THE STRAWBERRY LINE
12 July 1985
Cover Story by Penny Gibbins
Ten a.m. at Madrid’s Estación de las Delicias, and on a single railway track, a goods train is about to set off. On the footplate of one of the railway carriages stands a girl dressed in full-skirted, red satin dress and a black lace bolero top corresponding to the Baroque period; her dark ringlets are covered by a silk poke bonnet and on her arm she carries two wicker baskets full to the brim with strawberries, an unusual ticket collector and a rather special buffet service.
She is a hostess upon the “Strawberry Train”, a small antique engine built in 1851 which has recently been put back on its rails, and since the 12th of May of this year has become a novel mode of transport for hundreds of sight-seers to Aranjuez.
The Strawberry Locomotive itself is a “MIKADO” type steam engine built in Glasgow by North British and imported by RENFE in 1852. The train originally ran on coal. But in 1963 this was replaced by oil fuel until 1975 when the engine was taken out of service and remained inactive until RENFE gave it an overhaul in 1984.
The little train is built identical to the Coastal trains, with “Costa” carriages made of wood because metal coaches were considered too hot for the southern lines. Between the carriages is an open platform and balcony so that travellers can move between cars and enjoy the open air.
In the 1850’s the train was the subject of much talk and excitement, described and romanticised by chronicles, poets and journalists, partly because it was the first time most of the passengers had ever been on a train. Many marvelled at the spectacular rapidity in the change of scenery as the arid Castillian panorama was swallowed up at Aranjuez by the fresh orchards, woods and the cool greenery of the area. Gustav Becquer wrote romantic verse about the journey, while the satirical poet Valle Inclán would disparagingly allude to the “Luxury Train” (El Tren de Lujo) which carried the Royal couple, their guests, ministers and entourage on hunting trips from Atocha station right up to the portals of the Royal Palace in Aranjuezreal sitio in english
Observes described the silver rails (now on show in the Royal Palace) that used to run between Aranjuez station and the palace, or would refer to the magnificent sleeping compartment and dining room carriage of Their Majesties. These are now stationary in the “Museo de las Delicias” and can be seen there, along with other antiquities from the train: the gas lamps, gold curtains, carpets and Royal shields that decorated the train’s sides.
In spite of the heady notes struck by Romantic writers during the 1850’s as they described the ladies’ tears of emotion, aroused by the beauty of the passing landscape, the more realistic pointed out that such tears were due to the coal grit blowing in their faces. The passengers’ eyes were not red with tears but black due to the vast amounts of soot given off from the large smoke stack. Despite the “luxury” the ladies were also wise enough to bring cushions to put under their skirts and protect their posteriors from stray splinters off the wooden seats.
The men wore top hats, brightly coloured waistcoats, tail-jackets, striped three-quarter lenght trousers and all carried canes, a symbol of aristocracy. At the journey’s end the men would escort the ladies to the “Restaurante de las Delicias” on the shore of the Tajo river, and after dining on white asparagus, pheasant, and strawberries and cream, the courtiers would take out little boats on the river, the punters dressed in the style of Venetian gondoliers. These little boats are now on show in the Aranjuez “Museo de Falúas”.
Often on hunting trips the Royalty stayed at the Hunting Lodge “La Casita del Labrador” and during the summer months would catch pheasant and deer. On their departure the local borough would present their various distinguished visitors with asparagus and strawberries and in commemoration of this tradition the four hostesses today pass around baskets of strawberries to the tourists on the train.
A 1,000 pesetas return ticket also includes a guided tour of the Royal Palace, the Royal Hunting Lodge, and the Palace Gardens in the monumental town. The Aranjuez authorities herald today’s visitors with a fanfare performed by the brass band of St. Martin de la Vera who play well-known paso dobles at the station and then, in the gardens outside the “Casita del Labrador”, give an impromptu concert.
The casita itself, once the main pavilion for relaxation, parties, balls and a regular gamblers den, is now a treasury of priceless porcelain ornaments, Italian Carrara marbles, exquisite Louis XVI and Carlos IV furniture, Roman mosaics and an extraordinary collection of priceless clocks. In the “Billiard room” one clock made by the Boudier Brothers in 1850 has a musical box base and a long column around which a ruby star spirals until it reaches twelve o’clock at the top of the column. Another plays organ and kettledrum music and a third planetarium clock can be found in the Ballroom. Of special interest is the Platinum Room where mahogany furniture is inlaid with gold and platinum appliquées. Until the afternoon visit to the Royal Palace the visitor can enjoy a ride around the gardens in a horse-drawn trolley bus, or take a boat trip on the river Tajo.
The Royal Palace has been frequented by royalty since the reign of the “Catholic Kings” and earlier, and contains many valuable relics up to the beginning of the 20th century. Of special note is the Porcelain Room, where walls and vaulted ceiling are covered with large porcelain surfaces. The room is a masterpiece in decoration ordered by Charles III from the work-shop of the Buen Retiro. Big mirrors are framed with porcelain flowers, shelves hold groups of porcelain children playing with birds, and wall panels depict legends from ancient Japan and China.
A very unusual exhibition is kept in the Chinese Painting Room where more than 200 works of art painted on rice paper completely cover the walls, a gift from the Chinese Emperor to Queen Isabel. In the basement of the Palace the visitor will find another museum exhibiting court dress and royal finery from 1500 to 1931. The costumes are authentic or are close reproductions and demonstrate clearly the way fashion at the Spanish court has changed over the centuries. The 12th room has a collection of toys, furniture, and pictures of the children of the royal nursery.
Perhaps a quick mention should be made of the “Fan Room” where over 600 hand-painted and jewel encrusted fans from the 18th century with ivory, mother-of-pearl or tortoise shell handles are on display.
Many of the people in Aranjuez today live in the former servants quarters beside the palace, or in the “Palacetes”, earlier town houses of government ministers. Whereas the principal entrance of most Spanish royal palaces faces the town at Aranjuez, the village is behind this building because it was only in 1700 that the benevolent reformist King Carlos III passed the Law of Assent which allowed a colony to settle on the land. This had formerly been royal territory used exclusively for the King’s hunting and leisure pastimes.
The Tren de la Fresa leaves Aranjuez at 7.40 p.m., and arrives back at Madrid at 8.55 p.m. Tickets can be obtained at any RENFE rail office, and travel agents for the excursion which runs every Saturday, Sunday and “fiesta” holidays.