Why El Escorial:
Having lived in Spain for 2 years for my MBA, I was ecstatic when I received the invitation to my friend Ricardo´s wedding in El Escorial outside of Madrid. The timing lined up with the President´s Day long weekend. I timed the flight so I could work remotely on Friday (the hours corresponded to 15:00-midnight in Spain).
On February 17, 2022, I boarded my Iberia flight from New York´s JFK airport to Madrid. The flight was uneventful but weirdly Iberia does not participate in the TSA Precheck program.
The Grand Return a España: February 18, 2022
After arriving in the Madrid airport 6.5 hours later, I rented a car and immediately drove to the town of El Escorial. El Escorial is located next to the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial which contains the famous El Escorial Monastery (very confusing).
While all Spanish towns are pretty and walkable, the town of El Escorial is nothing special. Modern and Franco-era buildings dominate. In true “welcome back to Spain fashion” I tried to get lunch at 14:00. The restaurant was completely empty, but I was told that they cannot seat me because they are full.
I ended up eating at a tapas bar next to the train station which was delicious! I got the menu de dia which included a seafood salad, steak, and non-alcoholic beer for just €16!
It was now time to work. I drove to my AirBnb in San Lorenzo de El Escorial just a few minutes away. I picked it because it was the cheapest option in all of El Escorial, but I definitely won the lottery. The space was unique to say the least. I rented a spare bedroom from an artist and his girlfriend. The décor was…unique to say the least.
For the rest of the day, I worked.
El Escorial: February 19, 2022
The star attraction in San Lorenzo El Escorial is the monastery. The monastery is best known as the resting place for the Kings of Spain. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is a top day trip from Madrid.
The monastery was built between 1563 and 1584 by the order of King Philip II. He named it San Lorenzo de El Escorial in honor of the battle of San Quentin which took place on August 10, the feast day of San Lorenzo. The shape of the monastery is a gridiron because San Lorenzo was grilled to death.
The complex is enormous, as it is the largest Renaissance building in the world. The self-guided tour only goes through a small portion of the monastery.
I started in the library. The ornate room with a Sistine Chapel-esque ceiling was a key center of learning during the Renaissance. The 40,000 books, which all have gold-painted pages, are displayed here spine-in giving the room an extra incredible glow.
Next, I headed into the monastery cloister. Like all monasteries, the cloister at El Escorial is the heart of the monastery. The walls of the cloister are painted with religious scenes. The ceiling of a staircase to a second story has a remarkable ceiling of the Heavens painted by Titian. Unsurprisingly, King Phillip II, the financier of the monastery is sitting right below Jesus. The kings were not the most modest people.
After walking through a few ornate rooms filled with remarkable art such as El Greco´s masterpiece The Martyrdom of St. Maurice, it was time to head downstairs.
Here, I entered the crypt of the Spanish princes and princesses (infantes and infantas). The stone tombs were neatly organized in two rows. Above the tomb was a stone cross and above that the royal´s name and personal crest. The Pantheon of Infantes, as it is known, contains over 100 bodies.
After 9 rooms of Infantes, it was finally time for the highlight of the visit: the Pantheon of Kings which contains near every king since 1500. However, the room was closed for a renovation. What a shame!!
The tour continued through royal apartments from the 1700´s.
Finally, we visited the massive church. The Pantheon of Kings lies directly below the altar of the church.
I was able to walk around the town for a bit afterwards. It was pretty with plenty of historic buildings.
It was then time for the wedding ceremony, which took place in a small chapel nearby. We then headed to an old Royal hunting lodge for the party. The wedding started at 13:00 and lasted all the way until midnight. Quite the day!
February 20, 2022: Valle de los Caidos
Today I visited Spain´s most controversial monument, Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen).
Valle de los Caidos is a basilica built by the dictator Francisco Franco to honor the victims of the Spanish Civil War. This monument is controversial because Franco instigated the war and killed thousands. The church contains the remains of 40,000 soldiers from both sides. Franco himself was also buried in the church until 2019 when he was exhumed.
The church is built into a mountain. Atop the mountain is the world´s largest freestanding cross.
My dad visited the site in the late 1970´s and was very moved. In fact, he was so struck by the church that it was his number one recommendation for me when I moved to Spain. While I didn´t get to see it in my two years in Barcelona, I finally got to it.
After a long drive through the forest, I reached a parking lot at the base of the mountain. I then walked up a staircase to a humongous plaza that could fit thousands. Franco´s eagle emblem was embossed all over the entrance.
I entered the church, which has extremely strict security. I went through a metal detector and was told multiple times not to take photos.
The church was unlike any I have seen in Spain. The light stone almost military style interior architecture contrasted with the ornate Baroque and gothic churches I was used to. The nave was upheld by Roman arches and the entrance was flanked by humongous 5-meter-tall stone hooded angels holding swords. I was reminded of the Sith Citadel on Exegol in Star Wars 9.
The high altar lay at the far end of the nave underneath a large mosaic dome. Flanking the room are 4 more gigantic stone hooded angels in various poses. The tomb of Jose Antonio Primo de Riviera, a fascist politician executed by the Republican government lays at the foot of the altar. Franco´s tomb was in the floor at the back of the high altar, although it is now covered by an unmarked tile. His remains now lie in a cemetery near his palace in El Pardo just north of Madrid.
The bodies of the 40,000 lay in barely marked room on either side of the transept. I was shocked that their presence is so hidden.
After leaving I tried to climb the mountain to visit the cross, but the only way up is via a cable car that was not running.
With that, I headed to Segovia in Castile.
El Escorial and the Valle de los Caidos are worth the hype. They can also be easily combined into a single day trip. While El Escorial can be accessed by train, Valle de los Caidos cannot. Therefore, rent a car.
I stayed out there because of the wedding. While there is enough infrastructure to entertain, Madrid or Segovia would be a much better base.