Thursday, September 17, 2015

Day 36: El Escorial and Segovia

For our day trip from Madrid we decided to see a monastery called El Escorial and then drive on to the town of Segovia.

Renting the car was a breeze. The agency was on the same street, Gran Via, as our hotel, and only a few blocks down the street. The agent spoke English and was very polite and clear. The car was in a nearby lot, and an attendant was there to help us find it and to figure out the controls. It was easy to get back on Gran Via, which also happens to be a major route out of town. The road signs were easy to follow, and we were soon in the countryside, which looks remarkably like California.

El Escorial

El Escorial has few attractions and is not friendly to tourists. It was hard to figure out where to park, which is on the street in metered parking, and hard to figure out the parking meters, which required several Euro coins in advance, more than we had.

Dan's first goal was to grab a shot of the dramatic exterior while there was enough light. The place was surrounded by tempting gardens, but the light soon faded and the wind grew chilly.

Monastery at El Escorial
Photo by Dan L. Smith
It was hard to find the unmarked entrance, then we had to cross a broad paved courtyard. Photography was not allowed, and an officious guard immediately forced us to place all our stuff in lockers. We didn't have Euro coins to operate them, so that caused some fussing around. Finally we got started on a self-guided tour.

The first feature was a painting by Rogier van der Weyden from the mid-1400s that had recently been restored. It was isolated in its own chapel-like space. The modeling of the figures was incredible. The figures of the saints appeared to be three-dimensional statues. Here's an internet grab for the record.

Rogier van der Weyden (1399/1400-1464)
The Calvary, c. 1450
Internet grab
Next, we descended a steep stone staircase, lacking in handrails, to a crypt containing the Royal Pantheon. Here we saw the tombs of many members of Spanish royalty. The tombs were stacked floor to ceiling like drawers in a chest all the way around the room. The decoration was elegant but sober. I found this section somewhat underwhelming, especially considering that I had to lift myself back up many steep stairs.

After much walking with little signage for direction, we came to a long hall painted with scenes of battles and maps of territories. Up another flight of steep, rail-less stairs was a huge library painted with mythological frescoes; down the center were huge wooden tables bearing globes and statues.

There was a picture gallery, and we could readily identify a few of the artists, but the paintings were hung high and no identification was provided, so that didn't hold our interest long.

The complex is huge and built in a grid lay-out, so there are lots of long halls. I wandered off the track to a section where there was no one to notice me taking photos with my iPad. The hall was lined with frescoes depicting scenes from the life of Jesus. I thought they were quite good and the light happened to be excellent. Here are a couple of examples.

The Marriage of Mary and Joseph
Jesus lecturing the elders in the temple
We nosed around a huge and sober gray stone church.

On the way out, we stopped for a couple of pictures of an inner courtyard. The building is considered an important monument of Spanish Renaissance architecture. The project was conceived by King Philip II and construction lasted from 1563-1584.

Suddenly the signs conducted us out of the building into the outer paved courtyard, which echoed with the voices of rowdy children at recess, as the complex includes an elementary school.

As soon as I turned around to take a photo of the monastery itself, the sky darkened and the wind turned brisk.

Meanwhile, where were the lockers? Where was the entrance? How were we supposed to retrieve our stuff? After we found our way back to the entrance, we had to buttonhole a guard and get him to admit us to the area with the lockers. The idea of making things convenient for visitors hasn't yet spread this far.

When we got to the car, we had a parking ticket, because we hadn't had enough coins when we parked. However, it said on the ticket that we could pay the fine immediately by depositing several euro coins. Since Dan had made a purchase in the gift shop, he had enough coins to pay the fine, and we breathed a sigh of relief.

We sped off for Segovia, hoping to have some decent light in the late afternoon. It was less than an hour away.


When we stayed in Segovia in 2000, our hotel was very nice and it was in a pretty neighborhood, but it was a long, steep walk from the attractions and restaurants. This year I made a reservation at Hotel Sercotel Infanta Isabel on the main plaza, right across from the Cathedral. Driving up the hill through narrow streets with no pattern and little signage was a challenge, but the iPad mapper kept us on track. The hotel had a good valet parking setup. Our room was okay and we settled in as quickly as we could. Then we went to the bistro in the lower floor of the hotel for a latte and a quick snack, since we had skipped lunch.

Segovia is an immensely popular tourist town because it is an easy day trip on a bus tour from Madrid, and it has three very different historical attractions, all on a straight route from the bus stop to the escarpment on the other end of town. When tourists first disembark they see a Roman aqueduct from the second century of the Christian era. Then they stream uphill to the Plaza Mayor, the main square, to check out the Gothic Cathedral, a very large building dating from the 1500s. From there, they follow their noses up and down narrow, crooked streets to a rocky crag where the Alcazar is perched. The Alcazar started as an Arab fort but was adapted to be a royal palace in the late 1100s.

The Cathedral

We started with the Cathedral, since it was just across the plaza. The afternoon was still gray, but it wasn't too cold. The structure is quite large, and vaults around the nave give it an unusual curving shape, instead of the box-like shape usually associated with Gothic churches. This view is actually the back; the main entrance is on a smaller square on the opposite side.

Here's a view of the entrance after the clouds had parted.

The interior is cavernous. An ambulatory around the nave gives access to the many chapels. The main altar is protected by a wrought-iron screen.

Here is one of many side altars.

From the Cathedral we headed downhill toward the aqueduct. First we crossed the main plaza. Our hotel was in the pink building second from the right.

The route is lined with fancy stores and souvenir shops. Through the windows of some of them I could see the back wall was raw stone, a rocky ridge on the hill. The medieval town is a World Heritage site with many other churches. Here's a view from another plaza.

At the bottom of the hill we got our first glimpse of the magnificent aqueduct.

The aqueduct was built by the Romans around 100-200 AD to bring water from the Rio Frio river in the nearby mountains.

Here's a view of the left side.

Here's a view of the right side.

Before it set, the sun put on a final show. The aqueduct is made of un-mortared blocks of granite.

Cold and hungry, we finally headed uphill to the restaurant where Captain Dan wanted to eat. On the way I caught this sunset view of the town spread out below.

An important reason we came to Segovia was Dan's fond memory of a meal we ate here last time at the Restaurante Bernardino. Here's a shot of the interior.

This was my starter dish; Dan had gazpacho.

Dan had roast lamb; I had the fish. We were both very pleased.

Afterward, we lugged our bodies up the hill to our hotel in the dark of night, past a stream of people pouring downhill from the Cathedral, where there had been a concert. Our hotel wasn't far, and we were soon tucked in bed.

All during the night and into the early morning, our sleep was frequently disturbed by rowdy outbursts from our hotel's popular bistro.