Surviving a trip to El Escorial (Madrid)

Once you get away from the broken bits, the problem with the Spanish railways is that they are much too efficient. High-speed trains criss-cross the country in a few hours and so there are no opportunities for comfortable, overnight journeys to set you down in a new city at crack of dawn. Speeds of 300+kph come at quite a price though: advanced reservations are required for all but the most local of journeys and these are not cheap, they also have a tendency to deposit you at your next destination in the early hours of the morning.

Having “done” Madrid on at least two previous occasions, I have no pressing desire to give myself blisters traipsing around all its magnificent art galleries or to get heartburn from consuming tapas and vino tinto all the while waiting up for some of the latest dining hours in the Western World. Instead I was here for the palace of El Escorial and nothing else. I’ve never actually been before and it’s more than time to get it ticked off the list. Talking of places still remaining to be visited, I’ve had to forego the rich, romantic cities of central Spain: Salamanca, Burgos, Valladolid and Zaragoza. I can visualise them radiating from the capital like a coy Señorita’s fan but unfortunately they will have to wait.

The first train to El Escorial (more properly known as The Royal Site of San Lorenzo de Escorial) left at 07.48 and so I decided to check my rucksack into a locker and try to beat the crowds, even if it meant arriving well before opening time. It turns out that very few visitors actually take the train anyway, it’s just a suburban route to a nondescript little town perched on the side of some dry hills with a few snow-capped peaks in the distance. Never mind the World Heritage Site a mile or so up the hill, I could have been anywhere. At least the coffee at the station bar was good and I could stock up on modestly priced groceries at a tiny convenience store opposite.

There aren’t many signs I guess the locals are fed up with coachloads of visitors who descend upon the town expecting something more akin to a “Kings and Queens of Spain” theme park than a place where people actually live but I walked up the steep hill and around the rather forbidding palace walls to find scores of black-uniformed security staff all having a last minute smoke before opening up the ticket offices. At least some of them were “vaping”, a sign that some sort of health education is making its way down here at last. I proudly presented my driving licence to prove I was old enough for a senior ticket and was one of the first people through the doors.

Bloody hell, where to start? It takes about four hours to get around and I think most people come away with “cultural indigestion” (as well as the other kind, because although there are plenty of nice clean loos, not a drop of water or morsel of food is available within the precincts). While it is on a much grander scale than its Northern cousin, the bare stone walls reminded me of Helsingor and the fact that, royal residence or not, it long continued to be a working monastery.

In the middle of the 16th century Philip II embarked upon an ambitious programme of building and embellishment, gathering vast quantities art works and books, the latter with the tacit approval of the Inquisition despite the fact that these included works in Greek, Latin and Hebrew and many of a secular nature. It seems that, as with the way in which Muslim caliphs were always allowed illustrations of human figures, aristocratic patrons of religion were always held to be above the censorship imposed upon the faithful. This became one of the finest libraries in the world, containing some incredibly rare codices brought back from the New World, not all of which survived the disastrous fire of 1671.

All the great painters of the age are represented on the palace walls: Velazquez and Veronese, Titian and Tintoretto, far more than any one visitor could hope to appreciate and almost all of an overbearing and gloomy religiosity. When he was told that Michelangelo was nearing eighty and in poor health, Phillip had to settle for various lesser fresco painters to adorn the domes of his basilica. As a vision of heaven these classically posed saints and cherubim draw the eye upwards from the shadows beneath but this type of ceiling ensures that you are looking up at an awful lot of dangling, naked legs and feet. How the subjects preserve their modesty I’m not sure but it struck me as a sort of 16th Century version of “up-skirting”.

Well, on we go and eventually the tour leads you down into the Pantheon of the Kings, burial place of pretty well all the monarchs and Queen Consorts of Spain since Philip II. You start in chamber number 9 and so you know you’ve got a genealogists treat in front of you as you walk past rows of identical white marble tombs stacked in rows like torpedoes in a loading bay. Yes, they were all commissioned at once, sometime during the 19th century when the Bourbons decided to collect up and re-inter their ancestors alongside the spaces that they had helpfully provided for their descendants. Particularly repugnant is a 3 meter high, tiered wedding cake arrangement which contains 60 radiating niches for the remains of any offspring that die before reaching the age of twelve. Infant mortality having declined steeply in recent years, a number of these remain unfilled.

Exhausted but replete, I’m back at Madrid railway station and this time my train will get me into Barcelona in time for me to make it to a Hostel for the night.

Categories: Europe

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