Occupying a majestic setting in the southern foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial was commissioned by Felipe II as a mausoleum for the tomb of his father, Carlos I. The name commemorates the victory over the French at St Quentin on the Feast of St Lawrence in 1557. Building began in 1563 and the king took a keen interest in the smallest details. The complex was completed in 1595 and comprised a basilica, a royal palace, a monastery, a seminary and a library. This monument to the king’s personal aspirations, and the ideals of the Counter-Reformation still inspires awe, if not always affection and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Calle de Juan de Borbón y Battenberg • 918 90 59 04 • www.patrimonionacional.es • Open Apr–Sep: 10am–8pm Tue–Sun; Oct–Mar: 10am–6pm Tue–Sun; closed 1 & 6 Jan,31 Dec and public hols • Adm €10, €5 (concessions), €4 + ticket price (for a guided tour)
The basilica takes the form of a Greek cross, and has vaults decorated with exquisite frescoes by Luca Giordano.
King Felipe II’s personal quarters are surprisingly modest – just three simply furnished rooms with white-washed walls and terracotta tiling. Look out for the hand chair that was used to carry the gout-ridden king on his last journey here in 1598.
Work on the domed burial chamber, situated directly under the high altar of the basilica, was completed in 1654. The walls were surfaced with marble, bronze and jasper by Giovanni Battista Crescenzi.
The vaulted ceilings were decorated in the 17th century by Italian artists Fabrizio Castello and Nicolas Granelo. Hanging from the walls are priceless canvases by Titian, Tintoretto, Veronese, Velázquez and El Greco.
The magnificent barrel-vaulted hall has stunning ceiling frescoes by Italian artists. The shelves contain 4,000 precious manuscripts and 40,000 folio volumes – arranged facing outwards to allow air to permeate the pages.
Look upwards from this magnificent staircase to admire the “Glory of the Spanish monarchy” frescoes by Luca Giordano.
This gallery is decorated with superb frescoes by 16th-century Italian artists. The paintings were intended to validate Felipe II’s military campaigns.
Felipe II enjoyed indoor walks in this airy gallery. The meridians on the floor were added in the 18th century.
This courtyard offers the best view of the basilica façade, its twin belltowers and awe-inspiring dome. Look out for the larger-than-life statues over the portal, of Old Testament kings.
This small exhibition of plans, scale models and workmen’s tools explains how El Escorial was constructed. Note the wooden cranes and hoists used to haul the blocks of granite into place.
Before architect Juan Bautista de Toledo could start on El Escorial, Felipe gave him precise instructions: “[It should have] simplicity in the construction, severity in the whole, nobility without arrogance, majesty without ostentation.” It was designed to resemble the iron grid on which St Lawrence was burned.