Things to Do in San Lorenzo de El Escorial

The Masterpiece of Philip II

In a wonderful setting, barely 50 kilometres away from Madrid, are the sixteen courtyards, fifteen cloisters and eighty-eight fountains of this monumental complex. It was formerly known as “The Eighth Wonder of the World”. The famous Proceso de El Escorial took place there and popularized the concept of “camarilla”.

Plan your visit to El Escorial

The visit to the main building can take a morning. By adding the gardens, the houses associated with the monastery and the heritage of the rest of the town, the trip can be extended to a full weekend. To continue the trip, an option of great historical interest is the neighbouring Valle de los Caídos Monastery. Other places of great interest are Buitrago de Lozoya or Patones, as well as Alcalá de Henares, the birthplace of Cervantes.

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A commemoration

It is difficult to understand what to see in San Lorenzo de El Escorial without knowing its past. Thus, the monastery was ordered to be built by Philip II. This was to commemorate the victory of the Battle of San Quintín against the army of Henry II of France. It took place on the day of San Lorenzo’s festivity, specifically on August 10th 1557.

Likewise, the monarch ordered the construction of the Pantheon of the Monarchs to comply with the will of his father, Charles V. The emperor asked to be buried in a different place from his parents and the Trastámara dynasty. Gregorio Marañón, one of the most representative intellectuals of the Generation of 14, said of the president: “He was permanently indecisive and had no moments of optimism or expansion”. Be that as it may, the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial was his great work.

With the help of theologians, doctors, stonemasons and even astrologers, Philip II decided on a small village as the location. The place belonged at that time to Segovia. Surrounded by forests and hunting grounds, it was also located in the geographical center of the Peninsula. The name probably came from aesculus, the Latin name for oak.

Building El Escorial

Work began in 1561 and was completed in a record time of twenty-one years. In the same year Philip II moved the court from Toledo to Madrid. From the construction of the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial different buildings began to be built. New streets were also opened and the population grew in a disorderly manner, expanding on the slopes of Mount Abantos. The small village became a Royal Town and the prior would be in charge of holding power.

Following the original wish of Philip II, the Order of the Hieronymites did not allow the construction of houses near the Escorial complex. However, under pressure from the court, in 1767, Charles III authorised the building of a house next to the monastery’s fish market. The aristocracy and the bourgeoisie began to build their summer residences.

Such a centre would be the origin of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. It was also known as Escorial de Arriba, a division of the primitive town of El Escorial. From then on, the architect Juan de Villanueva ordered the historical centre. To do so, he designed streets and squares that were to bridge the steep slope between the monastery and the Abantos hills. The resulting architectural complex has been declared a World Heritage Site.

Escorial
Philip II's Room

In need of help

In 1807 the famous El Escorial Trial took place there, against Prince Ferdinand and those who tried to overthrow Godoy. Later, after almost three centuries, the Hieronymite monks had to leave the monastery in 1836, because of the Disentailment of Mendizábal.

The intervention of Father Claret was very important for its recovery. The confessor of Isabella II was appointed president of the monastery. From 1885 the Augustinian Fathers took charge of the monastery. A second residence for many people from Madrid and other towns since the 18th century, the town has undergone a great expansion in the last decades.

A very important place nowadays

Currently, the municipality of San Lorenzo de El Escorial is the second most visited in the Community of Madrid. It is also home to the Summer Courses of the Complutense University. It should be noted that it houses the Euroforum Business Campus.

The town has also become famous for several apparitions of the Virgin in the Prado Nuevo estate in Escorial. It has therefore become a place of pilgrimage, especially on the first Saturday of each month.

A monumental complex

San Lorenzo de El Escorial Monastery is the masterpiece of Philip II. It is a monumental complex in which the controversial Spanish monarch lived and died. He brought together the best architects, master goldsmiths, painters and sculptors in Europe to create the most perfect example of the Spanish Renaissance.

As well as being a monument commemorating the Battle of San Quentin, it arose from the need to maintain a religious cult around the pantheon where Charles V and Philip II were to be buried. The order chosen to inhabit it was the Hieronymites. The original project was drawn up by Juan Bautista de Toledo, although more architects were involved. After his death, Juan de Herrera took charge, developing his own style that would be widely followed, the Herrerian style.

According to tradition, the final plan is shaped like a grill in allusion to San Lorenzo’s martyrdom in Rome. The monastery complex consists of a Basilica, Monastery, Palace and Pantheon of the Monarchs. All these form the most outstanding place to see in San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

Main Facade

The main facade faces west and has two side entrances. One leads to the Alfonso XII School and the second to the convent. The main entrance to the building is located in the centre of it. It is escorted by six Doric columns and crowned by a body of Ionic columns. The coat of arms of Philip II and the statue of San Lorenzo, by Juan Bautista Monegro, stand out.

The guided tour is the only way to see the Austrias Palace, the Bourbon Palace, the Casita del Infante and the Casita del Príncipe. It starts at the entrance of the northern façade, where the ticket offices are located. Thus, the tour to this monument to be seen in San Lorenzo de El Escorial starts at the Bourbon Palace. This is a group of rooms in which the French influence in furniture, porcelain, lamps and other decorations stands out. The collection of tapestries, with designs by Goya, Bayeu and Tenniers, is also relevant.

Meanwhile, the Austrias Palace or House of Philip II, surprises by its austerity. The different rooms are arranged around the high altar of the Monastery Basilica. On the other hand, the Sala de las Batallas (Battle Room) preserves great paintings that illustrate battles of the time, including that of San Quintín (1557).

The Sala de Guardias (Guards’ Room) extends further on. It exhibits the chair used by Philip II on his last trip to El Escorial from Madrid, who was suffering from gout. In addition, in the Sala de Audiencias or Salon de los Retratos, a portrait of Philip II by Titian stands out. Finally, Philip II’s room preserves the bed, 1.58 metres long, from which the monarch could see the high altar and attend church. Philip died there in 1598, at the age of 71.

The Pantheon

The visit to what to see in San Lorenzo de El Escorial continues in the Pantheon of Los Reyes. It is an octagonal chapel located under the presbytery of the basilica. There lie the remains of the Spanish monarchs since Charles I. The exceptions are the kings Philip V and Ferdinand VI. Exceptionally also rests in the pantheon Queen Isabel of Bourbon, first wife of Philip IV. She died without leaving a successor to the throne and was a key figure in its construction.

There are still some free spaces, assigned to Don Juan de Borbón and Doña María de las Mercedes, as well as to her grandmother, Queen Victoria Eugenia. The remains are currently in the antechamber of the pantheon. In this room, known as the pudridero, the mortal remains must remain for twenty-five years before being transferred to the Pantheon of Monarchs or of Infantes.

From here the visitor can continue his visit freely. The marble graves of those members of the Royal Family who have not reigned are located in the Pantheon of Los Infantes. At the same time, the Painting Museum is located in the Salas Capitulares. Of particular note is El Greco’s The Martyrdom of Saint Maurice and works by Ribera, Velázquez, El Bosco, Titian, Tintoretto, Veronés and Bassano.

The Museum of Architecture houses an important collection of documents, plans, tools and mechanisms used during the construction of the monastery.

Patio de los Reyes in El Escorial

Continuing the tour through all that can be seen in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, we arrive at the west facade. It is the main door that leads to the Patio de los Reyes. It is named after the sculptures of the kings of the tribe of Judah, sculpted by Juan Bautista Monegro. These are placed on pedestals on the facade that gives access to the basilica, with David and Solomon presiding. Likewise, in the centre of the left cornice a black cross marks the last stone that was completed in 1584.

The Basilica

On the other hand, the Basilica of the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial has a Greek cross plan. Its central dome, 92 metres high, stands out from the rest. Most of the vaults were painted by Luca Giordano. The exceptions are those above the choir and the high altar, the work of Luca Cambiasso. In addition, on both sides of the high altar there are two sets of bronze sculptures. They represent the kings Charles V and Philip II with their respective families, by Leo Leoni and his son Pompey.

In one of the chapels there is a remarkable Christ to be seen in San Lorenzo de El Escorial. It is made of white marble, by Benvenuto Cellini. He sculpted it completely naked, something unusual, although it is usually displayed covered with a white cloth. Important works are preserved in the sacristy, among them The Sacred Form by Claudio Coello.

An admirable library

The library also has one of the most valuable collections of books in the world, with more than 40,000 volumes. The collection of Arabic, Hebrew and Latin manuscripts is particularly noteworthy. It is said that the books on alchemy, magic and esotericism were placed upside down to hide the titles. However, other versions explain that the real reason was to air the leaves and show their golden edges.

Finally, the Jardín de los Frailes is well worth a visit. It can be accessed through the Arch of La Compaña. From here you can see the pond, the Huerta de los Frailes and the Dehesa de la Herrería. This is an essential visit to see in San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

Pavilions

The guided tour includes a visit to the two recreational pavilions designed by the architect Juan de Villanueva: the Casita del Infante and the Casita del Príncipe.

Firstly, the Casita del Infante (1771-1773) or Casita de Arriba was built for the Infante don Gabriel de Borbón, son of Charles III. It is a small villa with terraced gardens, in the Italian style. From here you can enjoy a beautiful view of the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. King Juan Carlos I stayed here during his student period in the field of law.

Secondly, the Casita del Príncipe (1772) or Casita de Abajo owes its name to Charles IV when he was Prince of Asturias. Its architecture announces what will be Villanueva’s most emblematic work, the Prado National Museum. It was designed as a Natural Science Cabinet by order of Charles III. The neoclassical interior preserves the ceilings painted by Vicente Gómez, Mariano Salvador Maella and Francisco Bayeu.

In the gardens of the Casita del Príncipe there are still sequoias planted in the 18th century. Opposite the northern façade of the monastery is the First and Second Casa de Oficios. They were designed by Juan de Herrera to house different palatial rooms. Their works were continued by Francisco de Mora between 1587 and 1596.

Currently, the First Casa de Oficios houses the Casa de Cultura and Exhibition Hall. Also the Municipal Library “Manuel Andújar” and the Tourism Information Centre. In the Second Casa de Oficios, the old Laborantes Chapel, is located the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora de Gracia. Every second Sunday of September the traditional pilgrimage in honour of the Virgin of Grace is celebrated.

“Padre Antonio Soler” Integrated Centre for Musical Studies is also located here. The Third Casa de Oficios was built at the end of the 18th century by Villanueva, commissioned by Charles III for the Count of Floridablanca. The architect continued the Herrerian model and with this building the perimeter of the Lonja was closed.

A Theatre-Coliseum

Then it was time to move on to the Royal Theatre Coliseum of Charles III, on Floridablanca Street. Charles III wanted to provide the Royal Sites with spaces exclusively for the performance of shows. That is why the Compañías de los Reales Sitios were created. They toured the different theaters. They also went, especially in autumn, to El Escorial, the period chosen by the monarch for his stays.

The French architect Jaime Marquet built this landmark to be seen in San Lorenzo de El Escorial in just one year, between 1770 and 1771. He followed a model that he also used in El Pardo and Aranjuez. It is the only theatre that preserves practically intact the typology of the 18th century. It is also one of the oldest preserved in Spain. The town has also had an Auditorium Theatre since 2006.

Next to the Royal Theatre Coliseum of Charles III is the Plaza de Jacinto Benavente. It is named after the playwright and Nobel Prize for Literature who, along with other authors, collaborated so much in the rehabilitation of the Coliseum. The square, presided over by Crispín, was the protagonist of Los Intereses creados. It also houses six magnificent centenary magnolias. It is one of the places most frequented by visitors to the town, who come to rest on its terraces.

Outstanding buildings

The Casa de la Compaña, now a Historic-Artistic Monument, was built by Francisco de Mora. This disciple of Juan de Herrera built it at the end of the 16th century as a warehouse for the monastery’s community of Hieronymite. At the end of the 19th century, the new community of Augustinian Fathers installed it in the building of the current Real Centro Universitario Escorial-María Cristina. Today it serves as the headquarters of the Summer Courses of the UCM in San Lorenzo de El Escorial.

Also by the architect Francisco de Mora and in the Herrerian style is the next monument to be seen in San Lorenzo de El Escorial. It is the Church of San Bernabé, built between 1594 and 1595. Declared an Asset of Cultural Interest, the same master stonemasons and craftsmen worked there as in the Monastery of El Escorial.

Next to the Royal Monastery is the Casa de los Infantes, designed at the end of the 18th century as the residence of the Infantes Francisco de Paula and Carlos María Isidro, sons of Charles IV. The building, restored by the architect Miguel de Oriol, currently houses the Infantes Campus, the headquarters of Euroforum. In an hotel from the 1940s is housed the second Campus of Philip II.

The La Herrería forest is a historic estate of oak and ash trees near the El Escorial Monastery. Silla de Felipe II is located there. It is a granite mass from where, according to tradition, the monarch observed the works of the monastery. Other theories consider it to be a Veton offering altar or a 19th century historicist work. The rock serves as a lookout point from which one can enjoy an impressive view of the monastery, Mount Abantos and the Seven Peaks mountains.

On the estate you will also find the Hermitage of Virgen de Gracia. Here the Virgin is carried from the Sanctuary of Nuestra Señora de Gracia in the middle of a large pilgrimage. It is celebrated on the second Sunday of September. It is possible to follow a footpath that starts behind the Casita del Príncipe and leads to the Silla de Felipe II.

Escorial

The best thing to see in San Lorenzo de El Escorial, here we leave you more plans for the Community of Madrid, as well as the alternatives of active tourism in Madrid.

Must see

Gardens in San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Aerial view of the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial

Practical Data

Coordinates

40° 35′ 37″ N, 4° 8′ 34″ W

Distances

Madrid 50 km, Segovia 53 km.

Parking

There are two public pay parkings. The first, in Plaza de la Constitución s/n. The second one, at 45 Calle del Rey (Auditórium – Parque de Felipe II).

Elevation

1032 m.

Inhabitants

18 495 (2013)

The main celebrations to see in San Lorenzo de El Escorial: San Lorenzo (patron saint’s day, August 10), La Romería de Nuestra Señora de la Virgen de Gracia (early September). Finally, Nuestra Señora de la Herrería (first Sunday in September).

More events to see in San Lorenzo de El Escorial are: The Industrial and Craft Fair of the Sierra de Guadarrama (June), The Festival of the Young, Married and Widowed (July-August) and Gastronomic Days (October).


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