On Halloween we took our third trip out of Madrid, to the town of El Escorial with a side trip to the Valley of the Fallen. The weather was dreary, so it was a perfect day to stay inside at El Escorial's main attraction, the Real Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial (more commonly referred to simply as the monastery, or El Escorial). We did the English audio guide tour of the monastery (which, to be honest, didn't give much information that was all that different from the signs posted inside each of the rooms) and had lunch in the gardens afterwards. Pictures are not allowed inside of the monastery, so if you want to see a little bit of what the inside looks like, I recommend visiting their website.
Many people we've talked to have been really impressed by the monastery (which has also served as a royal residence in the past), and it is really neat and massive. However, last September we toured Versailles and Buckingham Palace, two other really grand and cool royal palaces. I feel like in a sense, most other places are sort of going to pale in comparison to those two, and while it certainly isn't a competition or a ranking, we've kind of set the bar high. It's like, "How was El Escorial?" "Oh it was good...but...we went to Versailles last year...and...well..." Do you get my drift? At the time we weren't comparing at all, but afterwards I think we felt a little underwhelmed and weren't sure why.
On the train back to Madrid one of us brought up the possibility that perhaps after seeing the grandeur of places like Versailles, many royal palaces we see from now on will feel like El Escorial did to to us - big but simple, with plenty of things that make it unique - for example, the library was huge and beautiful, and from 1516 to the present, all the kings of Spain have all been buried at El Escorial in the pantheon of the kings.
After we finished at the monastery in the early afternoon, we wandered around the town for a little while, and figured out where our bus to Valley of the Fallen would be leaving later on. The town itself had some very charming streets, and, of course, some beautiful fall colors.
Valley of the Fallen, or Valle de los Caídos in Spanish, is a monument honoring those who died in the Spanish Civil War. However, many Spaniards do not view it as such because it was commissioned by Francisco Franco, the fascist general and head of Spain for nearly forty years, who is buried at Valley of the Fallen alongside José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the fascism movement in Spain.
When we were deciding whether or not to visit, we were doing some research on Valley of the Fallen, and realized very quickly that it was difficult to find reliable information on the internet - or perhaps anywhere, for that matter - information is very contradictory and can be hard to understand at times.
We found this blog to be very helpful in giving us some background and insight, as she sifted through much of the information for us and gives a good, succinct summary of what Valley of the Fallen is, what the controversies are, and what it's like to visit. We also found this article from El País to offer an interesting perspective as it offers background information on Valley of the Fallen and includes interviews with Spaniards about their experiences there. Without trying to oversimplify things, the monument is primarily controversial because many say that Franco had it built as a mausoleum for himself, more than to honor the soldiers of the civil war, using the losers of the war as forced labor.
Pictures are not allowed inside of the monument, but it's quite dark and there's actually not much to see. Many people describe the interior as creepy, and although we didn't feel that way, it is a large, cavernous space that is certainly an emotional place for many Spaniards.
The views into the valley below, are, I'm sure, spectacular when the sun is shining. However, keeping in the Halloween spirit, the weather stayed misty and foggy all day long, and we couldn't see very clearly into the distance.
Buses from El Escorial to Valley of the Fallen run fairly often, I believe, but they drop off at the front entrance, and it's a 6 kilometer walk to the actual monument. Then, to catch the bus again, you must walk 6 kilometers back to catch the bus. The walk is through the forest and I'm sure it's beautiful, but we decided we weren't up for such a trek, so we took the once daily bus that takes you straight to the monument. The only catch: it leaves you there for two hours and fifteen minutes. So, if you don't a have a car and you don't want to walk 12 kilometers, I think this is the best option. Just bring some snacks and a book and make the best of it, because it took us about 30 minutes to see the monument and walk around, but we still had quite a bit of time until our bus returned. The bus we took costs 11 euros a person, which may seem steep, but entrance to the monument is 9 euros a person, and the bus includes entry as well as transportation to and from El Escorial.
Overall, probably not in our top day trips from Madrid, but it is fairly close at only 45 kilometers/28 miles (we took the Cercanias train, which is included in our monthly Metro transportation pass), and I'm definitely glad we did it since we're living in Madrid. Would I recommend it to someone on vacation in Madrid for just a couple of days? No. But if you live in Madrid for a couple of months or longer, yes. El Escorial and Valley of the Fallen are essential to understanding Spain and Spanish history, and for being so close to Madrid, there's no reason not to!