All the leaves are brown…
… and the skies are grey.
I’ve been for a walk …
…. on a winter’s day.
Stopped into a church …
I passed along the way …
Actually, it was exactly the other way round: the church, the basilica of San Lorenzo in the El Escorial complex north of Madrid, came first. But then again, although we “stopped into a forest”, it would not be truthful to say “we passed it along the way”, because this walk in the surrounding parkland had always been foremost on our minds.
Let me explain.
On the week-end we were staying in Madrid on the invitation of the Spanish airline Vueling and the online radio station ScannerFM, we were encouraged to discover the city on our own terms. So, we planned to search out a couple of easy hikes in and around the Spanish capital, nothing too long or too arduous, something that can be done by visitors who have come here for business, a weekend trip or their Spanish golf holidays.
Our original idea had been to hike near Cercedilla in the Sierra de Guadarrama north of Madrid, an important battleground in the Spanish Civil War and the scenery for Hemingway’s For Whom The Bell Tolls.
Once in Spain, however, we had second thoughts: the trip to the Cercedilla hiking trail, nearly three hours “door to door”, seemed quite long, particularly when we factored in the small number of daylight hours at this time of the year.
So when the young lady at the Tourism Office suggested the monastery of El Escorial as an alternative, we changed our minds – particularly since, as she said, there would be “a large forest” as well.
The best way to go to El Escorial is by bus. Take the Madrid metro line 3 to Moncloa station which is attached to a large subterranean bus terminal.
Go to Terminal 1 and look for bus line 661. Buses leave frequently (once every 30 minutes, at the full and half hour, at the full hour only on Sundays) and will deposit you virtually right in front of the Escorial. (The journey takes about 50 minutes and costs € 3.50 per head one way.)
With an annual number of 500,000 visitors, the Escorial – ostensibly a monastery, but in fact built as a royal residence – is one of Spain’s major tourist attractions.
The world’s largest Renaissance building, its scale, austerity and “splendid isolation” perfectly reflect the character of its patron and creator, the clinically paranoid, pedantic and humourless (he is said to have never laughed, not once in his lifetime) Phillip II, the world’s gloomiest monarch and one of the great monsters of pre-modern European history. (He may have ordered the death of his own son in a power struggle – at least that’s what is alleged by Friedrich Schiller’s play Don Carlos and the Verdi opera which is based on it). From here, Philipp II ruled his “empire in which the sun does not set” with an iron, gout-infested hand.
None of his successors loved the Escorial as much as he did, but by that time, it had become tradition to spend some time of the year here, and they could hardly refuse.
Most Spanish kings eventually came to be buried here, and the grave chamber is one of the highlights of the visit.
The Escorial is an enormous building, featuring 2000 rooms with a total floor space of 33,000 m², which took 21 years to complete.
I actually find this quite fast considering that all this was built in the 16th century without the help of modern technology.
One of the palace’s permanent exhibitions – there is also a museum of tapestry and a collection of paintings including works by Titian, Velazquez and Dürer – is dedicated to the tools that were used for the construction of the building.
Somehow I had imagined that the Escorial was located in the middle of a forest, but the immediate surroundings of the palace are quite urban. (The town of San Lorenzo del Escorial, pop. 18,000, was largely established to service the construction site.)
To get to the green space behind the palace – in truth more a park than a forest – follow the directions to the monastery gardens and continue in the direction of the long stone wall that you now see ahead of you.
Walk around this wall and turn left at its end, walking into the so-called Herreria, built on what apparently was – prior to the construction of the palace – the site of a large ironworks (hence the name: a “herreria” is the Spanish name for a forge).
Once in the park, continue on the asphalted road until you arrive at an alley that is flanked by two rows of tall trees. Use the path on your left hand side to step into the forest on your left.
At least that’s what we did.
But there are many different ways of exploring the park – it covers a total surface of 10 square kilometres. Remember that Philip II also liked to explore the near-by countryside on his daily solitary excursions – by which I do not mean to imply that he would have been “alone” in any modern sense of the word, of course, but rather that he might as well have been, since he apparently made it a point never to talk to any member of his entourage.
“Explore”, on second thought, may also not be the best word to describe what he did, because not only was Philipp not what you would call “the life of the party”, he was not much of an adventurer either, preferring to follow the same route on his “hikes” every day.
There are many things to discover in the park, and you can easily spend a great couple of hours here.
If, ultimately, the walk alone may not be worth coming here all the way from Madrid, seen as a touristic menu of historical interest with some first class art and a little bit of nature as a side dish, the entire day trip is certainly hard to beat.
In summer, when the place must be buzzing with tourists, the park will provide a great escape from the hustle and bustle, the noise and the crowd.
My suggestion is to have a picnic in one of the many designated areas of the Herreria.
It is probably best to come well prepared, bringing in a backpack full of excellent Spanish cold cuts (lomo, jamon serrano), cheese, fruit and a bottle of Rioja from Madrid rather than relying on the local traders. (You can deposit any number of bags for free in the locker room of the Escorial.)
Still, at the end of the day I could not get it totally out of my mind that Cercedilla might have been the better option for a “straight” day hike. I guess we will have to come back to Madrid then some other time.
Cercedilla dreaming ….
…. on such a winter’s day