Monday, 17 January 2011

Spain, El Escorial

El Escorial was bigger than I imagined it would be and when we arrived we had to drive around for a while looking for a car park until we eventually found one quite close to the Monastery. It was early afternoon and everyone was quite hungry so instead of going immediately to the tourist sites we looked for somewhere to eat instead. We found a little café bar with a terrace overlooking the Palace and sat outside and ordered beer and snacks and sat for a while and enjoyed the sunshine.

The Palace at El Escorial was built by King Philip II, who, reacting to the Protestant Reformation sweeping through Europe during the sixteenth century, devoted much of his lengthy forty-two reign and much of his seemingly inexhaustible supply of New World gold to stemming the Protestant tide. He ran his Spanish seaborne Empire which stretched from the Netherlands and southern Italy to North Africa, Latin America and the Philippines from his complex at El Escorial which was designed as a monument to Spain’s role as a centre of the Catholic Christian world.

Since then, El Escorial has been the burial site for most of the Bourbon and Hapsburg Spanish kings of the last five centuries and the Royal Pantheon contains the tombs of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V (who ruled Spain as King Charles I), Philip II, Philip III, Philip IV, Charles II, Louis I, Charles III, Charles IV, Ferdinand VII, Isabella II, Alfonso XII, and Alfonso XIII. In 1984, UNESCO declared The Royal Site of San Lorenzo of El Escorial a World Heritage Site and more than half a million visitors come here every year to visit the place.

On every visit to Spain I seem to be visiting a World Heritage Site so when I counted them up I was interested to discover that I have been to sixteen and that is over a third of them. In 2005 I visited Barcelona and saw the works of Antoni Gaudi. Then in 2008 I saw the historic centre of Córdoba, the caves of Altamira in Cantabria, the old town of Santiago de Compostela and the Cathedral, and Alcázar in Seville. In 2009 on the motoring holiday around Castilian cities I visited Segovia and its Aqueduct, the hanging houses of Cuenca, the historic city of Toledo and the old walled city of Ávila.

Even before I knew anything about World Heritage Sites it turns out that I have visited two more in the days of my beach type holidays, although when I went to these places neither of them were yet on the list. In 1988 I holidayed on the island of Ibiza which was accepted onto the list in 1999 in recognition of its biodiversity and culture and in the following year I went to Tenerife and took a cable car ride to the top of Mount Tiede, a national park that was accepted to the list in 2007. I have also visited Benidorm but for some reason that hasn’t yet made the list.

Even though they weren’t World Heritage Sites at the time I visited them I am still going to count them but the final two might be a bit dubious but anyway here goes. In 1984 while driving back through Spain from Portugal I drove with friends through the city of Burgos which was accepted in that year because of its Cathedral, and in Galicia in 2008 while visiting Santiago de Compostela I managed to drive over parts of the Pilgrim Route, which exists on the list separately from the old city itself.

After our late lunch we made our way to the complex of El Escorial which has been described as ‘the oppressive monument of the first totalitarian state in Europe’ and ‘the mausoleum of Spanish power’ and although the expansive courtyard was bathed in afternoon sunshine the grey building did indeed appear cold, vast and imposing and it was easy to see how this dull monolithic exterior came to represent Castilian military virility and the expression of religious might and it certainly wasn’t as handsome as the other Royal Palaces that we have visited at San Ildefonso, Madrid and Arunjuez.

It was too late to visit the interior so we made do with a walk around the outside and a peek into the precisely manicured gardens at the rear. It wasn’t too busy today but on the way out a Spanish man began a conversation with us in perfect English but with a distinctly Teutonic accent. He told us he was a solicitor and originally from Bilbao so I suppose that makes him a Basque rather than a Spaniard but he told us he lived in El Escorial now and he gave us some sightseeing suggestions for our short stay.

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