El Escorial y El Valle de los Caídos

§ July 24th, 2014 § Filed under Spain, Spain - Madrid § 1 Comment


At the Valley of the Fallen

The second organized trip on which my program took us was to a small town outside of Madrid, San Lorenzo de El Escorial (the town simply named El Escorial is a neighboring village). Within this small area resides a humongous palace, built by King Philip II of Spain. Within the large complex there is a school, a monastery, a library, a church, and the old king’s residence (until the mid-19th century). Today, the monastery and school are still functioning, though the monastery only holds 21 monks as opposed to 200 at its peak. The original library of El Escorial was so large, it was second only to the Vatican. Unfortunately, most of the books were destroyed in a fire. But, let me give you a brief overview of my time in the austere edifice.

Philip II built El Escorial in the second half of the 16th century in order to create a royal burial place (I will get to this later), as well as to create a church dedicated to St. Lawrence (Lorenzo), a saint who was killed on a grill. The building served as a Philip II's Chairsummer home and as a place of retreat. Inside the living quarters, Philip’s transport chair was on view. I thought it was really cool to see the actual chair in which Philip sat while he was carried from Madrid to the mountains. Because he was a wealthy monarch and was able to eat a lot of meat, he developed gout (similar to Henry VIII), and was unable to ride a horse himself to his new palace, a trip which took an entire week. Since I am on the subject of the living quarters, let me explain a little bit about how they worked. The royal bedrooms were separate – as they were in those days – but faced each other. Instead of a traditional courtyard in the center of a building or residence, Philip II decided to place the church. There were doors within the studies and bedrooms of both king and queen that opened up to the high altar of the church, so that even if one of them were bed ridden, they could still attend mass. Isn’t that a clever design!?!?

The building is massive. The information given to us before the trip says that it contains around 100 miles of hallways! So of Pantheon of the Kings in the Monastery of El Escorialcourse, I can’t continue explaining every single room and painting on the walls. Instead, I’ll jump to my favorite thing: the Pantheon. As I mentioned before, Philip II built El Escorial as a royal burial place, but was never actually able to live to see its construction completed. (Side note: Philip II died in the living quarters of this palace! I stood in that room!) Under Philip IV, the Royal Pantheon, or crypt, was completed. Velazquez, the famous Spanish court painter, decorator, and close friend to the monarch, oversaw the completion of the circular room. Because time had passed, the architectural style of this room varies greatly with the rest of the palace. Where as Philip II, being a religious man, aimed at making El Escorial austere and religious, Philip IV and Velazquez lived in a Baroque age of drama and extravagance. In the crypt are buried the kings and queens – men on one side, women on the other. One interesting fact to note, though, is that there is one instance where this rule isn’t followed through – Queen Isabella II. Why? The side of the crypt dedicated to the kings is actually for the reigning monarch, and because Queen Isabella was the El Escorial booksactual queen and not one through marriage, she was given the prominent position among men, her husband relegated to the woman’s side.

How about another fun fact? In the library and throughout the entire building, whenever I came upon a bookshelf, I noticed that the books were placed in a strange manner – spine facing back, pages outward. Apparently, this position is healthier for the them!

If I had to choose between a trip to Segovia or a trip to El Escorial, I think I would choose the latter. The tour guide gave us SO much more information. I, again, chose to take the Spanish tour with Ana (docent), and I felt that she was a lot more interested in what El Escorial and, later on, El Valle de los Caidos had to offer. I do have to warn you, though! If you are planning on taking a trip up to the mountains, check the weather first! I went on the trip planning on being toasted by the sun, and instead, was frozen by the wind and clouds! During our break before lunch, I had to go in search for a warm scarf to curl up in. Silly Marina!!!

Not dressed right for the day...

La CuevaFor lunch, we were taken to a restaurant called La Cueva (The Cave). La Cueva - insideUnlike lunch in Segovia, we weren’t given individual plates, but instead, shared various selections of tapas. What did I eat? Bread dipped in the juices of a pepper and onion salad. None of the delicacies were appetizing to me at all! And even if the dessert (some sort of cream dish) tasted good, I couldn’t get past the fact that there were lemon shavings within it, giving it a texture I couldn’t deal with. Luckily, during our break before el almuerzo I grabbed a bite to eat.

Valle de los CaidosAfter lunch we hopped back onto the bus and went to El Valle de los Caidos, also known as, Valley of the Fallen. Built in a period of 20 years in the 20th century under Franco’s regime, it is both a memorial for the fallen soldiers of the Spanish Civil War that fought on Franco’s side, as well as his own burial place. It is probably most known for the giant, 125 meter high cross atop the mountain, but the memorial site also features a large basilica, its nave sporting a massive 860 feet, and a monastery. This is larger than that of St. Peter’s in Rome! Ana, the tour guide, told us that the official entrance to the church had to be pushed back because in the Catholic world, no church can be larger than St. Peter’s. This monument is also a very controversial place in Spanish history and amongst many older Spanish people. During Franco’s reign as dictator, he enlisted thousands of Republican prisoners of war to build the massive church, cross, and outdoor area.

The view was absolutely spectacular from the top of the mountain. We were only given 15 minutes to take pictures, but my friend and I ended up spending another 15 minutes holding up the bus to get our treasured snapshots!!!

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