Located a short bus ride from Madrid, the monarchical complex of San Lorenzo de El Escorial—situated on a hilltop with stunning views over the Spanish landscape—is critical to understanding Spanish power and politics in the 16th and 17th centuries. A sprawling, palatial complex, El Escorial occupied a central role in Spanish political history as a seat of power outside of the urban center of Madrid, and in this way provides an interesting contrast to Versailles and other rural royal residences throughout Europe. As a UNESCO World Heritage Site, it's a major must-see attraction.
Our half-day excursion to El Escorial begins in Madrid, with a bus ride (45 mins) out to the site. Along the way we'll look at the figure of Philip II of Spain, who founded the complex in 1563 as a monastic foundation serving as pantheon for the Habsburg dynasty—specifically as a burial place for his father, the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, and other members of the royal family. The direct involvement of Philip II in the project has been discussed by historians at length, and we'll look at some of these interpretations as we tour the site.
Once on site we'll explore the residential quarters, the monastery, and most major buildings. We'll have ample opportunity to explore and discuss the layers of meaning within the complex, which came to symbolize both the international prestige and the private beliefs of a monarch who ruled over a vast empire. Religion and politics are linked together at El Escorial, reflecting the convergence of the spiritual and the secular in the politics of 16th-century Spain.
Our visit will also include the Library whose holdings rival those of the Vatican in number and importance, as well as a collection of Flemish, Italian, and Spanish paintings, and two eighteenth-century recreational lodges for the royal family.
At the end of the visit participants are free to remain and continue exploring on their own and will be provided with instructions for getting back to Madrid.
An optional visit to the fascist monument of the Valle de los Caídos, another short bus ride from the monastery of San Lorenzo, may be included in the excursion, but will entail an extra hour. This basilica, built within the mountain and surmounted by a monumental cross, is the burial place of Francisco Franco and Primo de Rivera. The controversial building of what was supposed to be a monument to the fallen of the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) may be compared and contrasted with the monumental site designed by Philip II in 1563.