I visited two sites today, ones that are closely linked in distance, but not in spirit: the royal burial site of El Escorial and the monumental church/burial place at the Valley of the Fallen, raised by former dictator Francisco Franco. I don’t normally join tours, but in this case I thought it was worth it, since the bus that gets you out here (about 50km from Madrid) only takes you to the entrance (at least for the Valley of the Fallen), necessitating a 4-5km walk up hill from there, plus waiting for another to get you to El Escorial (or vice versa). And since I don’t normally do well with buses that run sparingly in the countryside, I went with a tour. One of the things I noticed in the reviews of tours to these places is that there often isn’t enough time to one of the sites, typically the Valley of the Fallen. So I chose the longest tour I could find, a six-hour one (although it the end it ended up 7.5 hours). We had more than enough time for both sites, so that worked out well.
The first place we stopped at was El Escorial, the burial place of the Spanish royal family, and now World Heritage site. Philip II (r 1556-1598), along with architect Juan Bautista de Toledo (who had worked on St. Peter’s in Rome) designed the complex with the idea that it would represent Spain at the centre of the Christian world. King Philip II wanted to commemorate the 1557 Spanish victory at the Battle of St. Quentin, which happened on August 10th, which also happened to be the feast day of St. Lawrence (Lorenzo), so the monastery was named after him as a result. St. Lawrence was martyred by being roasted to death on a grill and that grill motif is seen throughout the complex (and in fact is part of the overall architectural design). But El Escorial was more than a monastery, it also is/was a royal palace, a basilica, a convent, a library, a school, and a pantheon. Even though it served as a palace, it doesn’t rally look like it, being quite austere in form, made of granite and with little embellishments (by Philip’s request). However, the interior is decorated with works of major artists, such as El Greco, Titian, Velázquez, and de Ribera.
Underneath the royal basilica lies the royal pantheon, the burial place for the kings of Spain, starting with Charles I. All monarchs (save 3), plus their wives and children, are buried here. The mausoleum is in the shape of an octagon, and made entirely out of red and black Spanish marble (the children are in a tiered “wedding cake” made of white marble. That sounds weird. Think 3 layers of marble laid out like a cake that has been cut into individual pieces (the sarcophagi). Each piece holds a deceased royal child, but it isn’t full – if I recall only about 2/3rds of the spaces have been used). Anyway, most of the (adult) sarcophagi are the same, with just the name to indicate who it was, but some have prone statues on them, carved of white marble. The former are in a big room and they are placed in the walls 4 deep (from top to bottom) – the big room is an octagon, so there are 32 + 2 for the king and queen who should have ruled during Franco’s time, but couldn’t.
The rest of the buildings were quite interesting too, with plenty of paintings to gawk at. We also visited the royal bed chambers, which opened onto the main alter in the basilica. When Philip was old and bed-ridden, he could still watch the mass from the open door in his bedroom (as could the queen from hers). After our tour here, we had time for lunch or to look around the town. I chose the latter, even though there wasn’t much to see other than a ton of places to eat lunch for all the day trippers out here. It was well worth visiting though.
Monuments: The sarcophagi are beautiful in their simplicity, as is the structure as a whole
Grounds: It’s quite easy to get around, but some areas, like the mausoleum, require going up and down stairs
Visitors: Quite a few school groups and other visitors here, but nothing overwhelming. Guides use a mic (with corresponding headsets for the group) to keep noise levels in check.
Notes: No photos are allowed anywhere inside, and all bags must be checked (after going though an X-ray).
Cemetery: Monasterio y Sito de El Escorial en Madrid
Established: foundation laid 1563, completed in 1584, became a World Heritage site in 1984.
Notable Internments: the Spanish Royal family
Location: San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Hours: 10:00-18:00, closed Mondays, also Jan 1&6, May 1, Sept 9, Dec 24, 25, & 31. It costs 10 euros to get in.