The name rolls off my tongue, and I want to say it over and over again. It sounds majestic, romantic, slightly mysterious. El Escorial. Only an hour or so from Madrid, the town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is tucked in the Guadarrama mountains. The peace and calm of this small Spanish town belies its history as the political centre of the empire of King Philip II. Here he built a basilica and monastery, a great pantheon with the remains of many members of the royal family. Now one of Spain’s many and varied World Heritage site, tourists flock there. So we thought we should too.
As the saying goes, it rains in Spain on the plain, and as we arrived it started to pour. Consequently we got no photographs of the outside of the monastery, and photography was prohibited inside. An internet search unearthed this magnificent photo, from R.Duran’s flickr site.
A sprint between the raindrops got us inside this enormous structure, where we roamed grandiose rooms lined with frescos by Tibaldi and other contemporary Italian painters, precious paintings including those by Hieronymus Bosch, El Greco and Velázquez, and sculptures of Christ by Bernini and Benvenuto Cellini to name just a few. There is no shortage of amazing art in Spain, but so little time to see it all. We were on a short time frame, and so had to forego fully appreciating what was on display, in order to see one of the more unusual aspects of this building, the King’s Pantheon and the Pantheon of the Infantes. The tiny coffins in the latter reminded us of how precarious life was for the young in those days, royal or not, and how heartbreaking it must have been for the parents.
One of the reasons we were short of time that day was our earlier visit to the nearby national memorial at the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen). Hidden away in a valley in the Sierra de Guadarrama, this memorial was conceived by Franco to honour those who fell during the Spanish Civil War, but only honours by name Franco himself and one other. Wikipedia tells us that as a surviving artifact of Franco’s rule, the monument and its Catholic basilica remain controversial, especially due to the manner and circumstances of its construction (built by political prisoners), and due to the interpretation of which of the fallen it truly honours.
We drove through spring growth forest, and while crossing a small stone bridge we looked up the river valley and behold, a huge cross and building beneath it in perfect symmetry. This was the Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos or “Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen.”
In the hillside under the cross is a basilica. Large, imposing, and impressive, it was magnificent in its starkness. There was a Sunday service as we arrived. The acoustics for the choir were stunning, and the lighting was awesome, in the true meaning of the word, when at one stage the cavern is plunged into darkness, the only light shining on the glowing white statue of Jesus on the cross. However the decoration even of the Basilica seemed sinister, resonating power and strength and dominance, with an emphasis on death not life. The angels ascending the walls to the Dome were beautiful but even they seemed to form a V for Victory.
The cross above the basilica can be reached via a small cable car. The views are magnificent, and the Benedictine abbey behind, which houses priests who say perpetual Masses for the fallen, was to say the least a surprise.
This is not a peaceful place however. There is nothing subtle or contemplative about the cross and its surrounding carvings. But it is definitely worth visiting, to get a real feel for Spain and its more recent history.