„The edifices were planned as a monastery-cum-palace complex modelled on the Spanish El Escorial, but unfortunately the money ran out and only a fraction of the plans could be realised.“ That’s what the guide explained when we visited the monastery of Klosterneuburg near Vienna a few years ago. At that time neither of us knew anything about the palace called El Escorial, but we where quick to close that knowledge gap: El Escorial is a historical residence of the king of Spain with an attached monastery. It is most famous for its enormous size. Many years later we went one a day-trip to visit El Escorial.
Large – that is indeed the main impression when we actually visit El Escorial. Although the tour starts with numerous floor maps and architectural models, almost never during our three-hour visit do we have a clear idea where we are in the complex (and Isa has a really good sense of direction).
El Escorial was built in the second half of the 16th century by king Philip II of Spain, the son of the most famous Charles V. Legend has it that Philip II, in winning the battle of St Quentin against the French army, accidentally destroyed a church dedicated to St Lawrence. The day of the battle also happened to be St. Lawrence’s feast day (10th of August), which is why Philip II allegedly felt he had to atone for the damage. His strategy for making up with the saint was building an enormous new palace in the design of a grid iron, the instrument of torture used to kill St Lawrence. A rather peculiar way to commemorate the event, we feel.
On a visit you will see the the royal residential quarters and reception rooms, the library, the church and a formidable part of the Spanish kings’ art collection (although most of it is exhibited in the Prado Museum). In 1984 El Escorial became a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
What we think about our visit to El Escorial
For some reason we expected El Escorial to be very grand and impressive, but the building left a rather underwhelming feeling, perhaps due to our high expectations. Most parts of the complex are very stern and undecorated, and you can never actually see the building as a whole – only experience long corridors and staircases from inside. We did appreciate the paintings by famous artists, though.
How to get to El Escorial
On the outward journey we went by train, which turned out to be not so easy, because on weekends the trains go very infrequently. The landscape though was very nice with green olive trees, and we even saw some deer. On the way back we took the bus, which stops near El Escorial, goes more frequently and takes less time. On the other hand, it takes a less scenic route.