“In these endless corridors and courtyards you may taste the Spanish taste for the grandiose…. In the coldness and the bleakness of this building you may detect the aristocratic stoicism of Spain…. Above all in the pervading sadness of the Escorial, you may feel something of the tragedy of Spain, her lack of fulfilment” – Jan Morris – ‘Spain’
Nothing could have prepared me for the first sight of the Royal Palace. El Escorial was bigger than I imagined it would be, brooding and austere, almost like a prison building, no soft lines or landscaping just a sort of brutalism that a Soviet architect would have been proud of. Magnificent but harsh, violent almost, a statement to match the era in which it was built.
It was early afternoon and everyone was quite hungry so instead of going immediately to the Palace we looked for somewhere to eat instead. We found a little café bar with a terrace overlooking the Royal residence and sat outside and ordered beer and snacks and sat for a while and enjoyed the pleasant sunshine.
The Palace at El Escorial, rising like a fortress on the edge of the plain and in the immediate shadow of the mountains and which on a clear day can be seen from Madrid was built by King Philip II, who, reacting to the Protestant Reformation sweeping through Europe during the sixteenth century, built this place in the middle of the Castilian highlands, pitilessly oven-baked in the summer and by contrast raw-cold in the winter, and devoted much of his lengthy forty-two reign and much of his seemingly inexhaustible supply of New World gold to stemming the Protestant tide.
Phillip ran his Spanish seaborne Empire, which stretched from the Netherlands and southern Italy to North Africa, Latin America and the faraway Philippines from his headquarters at El Escorial which was designed as a deliberately austere monument to celebrate Spain’s proud and suspicious role as a centre of the post Medieval Catholic Christian world.
Even today the Palace remains as Phillip designed and built it, raw, bleak, hard. No Welcome Mat at the Front Door!
Since then, El Escorial has been the burial site for most of the Bourbon and Hapsburg Spanish kings of the last five centuries and the Royal Pantheon contains the tombs of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (who ruled Spain as King Charles I), Philip II, Philip III, Philip IV, Charles II, Louis I, Charles III, Charles IV, Ferdinand VII, Isabella II, Alfonso XII, and Alfonso XIII. In 1984, UNESCO declared The Royal Site of San Lorenzo of El Escorial a World Heritage Site.
Each new trip to Spain includes visits to World Heritage Sites so when I counted them up I was interested to discover that out of the forty-three sites on the UNESCO list (second only to Italy with forty-seven) I have now been to twenty and that is nearly half of them.
In 2005 I went to Barcelona in Catalonia and saw the works of Antoni Gaudi, Palau de la Música Catalana and the Hospital de Sant Pau. Then in 2008 I saw the Historic Centre of Cordoba, the Caves of Altamira in Cantabria, the Old Town and Cathedral of Santiago de Compostella and the Alcázar and Archivo de Indias in Seville. In 2009 in the motoring holiday around Castilian cities it was the Old Town of Segovia and its Roman Aqueduct, the Walled Town of Cuenca, the Historic City of Toledo and the Old Town of Ávila. A year later in 2011 I added Cáceres, Mérida and Aranjuez and also Trujillo which for the time being is only on the tentative list.
Even before I knew anything about World Heritage Sites it turns out that I have visited two more in the days of my beach type holidays, although when I went to these places neither of them were yet on the list. In 1988 I holidayed on the island of Ibiza which was accepted onto the list in 1999 in recognition of its biodiversity and culture and in the following year I went to Tenerife and took a cable car ride to the top of Mount Tiede, a national park that was accepted to the list in 2007. I have also visited Benidorm but for some reason that hasn’t yet made the list.
Even though they weren’t World Heritage Sites at the time I visited them I am still going to count them but the final two might be a bit dubious but anyway here goes. In 1984 while driving back through Spain from Portugal I drove with friends through the city of Burgos which was accepted in that year because of its Cathedral, and in Galicia in 2008 while visiting Santiago de Compostela I managed to drive over parts of the Pilgrim Route, which exists on the list separately from the old city itself.
After our late lunch we made our way to the complex of El Escorial which has been described as ‘the oppressive monument of the first totalitarian state in Europe’ and ‘the mausoleum of Spanish power’ and although the expansive courtyard was bathed in afternoon sunshine the grey building did indeed appear cold, vast and imposing and it was easy to see how this dull monolithic exterior came to represent Castilian military virility and the expression of religious might and it certainly wasn’t as handsome as the other Royal Palaces that we have visited at San Ildefonso, Madrid and Arunjuez.
It was too late to visit the interior so we made do with a walk around the outside and a peek into the precisely manicured gardens at the rear. It wasn’t too busy today but on the way out a Spanish man began a conversation with us in perfect English but with a distinctly Teutonic accent. He told us he was a solicitor and originally from Bilbao so I suppose that makes him a Basque rather than a Spaniard but he told us he lived in El Escorial now and he gave us some sightseeing suggestions for our short stay.
More posts about Royal Palaces: