Madrid monastery – the soul of a mountain town
Located in the heart of the Sierra de Guadarrama (on the side of Mount Abantos), only 50 kilometers from Madrid, is one of the most interesting towns in the area from a touristic and cultural point of
Located in the heart of the Sierra de Guadarrama (on the side of Mount Abantos), only 50 kilometers from Madrid, is one of the most interesting towns in the area from a touristic and cultural point of view. Declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1984, the Monastery and Real Sitio de San Lorenzo of El Escorial is the soul of this mountain town, which attracts thousands of visitors every year.
Culture, history and nature
Although traces remain of previous inhabitants, the origins of the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial can be dated back to the Reconquest of the 11th century, and the subsequent resettling of the central plateau. This small agricultural and cattle farming village remained isolated for centuries until 1561 when, with the establishment of the Royal Court in Madrid, Phillip II commissioned the construction of the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial on land he had recently purchased.
With the arrival of workers to build the cathedral, the remote village was transformed into a town, which brought about the establishment of traders and craftsmen, a rise in the population and the construction of a new town hall, a hospital and residences for visiting aristocrats. Two centuries later, Carlos III gave the royal stamp of approval to the new town and its architectural design, courtesy of Juan de Esteban and Juan de Villanueva.
At the beginning of the 19th century, with the French invasion of 1808, the Royal Court abandoned San Lorenzo de El Escorial as an official residence, and it fell into a period of decline. However, El Escorial recovered some of its commercial and cultural vigor in the middle of the century as a result of the building of a new railway network and the sale of the Crown lands, allowing the emerging bourgeois class to purchase land on which to build hotels and summer residences.
Alfonso XIII transformed the town into the nerve center of the Eastern part of the province. Ever since, San Lorenzo de El Escorial has been one of the region’s most important seats of learning, with the founding of the Universidad Maria Cristina, known today as the Real Centro Universitario El Escorial-Maria Cristina attached to the Universidad Complutense, and the colleges of la Inmaculada Concepción and las Carmelitas de la Caridad. These days, El Escorial is a reference point in the world of university education, and, since 1988, has been organizing its prestigious Summer Courses, attended by thousands of Spanish and international students every year.
Deeply affected by the death of his father Carlos V in 1558, and with the aim of firmly establishing the House of Austria in Spain, Felipe II commissioned the building of the Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial as a means to create an eternal memorial for his relatives, ensure a family vault, and compensate for the destruction of a church dedicated to San Lorenzo in the Battle of San Quintin in France.
Under the guidance of Juan Bautista de Toledo, the first stone was laid on the April 23, 1563. Upon his death in 1567, Juan de Herrera took over the work, stamping his own style on the design, characterized by an emphasis on lines at the expense of decorative elements which may distract those contemplating the building.
With its 207-metre facade facing towards Mount Abantos, the building is rectangular in shape, measuring 33,000 meters squared in size and designed in the shape of an inverted grid. Visitors are greeted by the imposing principal façade leading to the Patio de los Reyes, which takes its name from the statues of the Kings of Judah adorning the façade of the basilica.
This is without a doubt one of the parts of any visit to the monastery that should not be missed. With a square floor plan and crowned by a dome which takes its inspiration from Saint Peters in the Vatican, it has a total of 43 altars and chancels. Particularly noteworthy are the Royal Oratories and the Royal Burials, two groups of kneeling statues corresponding to the families of Carlos V and Felipe II. Under the Royal Basilica lie the Royal Vaults, 26 black marble graves containing the remains of the Kings of the Houses of Austria and the Bourbons, and the Infant Vault, with the graves of the Queens who died without heirs to the throne, princes and princesses.
The Palace of the Hapsburgs, located behind the basilica, boasts an interesting Battle Room, which contains frescoes of some of the more significant battles won by the Spanish crown. The personal belongings of Felipe II and Princess Isabel Clara Eugenia can also be found here.
The Architecture Museum is located in the basement of the monastery and features reproductions of the architectural plans, the tools used and the budget, in addition to an art gallery containing works by El Greco, Zurbaran, Ribera, Tintoretto, Titian, Rubens and Veronese. No visit would be complete without a trip to the library, containing a copy of Cantigas de Santa Maria by Alfonso X The Wise, several works by Santa Teresa de Jesus, Mozarabic manuscripts, and the Codice Aureo, written in gold.
The Courtesan City
Aside from the monastery, although inseparable from it, the Casa de Oficios and the Casa de Infantes, located between the Monastery’s façade and Calle Floridiblanca, are both well worth a visit, as are the King’s Stables, built to keep the horses and carriages used by the Royal Family on their visits.
Also worthy of note is the Casita del Príncipe, built by Juan de Villanueva for the prince of Asturias – the future Carlos IV -, and the Casita del Infante, built for the brother of the future king, a small hunting pavilion in natural surroundings which served as a stage for chamber recitals and meetings of the court.
The Royal Coliseum of Carlos III, designed by the French architect Jaime Marquet, is another of the town’s more significant buildings, and is today one of the region’s most important cultural centers.
Moving away from the town’s historic center, in La Herreria, we find the Hermitage of the Virgen de Gracia, a small building in a natural pine setting, which is the stage of a popular gathering every year. Nearby, built upon a rock, lies the Seat of Felipe II, from which it is said the monarch supervised the progress in the construction of the monastery.
Only 8 kilometers from El Escorial, in the heart of the Sierra de Guadarrama, you will find the Benedictine Abbey of Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos. This colossal construction stands on an area of 36,000 meters squared, and comprises the abbey and other buildings such as the library or the inn, a crypt built into the rock, and an immense 150 meter high cross, which can be accessed via a hidden entrance. Inside lie the remains of Francisco Franco and Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera and, hidden from public view, the bodies of 40,000 soldiers who fell in the Civil war.