For a welcome change of pace, we left the bustling energy of Madrid and headed northwest toward San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a small community about 45 minutes from the city. With several sites we wanted to see in that area, AG and her parents had generously offered to let us stay at their summer home in Collado Mediano for a couple of nights, allowing us to more easily explore the countryside. We briefly stopped at the summer house to drop off our things, then enjoyed the scenic 20 minute drive through lush green fields and pockets of low-growing trees to San Lorenzo.
Specifically, our destination was the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial, (Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo), which is typically referred to simply as “El Escorial”. We were pretty confused by seemingly contradictory signs in the area until AG explained that both the town and the monastery, which is a couple of kilometers from the town proper along the outskirts, have the same name.
Even when we arrived, I still didn’t know much of anything about this monstrously imposing and austere complex.
As it turns out, it’s far more than just a monastery. Historically, this was the home of the king and his family. Commissioned by Spain’s King Philip II, construction began in 1563 with plans that included not only an impressive basilica and monastery to combat the rising threat of Protestantism, but also a school, library, pantheon, and royal palace. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, it’s popular with tourists, in part due to its proximity to Madrid, and sees up to a half million visitors a year.
Starting our visit in the museum, which is artfully laid out, we browsed through room after room of 3D models of the complex, incredibly detailed blueprints, walls of tools used during its construction, and even the original cornerstone that was laid in 1563. One entire room displays the reconstructed remains of a section of wooden ceiling framework from the monastery that was destroyed by termites in 1963. The giant wooden beams that had been imported from the coast of Cuba were reduced to Swiss cheese, riddled with holes.
Anxious to see the monastery itself and the grounds, we didn’t stay long in the museum. Continuing into the living quarters of El Escorial, we kept hoping for better views of the manicured decorative hedges, but they’re mostly visible only from barred windows through smudged glass. They’re still quite pretty, at least those that have been maintained. A long row of hedges on the adjacent side of the complex had been newly planted and were just seedlings; others appeared rather neglected with more weed than shrub.
But it wasn’t the grounds, the cathedral, the priceless paintings by artists such as El Greco, or even the grandeur of the entire complex that gave me pause. Instead, four things really impressed me. The first was the Hall of Battles, a long room with a high, arched ceiling covered on nearly every surface with a continuous fresco showing different Spanish battles in minute detail. The second was the library, which at one time was second only to that of the Vatican. With over 40,000 volumes dating as far back as the 5th century, marble floors, hand-carved shelves, and philosophical frescoes on the ceiling painted by Italian artist, Pellegrino Tibaldi, it’s simply stunning.
The third was a series of wooden doors leading to the royal chambers. Each door is massive, with an intricately carved arch extending far above the door and detailed scenes created by using contrasting colors and pieces of wood. Thick sheets of Plexiglas cover the doors to protect them.
Unfortunately we don’t have photos to share of much of the interior because of El Escorial’s photography restrictions.
The fourth and the absolute highlight for me was the Pantheon of the Kings. One of El Escorial’s intended purposes when it was commissioned by Philip II was that it would include a final burial place for current and future members of Spain’s Monarchy.
Descending the stairs to this underground crypt, I was completely dumbfounded when the rough stone walls gave way to ornate, solid marble. At the bottom, the stairs open directly into the Pantheon, a circular room with a domed ceiling that clearly was designed for royalty. The walls gleam with gold and bronze, the polished marble glistens in the dim light, and the somber columns of black coffins line the round room as if their dead were united in death even more than they were in life.
With the women laid to rest on one side and the men on the other, nearly every Spanish king and queen since Charles I is there in the Pantheon. Twenty-six coffins now inhabit the crypt, leaving room for only two more members. These two occupants are currently in the pudridero, a special chamber near the pantheon where newly deceased members are held for about 50 years until their bodies are fully decomposed, at which time they’re placed in the crypt. This means that there are no sepulchers remaining for the now-abdicated Juan Carlos I, Queen Sofía, or their son Felipe VI, the current king of Spain. A decision has yet to be made about where they – and future kings – will be laid to rest.
Not far from the Pantheon of the Kings is another series of tombs for other members of royalty. Tombs here are mostly for children who died before they could assume the throne.
After the somber silence of rows of tiny coffins in the Pantheon of the Infants, it was a relief to leave the tombs for the crisp, cool air of evening and the sight of elegant swans adrift on a tranquil rectangular pool.
Since we had only seen El Escorial from the front entrance, we walked down the considerable length of it.
At the back, we enjoyed the manicured gardens and domed basilica from a different angle.
Realizing that it was closing time, we ran all the way back around to the front to exit. This might seem like nothing but considering the size of this place, I felt like I’d run a mini marathon. The length of the interior corridors combined is 16 kilometers. The place is big.
Though there are worse things than having to spend a night at El Escorial, AG had one more thing to show us that evening. Directing us about 5 kilometers from San Lorenzo, we arrived at the Silla de Felipe II, or the Chair of Philip II. During the 20+ years that it took to build El Escorial, the king wanted to be able to monitor its progress, so several seats were hewn out of a pile of granite overlooking the construction site far off in the valley.
Arriving in a small wooded parking area, we passed a simple hand-painted wooden sign indicating we had, in fact, arrived at King Philip’s royal chair. Climbing two short series of granite stairs, we reached the seats, three of them, side by side cut into a single rock. Somehow I found it far more interesting to sit in the plain old rock chair King Philip had used to watch his palace rise from the ground than to see the priceless antique bed in his chambers at El Escorial where he’d died. It was a perfect fit for the three of us.
With rain again threatening and the sun long gone, we drove back to Collado Mediano and enjoyed dinner in front of a lovely wood fire. It was a great ending to a fun day. I couldn’t imagine how AG could top it with whatever she had planned the next day. Little did we know she had another great day trip planned, nor could we know of the car troubles that were in store for us…