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Fin de la Semana Cuarta: El Escorial

14 April 2008
by

This weekend we took another trip with the school, this time to El Escorial and Valle de los Caidos, two historic sites about an hour north of Madrid. El Escorial is a 16th century palace / church / monastery built by Philip II as a royal vacation home / fortress in the battle to stem the effects of the Reformation, and Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) is a monument / basilica / tomb built by Franco to commemorate both the dead of the Spanish Civil War and his own self-important grandeur. Judging by the /’s, the Spanish were big on multiuse buildings wayyy before multiuse was cool.

El Escorial was quite impressive, er, rather, somber. Built between 1563-84 by Philip II, a devoutly Catholic monarch who subscribed to the acetic lifestyle (he fancied himself a monk / bureaucrat / king), the complex is, in a word “spare”, especially by late Renaissance standards. It’s all gray granite and minimally adorned, though the interior architecture is very interesting and the lack of adornment allows the viewer to focus on the structure rather than the icing. Al dubbed it “Swiss Modern design for the 16th century” (This made me almost lose my sh!t. It’s so hot when she talks design to me). It houses a monastery, a pre-monastic boarding school, a huge domed church and the royal apartments, complete with gardens and a stellar view of the surrounding countryside. The whole thing is very austere, and given its size and uniformity, it stands in distinct contrast to other royal buildings, and when you take the site into consideration (it’s built amongst the ruins and detritus of over-worked mines on a desolate, wind-swept hillside), it’s quite foreboding, almost ominous. When you consider that it was created as a fortress of conservative Catholicism, forming the anchor of the counter-Reformation, it makes sense. The pictures will explain it better.

About 20 minutes from El Escorial lies the Valle de los Caidos, and it continues the severe sense of ominousness found at Escorial. Basically, the site is located on a heavily forested hillside, deep within a national park, and consists of a 2-piece monument: a huge underground basilica and a 152.4 meter high (so that’s like, what? 400 feet? Damn metric system) cross visible from the friggin’ Mediterranean. Not really, but it’s the largest free-standing cross in the world. The basilica is hewn from the solid rock of the mountainside, the front of which is an arcaded semi-circle that focuses in on a bronze door leading to the basilica within. Constructed thanks to the help of 20,000 leftist political prisoners “employed” by Franco over it’s almost 20 year construction (ca. 1940-1959), the basilica is enormous and if it weren’t for the fact that part of it was walled off and not consecrated by the pope, it actually exceeds St. Peter’s in scale. The space is really dark and gloomy and given the time it was built (late 30’s-50’s) it incorporates neo-Gothic / Art Deco styling, resulting in a creepy DeathStar / Batman meets Hellboy meets Jesus kind of flavor. It is in no way a joyous celebration of faith, but rather heavy-handed, fear-mongering militant Catholicism. The entryway is flanked by two imposing, soulless bronze Art Deco angels wielding swords, and deeper within are a series of faceless mourning figures, adding a further somber tone to the place. The main entry opens up to a large circular altar, on either side of which are buried Franco and his idol, Primo de Rivera. Above the altar is a 6-million-tile mosaic illustrating the Final Judgement, complete with angels, demons and tortured souls. A great place to take the kids. Below the altar is the mass grave of 40,000 Nationalist and Republican dead, over whom, a local monastery of Benedictine monks say regular masses. The site is a point of contention among Spaniards, as the echoes of Franco’s brutal legacy still haunt them; our tour guide (a 28-year-old teacher at our school) almost came to tears discussing his reign and broke her highly held personal rule and spoke in English in order to convey the gravity of the site. Combine this with the blustery, frigid weather and it was heavy shite.

Next weekend, we’re striking out on our own and heading to Valencia. Nice beaches, less depressing. Any advice on sites to see?

-bdmc

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. Countess of Cava permalink
    15 April 2008 8:23 am

    MC Lad…I absolutely LOVED the historically and aesthetically accurate description of these two sites. You and your hottie wife get an A+ on this one, kiddo. The first time I visited Valle de los Caidos the guide broke into a tirade and would not accompany us inside. His words and actions really drove the point home for me, although I personally find the place so compelling. The last time I was there I attended the Mass and it was REALLY something to hear and see in that space with all those poor souls buried beneath. It was supposed to be a memorial that would heal the nation and bind the Spanish people together. Hmmm…, maybe “they” are correct when they say that civil war is the worst kind of war. Echoes of our own civil war are still felt in the hearts of many people, no?

    AND, do you not agree that El Escorial absolutely and firmly embodies that Spanish Counter-Reformation Catholicism of Philip II? That entire structure IS the embodiment of the man and his time, not unlike Versailles and Louis IV.

  2. Spirit of 73 permalink
    19 April 2008 9:58 am

    Excellent description, dude. I have two comments. One, awesome picture. Two, thank you so much for rendering sh!t with an exclamation point, because if you had written the ‘i’ in the middle it would have been dirty and offensive. This way it has class, because no one knows for certain which word you were using.

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  1. Appreciating the Sh!t Out of Madrid: The Invasion of Iberia by Tall, White Americans, Vol. 4 « The World According to Conison

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