El Escorial

On Sunday, June 17 we took an afternoon trip to El Escorial a palace/monastery an hour’s train ride from Madrid.  Because it’s been so long since that date, I figured I should offer a little context to get you in our frame of mind when we visited.  That Sunday was the day after the trip to Segovia and canceled bullfight/flash flood.  As we were all kind of tired (and as Tanya had to take her friend Jess back to the airport to go to back to her program in London) we opted to go after lunch, meeting at the Cercanias (commuter rail) station at Atocha at 3:15.  It proved to be quite an interesting trip.

It only cost 6 euros for a round trip train ticket and we got on the 3:30 train.  We arrived, right on time, to the city of San Lorenzo de El Escorial at 4:30 and headed out of the train station to catch a short bus ride to the actual palace.  While we waited at the bus stop, it began to pour.  Luckily, though, the rain wasn’t quite as bad as at the Plaza de los Toros the night before.

After about 25 minutes we were relieved to see a bus finally pull up to the stop.  We clambered on, glad to be dry and on our way, but then a funny thing happened.  The bus driver turned off the bus.  And we sat. And we sat. And we sat.  After a little while the driver stirred, stepped outside (it had stopped raining by now), and took a smoke break.  We continued to sit.  The bus didn’t pull out of the station until after almost an hour of waiting, at 5:30.  And the best part? El Escorial closes at 6:00.  By the time we ran from the closest bus stop to the palace, it was 5:50.  We got our tickets and hurried inside.  Though tickets are not sold after 6:00, the palace stays open until 7:00, so we at least had some time to look around.  In short (pardon the pun): it’s amazing.

The palace was built from 1563-1584 for King Philip II to be used as a residence, monastery, and burial  ground for the monarchy.  The tour started with a small museum of architecture in the basement that explained how the building was designed and constructed.  To construct the large stone walls, the builders used the same clamp tool used by the Romans to make the Segovia aqueduct many centuries earlier.  Also in the basement was a small art museum representing some of the significant artwork from the monastery and palace.

Next was the palace tour.  Though it was mostly uneventful (probably because we were rushing), it had nice views of the mountains and everything looked very royal and comfortable.  By far the most interesting part of the tour was the Pantheon of the Kings and Princes of Spain.  Most of the ruling monarchs and their family members since Phillip II are buried in this solemn area of El Escorial.  In the darkened rooms, the polished marble and gold tombs take on an ethereal glow.  Just a few inches of marble separate you from the actual royals who governed Spain. Very cool.

We finished the tour, working our way toward the monastery.  While the monastery itself is not open to the public (it’s still a functioning monastery, monks and all), we were able to get a glimpse into the Basilica where the monks hold services.  By the time we got to the last sight, the building’s library, it had already been closed off (it was only 6:50ish but the guards subscribed to the Spanish philosophy of business: open late, close early, and take lots of coffee breaks).

The next train back to Madrid left at 7:30 and rather than wait for the bus, we hurried down to the train station on foot (it really was all downhill) to just make it on time.  We had to rush because back in Madrid, the Real Madrid championship game started at 9:00 and we couldn’t miss that…

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