San Lorenzo de El Escorial, Spain
Not too far from Madrid lies the tiny town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. This place is known for the Royal Monastery that holds the remains of Spain's kings and queens. On the day after Three Kings' Day, I took a side trip to see this place while the rest of the gang hung back to rest and nurse their colds.
I arrived in the morning via a bus from Madrid (after some confusion as to the correct bus station and a mad dash through the subway) to find the place encrusted in frost. The sun was out though, and cast a chilly brightness all over the monastery, a fitting ambience for the visit to the tombs of Spanish royalty.
The Royal Monastery was built by King Philip II after he defeated the French in the battle of San Quintín on August 10, 1557, the day of San Lorenzo. To show gratitude for the victory, he built the immense temple, mausoleum, study center, and monastery and named it after the saint.
Inside the Royal Monastery, a self-guided tour takes me to a museum where they displayed the history of its construction. Here's a scale model of the compound. The large church in the middle houses the crypts.
In the museum, you can find some rare art pieces such as this El Greco painting known as the Martyrdom of St. Maurice. El Greco is known for his use of dark colors and the sharp contrast it creates with strategically placed bright objects such as the red flag.
A classic triptych showing the crucifiction. The artist's name escapes me.
King Philip II was perhaps the most humble king in the history of Spain. He lived in the monastery and used it for meditation and as a refuge. Here's his tiny unadorned bedroom, arguably the most unimpressive king's chamber I've ever seen.
Deep beneath the altar in the monastery, a small octagonal room holds the caskets of Spain's Kings and Queens. The darkened chamber at the bottom of a narrow steep staircase is solemnly decorated with gold and marble. The tiny chapel offers visitors a place to pray for their royalty.
The second one from the top belongs to King Philip II who constructed the Royal Monastery.
In adjacent underground rooms, important relatives and statesmen were burried in marble caskets.
Don Juan de Borbón, count of Barcelona and father of King Juan Carlos.
Another renaissance masterpiece. This is Titian's Last Supper.
Even the outside hallways by the basilica were decorated with colorful frescos.
The spectacular gilded main altar and retable inside the basilica.
Behind a glass display is a beautifully carved crucifix by Cellini.
The library in the Royal Monastery was dedicated to science and nature. 60,000 rare volumes line the walls of this room. Beautifully bright frescos cover the ornate ceilings. Surprisingly (and refreshingly) there's not a single religious symbol / painting in the room amidst all the renaissance art.
The smallish Monks' Garden behind the monastery offers a view of the snow covered mountains in the distance. Beyond those hills lies the Valley of the Fallen where another large monastery is found. Alas, I didn't have enough time to see it. Back on the bus to Madrid to check out the Prado Museum in the afternoon...