Project Description

Built in the late 16th century on a plan reproducing the shape of a grill (instrument of the martyrdom of St. Lawrence), the Escorial monastery is situated in an exceptionally beautiful Castilian site. By its simplicity in contrary of the style that prevailed before, its architecture had a considerable influence in Spain for nearly a half century. Retreat of a mystic king, El Escorial was the center of the greatest political power of the time during the last years of the reign of Philip II.

El Valle de los Caídos (“Valley of Those who fell”) is a giant monument from the Spanish Francoist era built to pay tribute to “heroes and martyrs of the Crusade”, meaning thereby the dead nationalist fighters during the Spanish Civil War.

MONASTERY, MUSEUM AND COLLEGE LIBRARY AND PALACE, ALL IN ONE BUILDING

Let’s hit the road to another day trip, still from Madrid and still with the agency Julia Travel. Our first step is the Escorial, vast royal complex is situated on the territory of the municipality of San Lorenzo del Escorial located 45 kilometers north-west of Madrid. It is the former residence of the King of Spain and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984. We arrive at themain bus station of the village and then walk ten minutes to reach the complex.

While directing us towards the main entrance, our guide Maria tells us about the building and its construction and also informs us that photos and videos are strictly prohibited inside, which explains the lack of pictures for this part of article. As usual, I guess they prefer to see the tourists go to the gift shop to buy some cards, books or souvenirs, always the damn mercantile reason behind almost all sighseeing sites…

So according to plan, we will visit the Royal Palace, the mausoleum of the Kings and Princes, several exhibition halls and the basilica, all built in a “Spanish Renaissance” style. Once through the main door, we arrive in the Court of Kings (Patio de los Reyes) and it’s just after that I put my camera in my bag for the rest of the visit. Some numbers to start: the monastery has no less than 16 patios, 88 fountains, 13 oratories, 15 cloisters, 86 staircases, 9 towers, 1’200 doors and 2’673 windows.

The palace of Philip II consists of a series of rooms decorated with austerity; it was the temporary place of residence of the king. He liked to escape the weight of the ceremonial of the court and enjoy the tranquility of the countryside with his daughters. Far from being the “recluse of El Escorial” his black legend took pleasure to describe, the “prudent king” did not shut himself for long periods but in the last years of his life, when he began to be unpopular to the people of the court.

The historic building is located on the back of the basilica. It includes several apartments around a nearly square courtyard. It is surrounded on three sides by a Renaissance garden which consists of several hedges and grass spots. We cross a gallery linking the two main apartments. North side are the apartments of the king’s daughters, mainly occupied by the Infanta Isabella Clara Eugenia. Philip II apartments are meanwhile situated on the first floor, at the southern junction of the palace and monastery. The apartments overlook the choir of the basilica by an oratory. Indeed when the doors are open, you can see the inside of the Basilica from the main room. We then go through another gallery forming the junction between the apartment north of the Infanta and the part of monastery called “Palais Bourbon”: this is the Battle room, the ceiling and the walls are covered with beautiful frescoes representing the major battles won by the Spanish armies.

Soon after, we take the stairs leading us far away to the underground, into the royal crypt called “The Pantheon of Kings”. It is composed of 26 marble tombs where rest the remains of kings of the houses of Austria and Bourbon. The walls of polished Toledo marble are decorated with gilt bronze ornaments and the whole area is poorly lit, which gives a mystical aspect to the place, in addition to the very cool temperature. Do not forget your sweater! The last remains brought in the pantheon were those of King Alfonso XIII in 1980 and his wife Queen Eugenie Battenberg Victory in 2011. Exceptionally, the last two sarcophagi available are for the parents of King Juan Carlos, “John III” Count of Barcelona although he never ruled and his wife María de las Mercedes de Borbon y Orleans. Our guide tells us that we are just under the altar of the basilica, as if everything was built around the church building, even below it!

Following our visit through the “Hall of Infants”, completed in 1888 and designed for the princes, princesses and queens who were not mothers of kings. Of the three rooms that we cross, 60 coffins were present but only thirty-six are currently “occupied”. The room where Don Juan of Austria rests clearly stands out with white walls and marble floors and a beautiful representation of the man carved directly into the “cover” of the grave. He is dressed in armor and carries his sword but not his gloves, which are situated around his legs: it means he did not die in battle, but of disease or natural death. So if you see somewhere this symbolic representation of gloves shown but not worn, you’ll know the represented person does not die on a battlefield, information that I did not know until then.

We continue our tour through an art gallery which brings together German, Flemish, Venetian, Italian and Spanish works from the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Then we cross the famous library of the monastery. This piece is a true marvel! With a collection of over 45,000 volumes, it is located in a nave 54 meters long, 9 meters wide and 10 meters high. The floor is made of marble and library furniture of fine, rich and carved woods. In the great hall, the vault of the ceiling is decorated with frescoes depicting the seven liberal arts: Rhetoric, dialectics, music, grammar, arithmetic, geometry and astrology. A large armillary sphere also reflects the interest of the time for astronomical discoveries. This is undoubtedly my favorite part of the tour, although I am not a great book reader.

Our guide informed us that we have only a short time before leaving for our next destination, schedule requires. So, we crossed the basilica in a minute or two… But really! Just enough time to admire the flat ceiling of the choir that strangely seems to held without any support and the Christ in white marble created by Benvenuto Cellini, one of the few permanently illuminated elements in the coldness and darkness of the basilica, and then, we’re out! I think that is unfortunate, but it’s one of the problems of organized tours, sometimes resembling true military marches!

We continue our journey to El Valle de los Caídos, or the “Valley of Those who fell”.

BASILIQUE CARVED INTO THE ROCK, DOMINATED BY A LARGE CROSS

Only 10 minutes from El Escorial Royal complex is situated that gigantic monument which receives almost half a million visitors a year. It can be seen from far, far before reaching the foot of a stone cross 150 meters high (the largest in the world) which surmounts the mountain. Built between 1950 and 1956, eight monumental statues are represented all over the base (the four Evangelists and the four cardinal virtues). The cross could be reached by a funicular, but this access was closed some years ago.

Instead, we take a stone path leading to the entrance of the complex.

And here I must say that I’m quite impressed: the exterior is imposing and the cross clearly dominating the hill further accentuates the sensation of greatness. As we move past the massive front door bronze 10m high (achieved in 1956 by sculptor Fernando Cruz Solis, representing the fifteen mysteries of the Rosary), I put back my camera in my bag, as pictures are again forbidden in the basilica. The main architectural feature of this place is to have been dug in a hill in the Sierra de Guadarrama. Its total length is 262 meters underground and you may see the graves of Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera (since 29 March 1959) and Franco (since November 1975), located at the foot of the altar, beside the nave. Ossuaries also contain the remains of 33’872 fighters buried anonymously. The place is very simply decorated with a few tapestries, statues and flowers here and there, all in a light illumination. The dome is certainly the most spectacular with its huge fresco, quite beautiful!

Besides its figurative aspects, the architectural complex was built with an ideological function: by collecting the dead on both sides of the Spanish Civil War, Franco developed the mystical rhetoric and nationalist – which are characteristic of his regime – while seeking to impose a national unity symbol. After a few minutes inside, I take some pictures of the forest park outside before going back on the road.