The City of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is always associated with the famous Monastery build by Phillip II. It is a beautiful city, located on the slopes of Mt. Albantos, and it is a hilly city. Most of the city is at an altitude of between 1000 to 1032 meters (3000 to 3300 feet) so you are always going up or down in El Escorial. The main part of town is known by locals as Escorial de Arriba (Upper Escorial) to differentiate it from Escorial de Abajo (Lower Escorial). This is important, because if you are looking for something or someplace, you need to know if it is in Upper Escorial or Lower Escorial. And, if you are walking, this is really important. The train station, for example, is in Lower Escorial, at the bottom of the hill. You can’t get much lower. So getting to the top of the hill where all the hotels and tourist attractions are either means a long slog with your suitcases, or a short bus or taxi ride. We suggest the later form of transportation, because it is a long, steep hill. Especially on a hot summer day.
El Escorial was just a sleepy little hamlet until Phillip II decided to build his famous Monastery there. While construction carried on over the next 21 years, the tiny hamlet grew in size to accommodate all the builders and stone masons and other workers needed to build what was, at one time, the largest building in the world. In fact, if you feel like climbing to the top of Mt. Albantos (1573 meters, or 5751 feet) you get a really cool view of the city, and you can see how it spread out from the Monastery. Everything begins and ends there.
When to Visit:
Located as it is in the mountains, El Escorial is a perfect summer retreat for people in nearby Madrid escape the summer heat. Madrid is only 50 kilometers (29 miles) away, and it’s an easy commute, so many of the well-to-do from Madrid have summer homes in El Escorial. It is important to know this before you plan your visit because, though the population of the city is around 18,000 for most of the year, the population (per locals) is 50,000 in the summer, when the “Madrileños” (people from Madrid) arrive. The temperature can be very hot in July and August, with an average of 20 C (77 F) – but it is still cooler than Madrid. And it is often warmer than that. In winter (November through April) El Escorial can be quite cold, with temperatures not reaching above 7 C (45 F) and lows below freezing. And it snows. Not often, but enough to remind you that you are in the mountains, and it’s not fun walking up and down all those hills with ice and snow on the sidewalks.
Spring is a very nice time to visit El Escorial (April, May and June). The temperatures are mild, the flowers in the gardens are in bloom and the people from Madrid have not yet arrived to drive up prices and compete for space. September is also a great time to visit, as the Madrileños have, for the most part, going back home, and you can participate in Romeria.
Here’s a List of
Things to do
in San Lorenzo de El Escorial:
Of the course the Monastery is the most important attraction in El Escorial. As mentioned above, when it was completed in 1584, it was the largest building in the world. It took over 21 years to build, and has been an UNESCO Heritage site since 1984. It was the brainchild of Phillip II (Filipe Segundo), King of Spain, who wanted to build a monastery, a burial place for his father (Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) and a palace for himself and his family. The project was stated by Juan Bautista de Toledo (who was one of the architects for St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome) but he died and the monastery was finished by Juan de Herrera. Most of Spain’s Kings (and their queens) have been buried here.
If you are going to tour the Monastery, give yourself plenty of time. There is just so much to see. There is the main royal place, which is one huge part of the building, then there is the library and the cathedral and grounds and gardens. It is recommended that you see the main palace and hire one of the guides, as they are very knowledgeable and can answer all of your questions. There are self-guided tours, but they are just not as informative and the translations are sometimes a bit off (such as”the bomb of the King”. We think they meant “tomb”). And, if you take the tour yourself, you might miss something important, like the paintings of. Bosch, El Greco, and Velázquez. (El Greco’s famous painting of “The Martyrdom of St. Maurice” is at the Monastery. You don’t want to miss that). If you start early in the morning, as soon as they open, you might even get a guide to yourself. At any rate, an early start means you will probably miss most of the crowds. (Note: The Crypt, which is located under the main “High” altar of the cathedral, is kind of creepy, but interesting nonetheless. It is a good place to have a guide to point out who’s who. Or, who was who).
When you enter the Monastery, you will be asked to leave your backpacks at a secure booth, and there is no photography. Hours are 10 am to 7pm in the slow season (October through March) and 10 am to 9 pm in the busy season (April through September), Tuesday through Sundays. (Note: Be sure to get back to claim your backpack on time. The security kiosk has been known to close up early – for no apparent reason – and if your bags or backpack are locked up, you will have to find a guard to call the worker back to get your stuff, or you will have to wait until the next day. And, if your money and your passport are in the backpack, this is not a nice feeling). It will take a couple of hours, at least, to get through the entire Palace and the Royal tombs, so, once again, start early.
You will also want to visit the
Garden of the Friars,
once you are done with the palace. The Park and the house of Principe Don Carlos are close by and should be on your list of things to see as well.
Basilica (Cathedral) of San Lorenzo de El Escorial
the public areas around the Monastery are free. The Cathedral is absolutely amazing, and is open any time there is not a service going on. You should save this part of the tour for after lunch, perhaps, when everyone else is touring the Palace. It is a major part of the complex, and is approached through the King’s Courtyard. There are 45 altars at the Basilica, but the main altar is just unbelievably beautiful with marble and bronze statues and glorious frescos. The main tower on the Cathedral is over 300 feet (92 meters) tall! You can’t take photos inside, but you can buy souvenir books to remember your visit. And, on a hot day, it’s really nice to buy an ice cream sandwich from a local vender and wander around the grounds. Black and white swans live at the reflecting pools on the way to the gardens. This is one of the best views of the Monastery and, if the swans cooperate, a great photo opportunity.
Seat of Phillip II (Silla de Filipe II)
If you have been eating your way thorough El Escorial, then you may feel like a little exercise is in order. So why not take a hike out to the Seat of Philip II? This is an easy hike – about 1.5 hours each way, with just a little climbing to the granite seat where the King was supposed to have sat and looked out over the valley as he planned his great Monastery. This may or may not be true. He probably was driven up there and sat in one of his gilded coaches. But, at any rate, there is four-seater granite bench up there, and fantastic views of the Monastery and the city.
On a clear day, you can see all the way to Madrid (ok – not really). But you can see the surrounding mountains and get an idea of just how high you are. You can drive to the “Silla” if you don’t feel like walking, and there is a little bar there as well, in case you are hungry or thirsty. But it is much more fun to make a picnic (or have your hotel make up some sandwiches for you) and take a lovely walk in the Herreria woods. By the way – keep an eye on the children and don’t fall off yourself. “Safety precautions” are limited to one small chain, and falling from any distance onto granite is painful.
Casita de Infante
While you are up at the Seat of Phillip II, you may want to visit the “House of the Infant”. It is located in the woods on the way to (or on the way back from) the Silla, in its own little park. It was built by King Carlos as a hunting pavilion, and is often referred to as a “doll house”: because it is so tiny and so cute.
Some people say that the gardens, with its waterfalls and beautiful plantings, are much more interesting than the house. A lot of tourists ignore this spot, so you can often have it all to yourself. Even if you don’t go inside, at least take a walk in the peaceful gardens.
Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caídos)
Since you are so near, you should go out to visit the Valley of the Fallen which is only a few kilometers down the road from El Escorial. It is a basilica and memorial to the war dead of the Spanish Civil war. It is on the top of a hill in the Cuelgamuros valley. The cross on the top of the monument is 500 feet tall (150 meters) and is the largest memorial cross in the world. On a clear day, you can see the cross from 20 miles (32 kilometers) away. The entire monument is made out of granite, and dug into the side of a granite mountain. (Spain has a lot of granite). 40,000 people are buried there. In all fairness, both Republican and Nationalist war dead are buried at the Valle, though war prisoners (political prisoners) were used to help build the monument.
After climbing the steps and past the colonnade, you enter the monument, and go down the loong tunnel that leads to altar and the grave of General Franco. His name and the name of Joes Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of Falange (Fascist Movement in Spain) are the only names on any part of the monument. The rest are anonymous dead of a tragic civil war. It is well worth the trip, of only to see what most people in Spain think of as just “Fascist theatricality.” If you want, you can rent a bicycle and ride out the Valle and back. It is one of the few “flat” trips that you can take in the area.
Festivals and holidays are very important in Spain, and, aside from the usual ones, there are several local festivals that are hugely important to El Escorial
Feast of St. Lawrence
August 10th 1557 was the day that the Spanish army defeated France. It was the saint day of San Lorenzo (St. Lawrence) and hence the inspiration for the Monastery and “the rest is history” as they say. August 10 is the feast day of
San Lorenzo Matir,
so it is the Saint Day of the city. (Note: people in Spain celebrate their birthdays and their “Saint” days – and cities have a Saint Day as well). This is a huge celebration in El Escorial. After a week of partying, bull fights and general festivities, the celebrations end with a dance in the main Plaza and fireworks.
is the festival of the Pilgrimage of Our Lady of Grace, and it is a day-long festival held in the beginning of September. The day starts with a procession of floats – statues of the Virgin from various churches atop human or ox-drawn carts, taken by parade out to the countryside. Most of the town goes along with this parade, which winds part-way around the Monastery and then ends up in the “campo” (countryside). People dress in traditional costumes and play traditional instruments. Once at the park of their choice, families and friends have wonderful picnics and cook outs and drink lots of wine. It is basically a harvest celebration, and a day to have fun and thank the Virgin for all her help.
During Romeria, if you are walking about between the families or groups of friends, you might be invited to join in with the feasting. Please do. This is a Spanish tradition, and just a wonderful way to meet people. At the end of the day, everyone packs up and does the parade in reverse, back to the city. At the end of the parade, thousands gather on Florida Blanca, in front of the main Plaza, for a blessing. Then the party continues, with more eating.
– the week leading up to Easter Sunday is another important time in El Escorial. There are many religious events and, once more, the statues of the Virgin get to go on parade. This event is much more solemn, though, with ten virgins dressed in white leading the parade. A blessing is held in the street for all the faithful and penitent.
The Christmas season in very special in El Escorial. In one of the upper plazas, a life-sized nativity scene is set out. And we do mean life sized! Every day, volunteers move the camels, sheep, donkeys, Joseph and Mary and the three kings closer to the manger where the Christ child will be born. Papa Noel (usually resembling the Mayor in an uncanny way) shows up as part of a small town parade to hand out candy to good children. Sometimes, depending on the weather, he even shows up in a sleigh.
Dining and “Passeando”
First time visitors to Spain may be a little confused about the eating habits of the people. Since you will probably be visiting in the Spring or Summer, then you could be dismayed to find that everything shuts down in the middle of the day for “siesta’ (nap time). This is because it is generally too hot to do anything in the afternoon heat. Most people in Spain have a small breakfast, then a large lunch around one-ish, followed by a long nap. Many businesses close down between 1 and 5 pm, and then re-open for business between 5 pm. Businesses generally stay open until 7pm. Then people go “passeando”. This means, they go for a walk.
Going for a walk before dinner is so much a part of Spanish life that many cities close down their city centers to all but foot traffic. Paseando is the time to walk up and down the streets, visit with friends, pop into your local bar or restaurant for a few tapas (little plates of food) or a cup of coffee. It is a time to socialize and catch up on all the local news. After your walk, you go home at 9 or 10 for dinner. It may sound odd, but it is a system that works.
El Escorial has tons of wonderful places to eat. You will discover these when you to passeando. And remember that bars are gathering places for all ages, so it is generally fine to take the kids in for tapas or a meal. Also, don’t confine yourself to Upper Escorial. Lower Escorial has some wonderful restaurants (and the prices are generally lower down there as well).