San Lorenzo de El Escorial and the Valle de los Caídos

Today, in a flurry of touristy frenzy before I start my new job tomorrow, we decided to go to San Lorenzo de El Escorial, a town to the northwest of Madrid. The impulse was triggered by watching Blood and Gold, that BBC history series where Simon Sebag Montefiore wanders around Spain wearing the hat that everyone’s dad wears on holiday.

San Lorenzo de El Escorial exists because in the 1560s, King Felipe II of Spain decided that the best way to stop the Protestant uprisings plaguing the massive empire he’d inherited from his father was to spend all the gold from the New World and build an enormous Catholic palace/monastery/library. Martin Luther himself could have been nailing revolutionary leaflets to the door, and Felipe would have been all, “nope, just paint some gold all over that, maybe throw some jewels on too, that’ll show them.”

It takes about an hour from Moncloa bus station to get to El Escorial, and from then on you just need to follow the Chinese tourists to the entrance.


The whole place is absolutely enormous (Google will attest with this bird’s eye picture), and has a library, basilica, halls, the palace of the Borbón royal family, and some casual Titians and El Grecos scattered around. Unfortunately they were pretty intense about the lack of photos, so I only really have outside ones.

One of my favourite parts was Felipe’s library, where he probably did a lot of plotting and spinning of globes (which were, of course, all the hooky 16th Century ones which have no Australia or New Zealand, and South America is just a big blob with “Chile” scrawled on top). I also loved the crypt, where generations of royals were categorised and stored away in huge dark marble tombs with golden lion’s feet at the bases.

Felipe was also apparently a big fan of Hieronymus Bosch, potentially why the Prado ended up with a bunch. They have a massive tapestry of The Garden of Earthly Delights, which Felipe maybe used to look at to assure himself that heaven and hell were there in all of their paradisical or firey glory, or he may also have just been like, “weird, that guy has the head of a fish and is playing the bagpipes, cool”.


After a turn round the palace’s gardens, we had some lunch and then headed back to the bus station to head to the Valle de los Caídos – the Valley of the Fallen. Sebag had also piqued our interest with this one, and  what with it being a Sunday in a small town – the prospect of there being only one bus there and one bus back today was just too tempting to pass up.

The Valle de los Caídos, a twenty minute drive away from El Escorial, is a monument to those who had died in the Spanish Civil War. Franco ordered its construction in the 1940s and it was completed by 1959.

I have never seen anywhere like this before. The cross is 500 feet tall and just looms there starkly and unapologetically, staring out at the enormous forest below where 40,000 Civil War bodies lie. The basilica underneath it is carved into the rock and a huge pietà is strewn on top, weeping into the stone. Franco had perhaps seen what Felipe II was all about when he built El Escorial four hundred years earlier.


The basilica is windowless, the lights along the side gleaming like pools of oil off the black marble floor. The entrance hall has two massive Art Deco angels guarding the hallway, and four statues flanking the alter. Whispers echo, and the oppressive feeling that being under the giant cross outside gives you is only made worse inside.

They were very strict about photos, but I managed to get this one of Franco’s grave, which perhaps encapsulates the feelings: a tombstone covered with flowers, and with spit.


The place was unsettling, exaggerated, and unapologetic. The last bus home took us back to El Escorial, then we made our way home, where I had to try and clean the dust of history off my shoes.



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