian, Rubens, Velázquez and Zurbarán, and sculptures by Pedro de Mena and Pompeo de Leoni.
What I most love about the Descalzas Reales, however, is the feeling of entering a private world and being wafted back to the time of the Habsburgs.