Going to a library isn’t most tourists’ idea of a good time. But if you visit Madrid and don’t stop into the Biblioteca Nacional for at least an hour you’ll be missing out on one of the city’s finest attractions.
The facade alone is worth spending time viewing. Neoclassical, and an excellent version it is, the building is near the Plaza de Colón. There are three entrance archways and the best way to view the building is to walk straight forward then look up. The scale is impressive.
From that vantage point, you can admire the elaborate wrought-iron gates and the exterior of the upper gallery. You can plainly see the elaborate carvings festooning the Corinthian columns. On either side, you’ll be treated to fine statues along the main staircase, one of Alfonso X and the other of San Isidoro. Alongside the main doors, there are images of many of Spain’s justly-famous writers, such as Cervantes and de Leon.
Constructed during the 19th century under the auspices of Isabel II, the library contains more than five million books. Not the largest repository in the world by any means, but unquestionably the finest collection of Spanish volumes anywhere.
The collection grew out of a nucleus formed from the royal library of Phillip V, founded in 1712. In some cases bought, in others simply seized in typical aristocratic fashion, the books cover every conceivable subject having to do with Spain’s culture and history.
It is now regarded as the National Library of Spain and the centerpiece of a system that has branches all over the country. Among the millions of items are 30,000 manuscripts and 500,000 books printed before 1831, not to mention a newspaper collection of nearly 20,000 editions.
Along with the books and manuscripts, there are engravings and drawings that can be found nowhere else on the planet. There are almost two million photographs and 134,000 maps in the collection.
But even if the contents are of little interest, just walking around the structure is a pleasure for lovers of architecture. Like much of Spain today, it is a fascinating combination of modern and traditional inside and out. Walk along the halls and just imagine meeting one of the many royal patrons who have taken advantage of what is stored there.
Apart from the regular contents the Biblioteca often sponsors exhibitions such as drawings by Rembrandt and other masters. You can check the schedule here: http://www.bne.es/index_eng.html
Admission is free and the library is open year-round.