Outside Madrid: The Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial

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The Palace/Monastery of San Lorenzo del Escorial is a vast complex of buildings built by Philip II to mark the Spanish victory at the Battle of St Quentin in 1557. It is perhaps Spain’s most significant Renaissance monument and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

The complex is about 45 minutes by car from Madrid and can be visited in a morning. The visit is usually combined with a stop at the the Valley of the Fallen, the controversial basilica commissioned by Francisco Franco to commemorate the dead of the Spanish Civil War and in which he himself is buried. The building houses a monastery, the royal palace, a museum and a school. The floor plan of the building is in the form of a gridiron. The traditional belief is that this design was chosen in honor of St Lawrence, who, in the third century AD, was martyred by being roasted to death on a grill. The grill motif is used throughout the building.

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It is difficult to summarize the myriad reasons why  the monument is worth a visit . . . so here’s a brief list of my top arguments in favor of a visit:

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The Library: Magnificent in its design and rich decoration, the Library has an unparalleled collection that dates back to the 14th century and includes countless manuscripts chronicling the unification of Spain by Philip II’s great-grandparents . It was, at its foundation, one of the greatest libraries in the world. The library’s collection consists of more than 40,000 volumes, located in a great hall fifty-four meters in length, nine meters wide and ten meters tall with marble floors and beautifully carved wood shelves.

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The Pantheon:  Within the building is the Pantheon of the Kings, where all Spanish Monarchs since Charles V but three are buried. Buried here is also one of my personal favorite royals, Don Juan de Austria, the illegitimate young son of Charles V known as “the last knight of Europe,” who led the Christian Navy to victory against the Ottoman Empire in the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. Juan (above) died young (aged 31) of typhus.

The Hall of Battles: The Hall of Battles is completely covered in frescoes depicting the most important Spanish military victories. Colorful and fascinating in the richness of its details, the hall is a delight.

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The Art Collection:

The complex is also an enormous storehouse of art. It displays masterworks by Titian, Tintoretto, El Greco, Velázquez, Rogier van der Weyden, Paolo Veronese, Alonso Cano, José de Ribera, Claudio Coello and others. At every turn you come across stunning paintings and sculptures. The Hall of Maps, featuring a collection of 15th and 16th century arts, is my personal favorite.

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The Royal Apartments: The modest rooms occupied by Philip II and his daughter the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia, give us a sense of the personal austerity that characterized a man that was then the most powerful monarch in the world. They are the most intimate and personal rooms in the vast complex and include the bed on which Philip died.

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The Valley of the Fallen: A few kilometers from El Escorial is the controversial Valley of the Fallen, an underground church and tomb topped with a 500 foot stone cross, which can be seen from a distance of 30 miles. It purports to honor all the dead in the Spanish Civil war, but only two of the dead are named, General Francisco Franco and José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange Party. It was built by the forced labor of Republican prisoners, many of whom lost their lives in the process.

There has been some interest expressed in a visit to El Escorial, which I will be happy to help organize with you after we arrive in Portugal. If you are interested in visiting, please let me know.

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