Seated 50 km from Madrid, within the heart of the Sierra de Guadarrama, travelers will find the township of San Lorenzo de El Escorial along the slopes of Mount Abantos. Originally an agricultural and livestock settlement, interests by the monarchy in the mid sixteenth century have transformed the once isolated farming village into the UNESCO World Heritage Site and cultural learning center it is today.
The lifeline of the township is the Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial. With its commission by Felipe II the town grew as artisans and workers on the monastery settled in the area, thus to speak of the town is to speak of the monastery. What Felipe II originally envisioned as a memorial for his royal family and to commemorate the Battle of San Quintin in France, has grown to be a complex of over 4,000 rooms, courtyards, fountains, cloisters and towers. Designed by Juan Bautista de Toledo and built by Juan de Herrera, it is considered an architectural wonder and is the foundation from which San Lorenzo de El Escorial’s Herrerian (Castilian Baroque) architectural heritage stems. A tour of the complex (17€) will lead you through the Courtyard of the Kings of Judea, the Basilica, the Royal Pantheon, the Pantheon of the Infantes and the Palace of the Bourbons. The basilica is considered a must see as it is inspired by and modeled after Saint Peters in the Vatican City. The Royal Pantheon is the final resting place of all but two of Spain’s sovereigns and is a spectacle of jasper, gold and marble. The Pantheon of the Infantes houses the remains of princes, infants, and queens who never bore royal children. Throughout the monastery as well as in the Museum of Architecture, which contains important documents relating to the construction of the monastery, the impressive Hapsburg art collection is on display with masterpieces from Goya, El Greco, Ribera, Titan, and Velasquez (just to name a few). If you can arrange a tour, the monastery’s private library will certainly be a treat for book lovers and historians, in particular the golden-penned Códice Aureo that is housed there. Within the gardens and parkland surrounding the monastery are the Casita del Príncipe and the Casita del Infante.
The town itself is divided into two parts, the lower part including the train station, and upper portion surrounding the monastery. Places of note to visit while on higher ground are the King’s Stables, housing the royal family’s carriages and horses for when they visit, and the Cottage of the Infante, originally built as a reprieve for the Infante Don Gabriel de Bourbon from court life and protocol that now offers splendid views of San Lorenzo for visitors. In addition, the Silla de Felipe (Philip’s Seat) marks the spot where the king would sit and watch from afar the construction of the monastery.
In addition to its royal past, San Lorenzo de El Escorial has held a prestigious position in the world of university education since the late-19th century and is considered a valued hub of cultural learning. Every summer both Spanish and international students attend courses of the Madrid Complutense University at the Euroforum Infantes, a building boasting magnificent views and a historic-artistic monument title.
The lower portion of the city offers plenty of dining options serving up traditional Castilian mountain cuisine. Be certain to try the grilled cooked Guadarrama mountain beef as your main entre.
Travelers can reach the town by car, bus or train. Cercanias trains leave from the Atocha hourly on the weekends and 27 times daily on weekdays. Buses can be boarded at the Moncloa interchange.
A tourism office is located at C/Grimaldi 2. Comfortable walking shoes are advisable.