El Escorial is part Royal Palace, part monastery, part museum and part mausoleum and is one of Spain’s most awe-inspiring places. If you’re staying in Madrid for any length of time then a visit here is an absolute must. This is the place where most of the Spanish kings have been buried during the last 500 years and which, during the 16th and 17th centuries, represented the centre of both wordly and ecclesiastical power.
Getting to El Escorial
The Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is about 1.5 kilometres outside the small town of El Escorial itself, about 50 kilometres northwest of the capital. Sited near the base of Monte Abantos in the Sierra de Guadarrama over 1,000 metres above sea level and named after the slag of the old iron workings, El Escorial hardly sounds the most prepossessing place but few who visit it are ever likely to leave disappointed.
It is very easy to reach by road. Leave Madrid by the A6, merging into the Avenida de la Comunidad de Madrid at Junction 29. Then take the M519 and M505 roads.
There are bus services from Madrid. Starting from Moncloa bus station – about 10 minutes walk from Plaza de España – lines 661 and 664 of the Herranz bus company will take about 55 minutes to get you to El Escorial.
There are also trains from Atocha station, calling at Chamartín, which run from very early in the morning until almost midnight – costing about 7 euros for a return ticket. The train station is actually in the town of El Escorial itself so either be prepared to face a good stiff uphill walk to San Lorenzo or catch one of the local buses from the station.
Better still is to book one of the many excursions to El Escorial which operate from the centre of Madrid.
History of El Escorial
Philip II of Spain’s army defeated the French in the Battle of St Quentin on 10th August, 1557 – St Lawrence’s Day. It was for this reason that the Spanish monarch ordained that the Spanish architect Juan Bautista de Toledo should construct a grand edifice of commemoration which could also be used as a burial place for Philip’s parents and a centre for students attempting to counter the forces of the Protestant Reformation. The actual construction began in 1563 and took just 21 years to complete.
The immense building, constructed mainly from the local grey granite, looks like a fortress with its enormous towers in each of the four corners of the quadrangle shape. The rectangular area covers something like 30,000 square metres in total with 9 towers altogether along with 88 fountains and 16 patios. In the centre of the complex is the gigantic dome of the basilica. There are many similarities in design between San Lorenzo and the Alcázar of Seville and the Alhambra of Granada although most experts claim now that the floor plan was based largely upon descriptions of the Temple of Soloman.
Major Features of El Escorial
There are some highly impressive elements to the buildings at El Escorial. The basilica of San Lorenzo itself, nearly 100 metres high, and the statues and altars beneath it are, whilst often quite sombre, amazing pieces of art.
Also open to the public are:
- the Art Gallery, with mainly 15th, 16th and 17th century works on display
- the Architectural Museum
- the Gardens of the Friars
- the Chapter Houses, with some compelling frescoes and paintings by Bosch, Titian, Tintoretto, El Greco and others
- the Library, with upwards of 40,000 volumes on display
- he rather austere Palace of Philip II
- the Hall of Battles, with frescoes of many famous military successes on the walls
- the Pantheon of the Kings and the Pantheon of the Princes
The Pantheon of the Kings contains, within its 26 marble sepulchres, the remains of nearly all the Spanish rulers and their consorts. The remains of Juan de Borbón and his wife – the parents of King Juan Carlos I – are at present in a pudridero, or decaying chamber, until they are placed in the sepulchres reserved for them. Interestingly, there will then be no places for further remains and, at the time of writing, it is not yet known where the present king will lie.
The Pantheon of the Princes, with floors and ceiling of fabulous white marble, contains the remains of the Spanish princes and princesses and the queens who did were not mothers of future kings.
Restaurants near El Escorial
As might be expected, there are some impressive eating places near San Lorenzo.
- For example, Fonda Genara is actually on Plaza de San Lorenzo itself in the same building as El Real Coliseo Carlos III, and has an amazingly impressive period dining hall – but be prepared to pay for the experience.
- Charolés, on Calle Floridablanca, has a delightful terrace for eating out on in good weather but an atmospheric indoor restaurant as well. They do a delicious Madrid stew in the winter and their lobster croquettes have also enjoyed good reviews – along with their strawberry and kiwi tarts.
- The Parrilla Principe, an 18th Century mansion house – again with a pleasant summer terrace – offers excellent roast kid and aubergines stuffed with sea food.
- There are also good reports of Mesón Taberna La Cueva, in Calle San Anton, which is situated in a rambling 18th century former inn, and where you can either enjoy a full meal or have some well-recommended tapas.
- Finally, just outside of town in the pine tree covered slopes of Monte Abantos, look out for Restaurante Horizontal – especially if you are a fan of either duck or Pedro Ximénez sauce.
Play Golf at La Herria Golf Course
If you are a golfer, then you’ll not want to miss the opportunity of playing at La Herrería course, in the very shadow of the San Lorenzo site. This is one of Spain’s very best courses and has featured in some of those ‘100 Best Courses in the World’ lists. The finishing 18th hole might only be 381 yards but, with the Monastery as a backdrop and a green guarded by bunkers and tress, it is a real test. Currently priced at about €70 for a day ticket during the week, this represents tremendous value on a course that is often favourably compared with Valderrama – at less than half the price.