“This is it, this must be it,” I said to my girlfriend, as we powerwalked to the bus station of line 664.
“Are you sure?” she said.
“I thought we were supposed to take 661.”
“Nope, this one is good, too.”
She said nothing, but walked up to the bus schedule.
“The next bus isn’t coming for another half hour.”
“You sure this is right?” she said.
“It’s on the website!”
We sat and waited. Cars and buses went by on the road in front of us; I quickly got absorbed in my book, Bertrand Russell’s The Analysis of Mind. Russell was arguing that mind and matter weren’t two separate things, but only different aspects of the same thing. The writing was brilliant, the argument well-made, but I didn’t buy it. Russell’s view required a metaphysics that made sense-data the fundamental stuff of the universe, an idea with no appeal to me.
“I’m bored,” she said. “And hungry.”
“Mmhmm,” I said, without looking up from my book.
“Where are we even going again?”
“To the Valle de los Caídos.”
“And what’s that?”
“It means, ‘The Valley of the Fallen.’”
“And why are we going there?”
“There’s a huge, huge monument that Franco—you know, the dictator Franco—built after the Spanish Civil War. I heard about it from a book. It sounds interesting.”
More time passed; the scheduled hour of departure, 2:30, came and went.
“It’s not coming,” she said. “I know it’s not.”
“Just give it five minutes. Maybe it’s late.”
Five minutes passed; then ten.
“Give up,” she said.
By now I had gotten hungry, too, so I agreed, and we went to eat some rather awful take-out Chinese food. We had to wolf down the food, though, because we were trying to eat it before the next scheduled bus would arrive at 3:00.
We nearly ran all the way back to the bus station, our stomachs now full of cheap, rubbery noodles, and sat down again. Three o’clock came and went, and the bus failed to materialize.
“Let’s go,” my girlfriend said. “This won’t work.”
With a sigh, I got up, and we began to walk away. We passed the Moncloa train station; but this time I noticed a little logo printed on the wall, a logo that looked like a bus.
“Maybe the buses are underground?” I said.
“Ugh!” my girlfriend said. “I suggested that an hour ago, and you didn’t even notice!”
“I said that as we walked by, and you just ignored me!”
She grunted in dismay.
“Let’s just go,” she said.
We went inside and took the escalator downstairs. And there it was, a gigantic bus terminal, right below our feet the whole time.
“I told you!” she said. “I knew it!”
The door for buses 661 and 664 was right next to us, with a schedule on a screen above. The next bus wasn’t for another 40 minutes.
“Guess we gotta wait,” I said. “Wanna go sit outside?”
Another grunt of dismay.
We went back up the escalator, crossed the street, and into the Parque del Oeste, where we sat on a bench. I continued with Russell. Now he was trying to analyze mental categories using behavioralism, by trying to describe internal states by pointing to observable, physical actions. I didn’t like this approach either, though it was thoroughly absorbing to read. My girlfriend, meanwhile, sat next to me and groaned from time to time.
Finally, it was time to go, so we got up and headed back downstairs and onto the bus.
“This is a waste of time,” my girlfriend said as we sat down. “It’s already too late to see anything.”
I had to admit she was right. By the time we got there—the bus ride is about an hour—it would be about 5:30. But I’d already invested so much time in finding the damn place that I couldn’t turn back now.
The ride was pleasant. I spent some of it in Russell again, who was now criticizing—and I think rightly—our philosophical notions of “will” and “freedom” and “choice.” But reading on the bus made me feel a bit whoozy, so I put down my book and enjoyed the countryside passing by.
Finally the bus pulled into a station. I got off and looked around.
“Now what?” my girlfriend asked.
“I dunno. Maybe let’s ask somebody?”
We walked over to the information desk in the bus station.
“¿Hay un autobus al Valle de los Caídos?” I asked.
“No,” the woman said.
“No bus,” I said to my girlfriend. “Guess we gotta walk.”
“According to Google Maps, the walk is three hours,” she replied.
“What?!” I said, and looked at her phone. “This must be wrong. The instructions online said to come here!”
“Well, that’s what it says.”
“Let’s just start walking and see what happens.”
The path led us up a street through town. It was incredibly steep, maybe the steepest sidewalk I’d ever trekked up. The smooth walkway even turned into stairs at one point, so sharp was the incline.
We reached the top, tired and panting, and began to head down a long, twisting road, passing some houses and a church along the way, as well as several crosses which stuck out of the ground at intervals. We could see the view of the countryside beyond now—this town, whichever it was, sat on a hill—a rolling expanse of flat terrain with several little pinpricks of light from the scattered towns and villages, their street and building lights just turning on as day turned slowly into night. The sky was red by now; obviously we didn’t have a lot of daylight left.
“How close are we now?” I asked.
“Um, still three hours.”
“That can’t be right,”
“Let’s just turn back,” she said. “There’s no way we’ll make it.”
The road was curving now, taking us through a neighborhood of identical white houses. The whole place was eerily empty; there didn’t seem to be anybody around. No cars were on the road, no lights were on in the houses, no sounds of voices could be heard.
“You’re right,” I said finally, stopping in my tracks. “Let’s go back.”
We turned around, I defeated, she placated, slowly making our way back to the bus station. I felt disappointed, but not terribly so. This town, though I didn’t mean to come here, was quite pretty; and because I’d only been in the country for about a month by this time, I was happy to see a slice of life in Spain outside of Madrid.
Then I remembered something I’d seen as the bus pulled into the station. For a few seconds, I had a glance of an absolutely gigantic building, which looked like a castle or a royal palace.
I pulled out my phone and looked on the map to see where we were. It said: El Escorial. Then I looked up “Things to do in El Escorial,” and the first thing to pop up was that same big building I’d seen earlier. The description called it a monastery.
“Hey, let’s go here,” I said to my girlfriend, pointing to the picture.
“In this town.”
“What is it?”
“Fine, I guess.”
The walk was only fifteen minutes; and soon we found ourselves standing before a huge structure, bigger even than the Toledo cathedral. It had a roughly square layout; beyond the outside wall was a stone courtyard, which wrapped around the whole thing. There were lots of children playing here—hanging on chains, running in circles, climbing on walls—their parents standing a dozen feet away, talking amongst themselves.
Within the outer walls I could see a huge dome, crowned with a spire, towering over the whole structure; and on every corner was a smaller but still impressive pointed spire. An ornate wooden door, surrounded by false columns in the building’s façade, lay in the center of one wall.
In another spot was a simpler door, regular-sized, surrounded by signs. We got closer to read them, and found that they displayed the visiting hours. The place closed at 6:00. It was 6:20, we’d just missed it.
There was nothing else to do. We had to get home in time to meet one of my girlfriend’s college friends, who would be staying with us for a few days. We had to go. So we walked to the bus station, and left. Not only had I failed to see the Valle de los Caídos, but I’d failed even to salvage the trip. I’d dragged my girlfriend around the whole day and got nowhere. For something that’s supposed to be relaxing and enjoyable, traveling can be a bloody pain.
Two months went by. The thought of revisiting the monastery lurked quietly in my brain for that whole time, resurfacing occasionally; and now we finally had a chance to do it.
Another trip down the escalators of Moncloa station, another bus ride, a short walk, and we were there.
It was just as splendid as I remembered, and just as big. The whole structure of El Escorial is so impressive that it seems to take up more space than the little town that surrounds it. And when viewed from the north, you can see part of the Sierre de Guadarrama looming beyond—the same mountain range where we would climb the next day, in Los Cotos—with the clouds hovering over the tops of the mountains, making the whole scene look grand and almost painfully picturesque.
But we were on a mission this time, so we walked inside, bought our tickets, got the audioguides, and began.
The first stop on our itinerary—and the tiny, detailed map that we were given at the front desk made clear just how big is the monastery—was a chamber dedicated to one painting: El Calvario by Dutch painter Rogier van der Weyden. (In English, the painting is simply called The Escorial Crucifixion.) The painting was kept in a darkened room, which had information about the painting’s genesis, restoration, and history printed on the walls (though I didn’t bother to read it).
Though I’m not expert in these matters, I thought the painting was a masterpiece. Jesus, his eyes closed in death, hangs limply from the cross. The Virgin and St. John stand on either side of him, Mary wiping a tear from her eyes, and St. John looking up with open palms. Both figures are clothed in gorgeously rendered white robes, so sharply painted they look more like marble statues than real fabric. Indeed, there is something statuesque about the whole painting; it does not so much convey movement and passion, but calm resignation, quiet tragedy, and somber stillness. But the expression on St. John’s face is, I think, the most impressive part: it is sad, careworn, but also stern and serious. Behind the crucifixion is a kind of paneled wall, blood-red in color, which provides a contrast with Jesus’ flesh and the white robes of Mary and St. John, as well as creating a kind of abstract space, devoid of landscape beyond. El Escorial is right to be proud of this painting.
I asked the guard if I could take a picture, and he said no. But then, he walked away, and shortly returned holding out two little pamphlets, which had a color photo of the painting printed on them. A guard willingly going out of his way like this is something which, I submit, would never happen in a New York City museum.
We moved on. After climbing some stairs and passing through several dark hallways, we found ourselves in the erstwhile royal apartments. Apparently, El Escorial was not only a monastery, but a Royal Residence as well. These rooms were filled with all sorts of ornate, antique furniture: chairs, bookshelves, beds covered in rich, velvety tapestries.
More interesting, for me, was a clock in the study, which had a little torch attached to the front of it so you could see the time at night—the original version of a backlit digital watch, you might say. The other interesting bit was a sort of wooden wheelchair that a king—I believe it was the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V—used because he had a bad case of gout, which caused severe swelling and arthritic pain in his feet and legs. It was a stark and rather pathetic reminder that even kings are not immune from sickness. And what use is power if you don’t have health?
There were portraits and paintings adorning every wall, none of which interested me especially; and in two of the rooms, there was a kind of sun watch, which consisted of a metal strip on the floor, marked at intervals, and a little hole in the ceiling above. I think you’d have to close all the windows to use it.
But the most beautiful objects in those apartments were the highly elaborate, wonderfully ornate wooden doorways that connected room to room. Without paint, the designer had inlaid scenes and decorations in the surface—floral designs and landscapes—by using light and dark pieces of wood. The sides of the doorway had fake Greek columns, and the whole thing was topped with a crowned arch. Every square inch of the doorways was meticulously detailed; every surface was covered in patterns and pictures. Just trying to fathom how much time it would take to put something like this together takes my breath away.
Even so, I can’t say I was terribly excited by these apartments; old furniture has a habit of failing to impress me. But it wasn’t long before we had left the apartments, entered another dark hallway, and were walking down a very forbidding set of stairs, deep into the basement of the building. As usual, I hadn’t done any research before arriving, so I had no idea what to expect. Yet nothing could have prepared me for how stunning was the room we were about to enter.
The Panteón de Reyes, or the Mausoleum of Kings. The room was so extravagantly beautiful that it was almost oppressive. It’s an octagonal space, perfectly symmetrical. In the center, at eye level, immediately opposite the doorway, is a gold crucifix, hanging between two dark marble columns topped with gold. In fact, gold seems to be everywhere in this room, the walls, the ceiling, the chandelier, the candle-holders (which look like angels leaping from the walls), the window-panes, the columns, and the coffins. Yes, there are coffins—coffins from the floor to the ceiling, on every wall, even above the door. They’re made of a dark, bluish stone, I think marble, and each has a gold plate on the front with a name inscribed. These are the names of monarchs. Here is buried almost every king and queen of Spain since Charles V (Charles I of Spain).
As I stood there, gaping up at the domed ceiling, staring wide-eyed at the coffins that contained the ashy, dusty, decomposed remains of inbred kings and queens, I had one of those moments where you can’t quite believe what’s happening is real. And it was only the last inch to the mile of astonishment I’d just traveled when the audioguide informed me that, above the doorway I’d just entered, were two coffins waiting for the present king and queen. Truly, I’m stunned they let people down here. It’s possibly the most impressive room I’ve ever been in.
We couldn’t spend all day there staring, though; there was much else to see. So we pulled ourselves away, traveled back up the stairs, and then down another flight to another tomb.
This was the Panteón de Infantes, or Masoleum of the Infantes. The Infantes were the sons and daughters of the monarchs who were never kings or queens themselves. There were six or seven different chambers; the tombs and coffins inside were mainly made of white marble. Only two particularly stuck in my memory. The first was a fine sculpture adorning the lid of a coffin. The remains inside were of the “natural” son (read illegitimate son) of one of the kings. He must have been well-loved, however, as the sculpture was excellent: it depicted the man laying down in death, his head resting on a pillow, with a serenely peaceful and noble expression on his mustached face. He is dressed neck to toe in fine armor, and is holding a real metal sword. At his feet rests a lion (which I know symbolizes something but I can’t remember what).
The other tomb which impressed me was hardly a tomb at all, but an ornate mass grave. It was the collective coffin for the numerous sons and daughters of the king who died before puberty. Most of them, I gather, died in infancy, as was common back then; probably a few died shortly after childbirth. The tomb was a regular polygon with twenty sides and two levels, which makes for forty slots—forty young bodies. It was another stark reminder that not even royalty are exempt from the tragedies of sickness and death which beset us all. And this richly decorated tomb, with the emblems of royalty painted on every side, was also, in a way, a monument to how much medical technology has advanced. For every parent now is better off than were those kings and queens, buried in tombs of marble and gold, who could afford the best doctors money could buy and power could persuade.
With these gloomy thoughts in my mind, I walked on, through a hallway with life-sized statues of armed soldiers carved into the walls, and into the gift shop, where I paused to buy the official guide of the place.
“It’s beautiful, this building,” I said (in Spanish) to the lady at the register, as I was paying.
“Yes, it’s like Don Quixote.”
“You know, it was built during the Golden Age of Spain. It’s a symbol of our history.”
“Ah, how cool!” I said.
She was right, of course. This monastery was built at the high point of Spanish power, as the Spanish crown was busy opposing the Protestant Reformation with their own Counter Reformation.
I said “thanks” and continued on, up some more stairs and into the art galleries.
I was stunned again. Every corner of this place seemed more beautiful than the last. A large hallway with an arched ceiling extended before us, each wall covered in artwork. Tastefully arranged throughout this hallway were paintings by Titian, Tintoretto, José de Ribera, Velazquez, Bosch, and El Greco—among others. It seems that Europe has an embarrassment of riches when it comes to great art; it’s just everywhere. Here you run into masterpieces by accident. And not only were these paintings wonderful, but the room itself was a work of art. The ceiling was decorated in bright colors, and in every corner, above the doorways, above the windows, was another painting.
Every one of these paintings had a religious theme. There were pictures of saints in the wilderness, contemplating crucifixes; of saints being martyred, a knife to their throat; of saints contemplating heaven, face upturned; of the Last Supper and the Crucifixion, and more.
I find this devotion to images to be an interesting feature of the Catholic religion. After all, one of the ten commandments is not to worship any graven images—though arguably pictures of Jesus and the saints are not “graven.” In Judaism, it is absolutely forbidden to portray Yahweh; and religious iconography is similarly proscribed in Islam, which is why Islamic architecture is decorated in elaborate ornamentation rather than paintings. And in Protestantism, too, religious images are debarred from being used in worship; the use of pictures and relics of saints in worship was one of the original bones of contention during the Reformation.
Though I’m not religious myself, these interdictions make some sense to me. In these religions, God is considered transcendent, unknowable, beyond every human category. Not only that, but in every Abrahamic religion, God is considered to be the sole source of all that is good and holy—the saints, as it were, shine with reflected light. And since a painting is a copy of something you can see, and since God transcends the visible world—as well as our conceptual world—it follows that religious iconography is, at best, two symbolic steps removed from God. And this is not to mention that to paint something is to transform it into something static. In other words, to paint is to capture in some way; and no good Christian believes that God can be captured.
In fact, the use of icons in Catholic history has been far from unchallenged. Putting aside the whole Protestant Reformation, I must mention iconoclasm, a movement which swept through the Byzantine Empire during the eighth and early ninth centuries. At the time, icons—religious images of saints or the Virgin Mary—were widespread. It was believed, then as now, that saints could intercede on your behalf, beg God to show mercy; and by focusing on the image of a saint, one could increase the intensity and efficacy of one’s prayers. But perhaps under the influence of spreading Islam, some began to feel that this worship of icons was too close to idolatry, and fought this practice. Some Emperors were iconoclasts, others iconophiles; and although many painting and images were destroyed, the icons emerged triumphant—that is, until Martin Luther.
My point is that it isn’t just me who finds this intense love of religious images a bit strange. And I’m also not alone in thinking that the incredible proliferation of saints in Catholicism—saints for everything you can imagine, from toothaches to fireworks, and I’m not exaggerating—is more reminiscent of paganism, with its long roster of Gods and demigods and nymphs and heroes, than of a strictly monotheistic religion. But I think my perplexity just indicates that there is something in the Catholic faith, a certain attitude, that remains alien to me. Regardless, one can hardly fault an attitude which has given rise to some of the most incredible works of art and architecture the world has ever seen.
Lucky for me, some of these masterpieces were gathered in this very hall for me to see. We spent some time drinking our fill, listening to our audioguides, until we moved on. Now we were in a long hallway, which surrounded a central courtyard that we couldn’t enter. On the outside wall was painted a huge fresco, or rather frescos, which consisted of different scenes from Jesus’ life and deeds. I walked along, only glancing at these frescoes—after a while, I have to admit, I get a bit tired of the same religious themes in all these paintings—and went into what I believe was the oldest part of the building, an old chapel.
It was a bare room, the only decoration being a few paintings on the walls. In the front was an altar with a terrific painting by Titian: The Martyrdom of Saint Lawrence. According to tradition, St. Lawrence was killed by being roast alive on a gridiron; and while he was being killed, he supposedly called out to his torturers “I’m well done! Turn me over!” (This is part of the reason why he’s the patron saint of comedians.) Well, this painting was considerably less cheerful. The scene is, rather, almost hellish, taking place at nighttime, with the impressive, muscular form of the saint reaching towards heaven with an outstretched hand as he’s burnt alive.
According to legend, the very floor-plan of the El Escorial monastery was based on the interlocking bars of a gridiron, in honor of St. Lawrence. And this is another part of the Catholic faith that confuses me: why are the instruments of death—the very instruments used to torture the saints and the Son of God—so celebrated in their artwork? It strikes me as rather morbid.
Next we were led by the audioguide’s itinerary up an impressive flight of stone stairs, to look at the still more impressive ceiling. The light was so dim, however, that I couldn’t appreciate it. All I could tell was that it was a picture of heaven, with the Holy Ghost in the center (as usual, symbolized by a dove), surrounded by clouds and sunshine and angels and saints. There’s a picture of it in my guidebook, but the small size doesn’t do it justice, unfortunately.
I descended the stairs, reentered the hallway of the long fresco—I believe it’s called the main cloister—and then, after various twists and turns, I found myself, once again, gaping. We had entered the basilica.
As a space, it felt basically like standing in a cathedral. The stone ceiling towered high overhead; and I could see that this ceiling, too, was painted, though again the space was too dark for me to see it clearly. In little niches in the pillars were hung paintings, and I think at least one of these was by El Greco.
The main altar was elegant, and (as far as magnificent altars go) restrained. Fake columns divided the altar into perhaps a dozen spaces, in which are either paintings or sculptures. In the very center, below Jesus and the Virgin Mary, was another painting of St. Lawrence being burned, though this one was far less moving than Titian’s. On either side of the altar, in the walls flanking it, are golden sculptures of royalty, knelt in prayer. These sculptures are extremely impressive, each figure wearing finely detailed armor or ornate dress, each one draped in a cape or a robe—and the capes of the kings are painted with the royal insignia. But what I liked most was just staring up at the huge dome, which seemed impossibly suspended in the air, light streaming in through the circular windows.
After spending some time wandering around the gigantic space, exploring its nooks and crannies, we left; we were led into a courtyard where our audioguides say goodbye to us. But I remembered that we had mistakenly skipped one room on our tour, and so set off, girlfriend in tow, to find the Sala de las Batallas.
This room was easily found. It’s a rectangular room, with an arched ceiling, perhaps about fifty feet long. What’s impressive are the scenes of battle which cover every wall of the room, charging cavalry, marching infantry, men fighting with pikes and guns and swords; cities being besieged, ships being sunk, and finally triumphs being celebrated. This whole room was a piece of propaganda, a monument to the military triumphs of Golden Age Spain. The paintings were, however, done in a curious way, without proper perspective or proportion; perhaps this was to fit more soldiers into the frame?
But now we really were done (though I later realized we’d forgotten to visit the Royal Library). And not only were we done, but we were tired and exhausted. Trying to absorb so much information and so much beauty at once leaves you with what I call the “museum-goers headache,” the slight pressure in one’s head accompanied by the glazed expression of the eyes that follows extended art-viewing. Thankfully, the chill air of the mountains shocked us out of this rather quickly; and soon we were leaving the monastery for town.
In the main squares, where all the best restaurants seemed to be, were life-sized plaster sculptures of animals and people. It was a nativity scene, with the three kings, villagers, donkeys, horses, pigs, chickens, and even an elephant and a giraffe—not quite to scale, but surprisingly big. But apart from their size and number, there wasn’t anything impressive about these sculptures; in fact, they looked like they had been painted and put together by children, with disproportionate limbs and bright red ovals for their mouths. I’m not trying to put them down, you understand; it was just a funny contrast after the monastery.
In fact, these frumpy sculptures were a perfect end to the day, a comical and yet powerful reminder that the very same culture which had given rise to the monastery lives on, lives still today. We were surrounded by the descendants of the people who had, so long ago, constructed the beautiful building we had just left, still living in the shade of the Guadarrama mountains, still making monuments—though nowadays, the monuments are a bit more humble.