El Escorial: Where we Begin to Discard the Non-Essentials

By Anniqua Rana

The mathematically precise splendor of Monasterio Real de San Lorenzo de El Escorial pulls me through the last stretch of our uphill walk from the Phillip II train station. It’s exquisite.  And I am breathless. 

Anniqua in a red coat walking toward Monasterio Real de San Lorenzo de El Escorial
Anniqua walking toward Monasterio Real de San Lorenzo de El Escorial

Monasterio del Escorial on Mount Abanos

We took the morning train from Madrid to spend the day in the town of San Lorenzo de Escorial. It is About 30 miles northwest of Madrid. On Mount Abanos sits Monasterio del Escorial, built on the order of Phillip II. This monastery is considered the largest Renaissance building and is now a shrine to the Spanish monarchs.

As we continue our hike up, I no longer need my red woolen coat to keep me warm.  My age and my walk have both broken my thermostat.  as Selma has labeled menopause. She is already there, and guides me in this next phase of our lives.

Layers, just think of layers that you can shed. She reminds me.

Shedding as we go

We spend our life acquiring clothes, and then menopause prepares us to shed them as we go.  Like mystics, we need to learn how to shed them. Some like Akka Mahadevi do this when they are young. Buddha-like, she left all her worldly goods behind. 

We both know we are neither Akka nor Buddha, but in our new phase, we are reminded to look at our life from a different angle.  Selma has already fashioned her own hourglass, her own quadrant, her own compass.  I can tell she is on a path that was not planned for her.   

As we walk up the hill, I think of Phillip II. History books tell us he was distant, stern, and reserved.  The building captures those qualities. I wonder what role he played in the design.

How do we balance austerity and structure when we are also trying to create?  How do we let the scaffold fall to reveal a standing structure, I think to myself.  I don’t have the breath to share this thought with Selma.  But she is also lost in her own thoughts.  

When was Monasterio del Escorial built?

I continue to imagine the world and the time in which this magnificence was created. The cornerstone of the building was laid in 1563, when Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, the author of El Ingenioso Hidalgo Don Quixote de la Mancha, was still a school boy. William Shakespeare was not even born.

Juan de Sesa wrote poetry around that time

A poet of that time, Juan de Sesa, an Afro-Hispanic slave poet in Renaissance Spain commemorated the transfer of dead Spanish royalty from Granada’s Royal Chapel to the newly built palace El Escorial. Juan de Sesa, who was born a free man in Ethiopia taught at the Cathedral school in Granada and became famous for his epic Latin poems.

In his poems, he reminds Phifllip of the world larger than Spain.

Should we visit The Valley of the Fallen?

I hear Franco is buried in the Valley of the Fallen in El Escorial. We can see that too, I suggest. The online images look magnificent and Selma is a shrine chaser. 

Valley of the Fallen– which we did not visit

No! Selma says emphatically.

Because of Franco’s legacy? I ask, agreeing with her.

Yes. She responds. When you start counting your years, you need to make each moment, each action meaningful.

I begin my personal checklist of what to discard and what to keep.

A visit to El Escorial in the movies

For a modern day trip to the town of El- Escorial, join movie director Antonio Banderas in the movie Pain and Glory. Here he revisits a colleague and continues to seek inspiration to create after the trauma of his mother’s death.

Create Cultural Memories through Literature and Art

Distinguished Research Professor of Spanish Literature Elizabeth R. Wright in The Epic of Juan Latino, tells the story of “Renaissance Europe’s first black poet and his epic poem on the naval battle of Lepanto, Austrias Carmen (The Song of John of Austria)”.

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