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El Escorial


On August 10, 1557, the troops of Felipe II defeated the troops of King Richard II at San Quintin. The king made a promise that if they won the battle, he would build a monastery in honor of the day's martyr, San Lorenzo. He ordered a commission to look for an adequate site and the search party chose El Escorial, a village of a mere 100 people, because of the goodness of its water, the quality of its climate and its proximity to the quarries. In this way, on 23 April, 1563, the first stone was laid. From there, an entire town was organized around the monastery.

Juan Bautista de Toledo was given charge of this undertaking, but Juan de Herrera took over the project when Bautista died in 1567. Herrera finished it in 1584. The style with which he completed the project became a school of its own, and came to be known as "herreriano". It is said that the floor plan of the building has the shape of a grill, in honor of San Lorenzo who was martyred in Rome roasted on a grill.

The Monastery of El Escorial is considered one of the modern wonders of the world and on November 2, 1984, UNESCO declared it Monument of Worldwide Interest.

Where to go  

The first thing you find upon arriving to El Escorial is the main Façade. This has three doors: the middle one leads to the Patio de los Reyes and the side ones lead to a school and the other to a monastery. On the façade there is a niche where the image of a saint has been placed. The Patio de los Reyes is an enclosure that owes its name to the statues of the Kings of Judah that adorn the façade of the Basílica, located at the back, from which you can access from the patio. This spectacular basilica has a floor in the shape of a Greek cross and an enormous cupola inspired in San Pedro del Vaticano. The naves are covered with canyon vaults decorated with frescoes by Lucas Jordán. The large chapel is one of the highlights in the basilica, presided by steps of red marble. Its main altarpiece is 30 meters high and divided in compartments of different sizes where we find bronze sculptures and canvas authored by Tibaldi, Zuccaro or Leoni. In the Capitulary and the Sacristy Rooms, painting such as 'La Túnica de José' by Velázquez, 'La Última Cena (The Last Supper)' by Tiziano, or 'La Adoración de la Sagrada Forma por Carlos II (The Adoration by Carlos II of the Sacred Form)' by Claudio Coello are on exhibit.

Under the royal chapel of the Basílica we find the Panteones Reales. These are the place of burial for the kings of Spain. It is an octagonal Baroque mausoleum made of marble where all of the Spanish monarchs since Carlos I have been buried, with the exception of Felipe V, Fernando de Saboya and Amadeo de Saboya. The remain of Juan de Borbon, father of Juan Carlos I (Spain's current king), also rest in this pantheon despite the fact he never came to rule. The enclosure is presided by an altar of veined marble, and the sarcaphogi are bronze and marble. We also find the Panteón de los Infantes, where the bodies of the queens who did not have a crowned succession and the princes and princesses were laid to rest. This part was built in the 19th C.

After visiting the Basílica, we can admire the Patio de los Evangelistas. This is a gardened patio in whose center rises a magnificent pavilion by Juan de Herrera in which you can find sculptures of the Evangelistas. Around the patio are the galleries of the main cloister, decorated with frescoes in which scenes from the history of the Redemption are represented. In the East gallery, you find the splendid main stair case with a frescoe-decorated vaulted ceiling themed "the glory of the Spanish monarchy".

Next, we can visit the Palacio de los Austrias, also known as the Casa del Rey (House of the King), which is found behind the presbytery of the basilica. The outbuildings of this palace are distributed around the patio of the Mascarones, of Italian style. Inside the House of the King we can visit first of all the Sala de las Batallas (Hall of Battles), which contains frescoes of the battles of San Quintín and Higueruela, among others. The next building that we see contain the rooms of Felipe II and of the Infanta Isabel Clara Eugenia. Another interesting outbuilding is that of Alcoba del Rey, where we can contemplate the bed in which Felipe II died.

Next on our visit, we will go to the Palacio de los Borbones, which was ordered to be built by the house of Bourbon upon seeing that the décor of the rooms of El Escorial were too sober for the luxuries of his era. For that reason, they preferred to reside in el Pardo, La Granja or Aranjuez. They built the palace to the left of the basilica. Tapestries from the Real Fábrica de Madrid are hung inside (many of them were done over sketches made by Goya), spectacular crystal lamps, ornamental cabinet work of extraordinary quality, frescoed ceilings, etc., giving a result dignified of the luxuries of the age. Unfortunately, today the Palacio de los Borbones is closed to the public.

In the vaulted cellars of El Escorial, a series of museums have been installed such as the one Architecture where you can peruse the construction plans of the Monastery, 3D models and some of the tools that were used. You can also find the museum of painting, where works by El Greco, Zurbarán, Ribera, Tintoretto, Tiziano, Rubens or El Veronés are on display.

One of the most surprising places on the visit to El Escorial is the Library, which is located on the second floor. The Doric wooden bookcases sit on a marble pedestal. Surprisingly, the books are placed on the cases with the spines toward the inside, permitting the pages to air. The canyon vaulted ceiling is decorated with frescoes by Tibaldo, inspired by Michaelangelo. Besides its ornamentation, the importance of the place lies in its collection, which includes more than 40,000 publications and some 2,600 manuscripts from the 5th to the 18th century. We also find a set of glass cases in the middle of the room in which valuable codexes like a miniature copy of the Cantigas de Santa María de Alfonso X el Sabio, or autographed works by Santa Teresa de Jesús.

Nearing the end of our journey, we will visit the Casita del Príncipe (Prince's little house), also called the Casita de Abajo (the house below). It is a small palace which was ordered by Carlos III for his son, Prince Carlos. The interest of the building resides in its decoration rather than the architecture itself. Decorated with the same luxury that the Bourbons employed, it is a palace in miniature containing extraordinary beauty through its floors, furniture, paintings and sculptures.

Finally, we end the trip by visiting the nearby Silla de Felipe II (Chair of Felipe II). It is a boulder located on a nearby mountain, which Felipe II had crafted in order to sit there and be able to follow the work on the monastery during its construction. Today, it is in a perfect state and is perfectly marked. Whoever sits on it can enjoy an exceptional panoramic view of the El Escorial complex.

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