El Escorial: UNESCO visit number seven

In October I wrote a blog about visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites while in Europe for the semester and I have just added another to my list for the semester, El Escorial. The tally now is seven overall in Europe, five in Spain.

Going to El Escorial was a great day trip. While the majority of our group was visiting Geneva, Switzerland for the weekend Rachel and I decided to stay local and see historical sites, unfortunately we both had a late start on Saturday morning so we only saw El Escorial, but that proved to be enough as we wanted a more relaxed weekend anyhow.
Exterior of El Escorial in San Lorenzo, Spain.
Exterior of El Escorial in San Lorenzo, Spain.

El Escorial is located in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a region near Madrid and in the center of Spain. If you are based in Madrid like myself you can either take the bus or the train, both are inexpensive costing 7,50 euro roundtrip and is a relaxing 55 minute ride both ways. Upon arriving in San Lorenzo we didn’t think El Escorial would be far from the train station, but it is about a 20 minute walk uphill, so for those who do not enjoy a steady incline or have issues walking I suggested taking the bus offered that runs from the station to the site. Rachel and I decided to see how fit we were and walked the incline, wrong move.

Once we reached the area we were shocked as to how large this five century old monument was. I personally believe it has the potential to put the Queen of England’s palace to shame. Sorry Buckingham Palace. El Escorial is quite possibly the most important architectural monument from the Spanish Renaissance, and I say quite possibly because every Spanish history and culture professor I have had has said this. My señora even agreed once I returned from my day trip. The monument, the brainchild of King Philip II, took 21 years to complete, beginning in 1563 and ending in 1584. Phillip II wanted the building to be a place that had multiple purposes and, being the determined man he was, he made it happen. El Escorial was not just a palace for the King, (originally it was meant to solely be a burial place for his father Charles V), but it was also a burial ground where many previous Kings of Spain can be found , as well as a monastery, church, college and library.

If you are more of a visual person here is a break down by date:

  • 1582: Iglesia de San Bernabé
  • 1584: Royal Palace, Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, university
  • 1592: Biblioteca de El Escorial
Rachel and I wanted to take our time going through El Escorial but our leisure lunch took a bit longer than we anticipated and did not enter until around 4:00 and it closes at 6:00. As a result we bypassed the numerous rooms of paintings and armory from past wars, we quickly gawked at the tools and apparatuses used to build the monument located in the basement and then strolled through the living rooms – yes, there were multiple – and enjoyed visiting the ornate bedrooms and offices, the five century year-old chairs that still had their cushions and tapestry in tact and also the pantheons where 26 kings and queens are buried. This was probably my favorite part and Rachel’s least favorite. That sounds morbid so let me explain a bit.
I have never been a fan of cemeteries. But, on the other hand I think their is something special about how as a family you all are together in one unified location in the end. I am probably not helping myself sound less grim right now but the pantheons and the several other rooms where the princes and princesses are also buried signify a single location where hundreds of years of history are conjoined. Yes, the kings and queens may not have gotten along, they didn’t really boost Spain’s economy and, in some cases, they even lead Spain downhill (Philip II, that is aimed at you), but they played pivotal roles in Spain’s history. It was a little creepy, for lack of a better word, to walk from room to room and see more crypts and tombs that have decayed bodies in them, however it makes you realize how far back the history of Spain goes and how young the United States is as a country. At one point I asked Rachel what she thought the bodies would be like after so much time has passed, she did not like that question and began to walk faster towards the exit. Leaving the pantheons we decided to take a peak at the basilica and then get some fresh air by taking a gander through the gardens. The Church of San Bernabé  was beautiful and we stayed for a few minutes then said to one another, “Why do these all look the same to us now?” So we soaked in the beauty of the church and headed for the gardens.
We saw swans, took in the brisk air and soaked in the view of the mountains and really could not believe that the grass was still so lush and green – in Minnesota there was six inches of snow. As we walked through the gardens I couldn’t help but think how nice it would be to have this much green space but how I would hate to groom the shrubs and maintain the fountains. Whoever does deserves a raise. El Escorial and San Lorenzo were pleasantly quiet and I think Rachel and I both needed that after celebrating Thanksgiving away from our families and the comfort of our quiet hometown of Minneapolis. All in all it was a great day-trip and I think it is quite possibly my new favorite UNESCO site in Spain I have seen. Props to King Philip II, you didn’t do all that bad.