Saturday, January 29, 2011

Friday Escapes: El Escorial

Monasterio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial
(picture borrowed from Wikipedia)
As I've said before, I have a tough life - work 16 hours a week, take Fridays off... difficult, isn't it?  Nevertheless, an obvious (but unexpected) side effect is the boredom that comes from so much disposable time.  Because I haven't picked up any private pupils or hobbies yet, days stretch out before me like a giant boa constrictor.  Don't get me wrong, I find great stuff to occupy my time, but it's not as easy to do here as at home. Thankfully, though, this week has been busier than normal between an excruciating long meeting and Pub Quiz on Monday, Fusión on Tuesday, and something else on Wednesday - can't remember.  Thursday evening I stayed home.

Therefore, when 11:00 on Thursday night rolled around, I was mildly alarmed at having yet another whole day to occupy.  Going into the Center (a favorite pastime of mine) to wander around, sight-see, and shop was out of the question as I'd gone the past two weeks and was sick of it.  (Besides, carrying around a camera attracts unwanted attention - mostly from older men who just happen to be hanging around where they can offer to take your picture for you, and then start up an uncomfortable, unending conversation.)  Art museums were also a possibility, but I just wasn't feeling it.

Aha!  Day trips!  Google day trips!  Hmmm... Segovia - been there, done that.  Toledo, been there, done that, taken the tour.  Avila... yes, but later on.  Barcelona, not enough time - had to be back in Madrid at 9 for a party.

And then, inspiration!  El Escorial, the King's monastery and retreat. I'd been when I was 11 with my grandparents and it seemed pretty cool back then. Besides, it was only an hour's train ride away, and having just mastered the train system (learn by failure...), I was eager to test my skills.

So, I looked up train times and off I went!  Yes, my friends, that was the extent of my planning.  I did manage to grab an umbrella in case of rain, though the skies in Madrid were pretty clear.

It was a bit of a surprise, then, when I arrived and found several inches of snow on the ground!  Oops!  Didn't see that one coming!  Snow definitely changes plans to wander around town trying to find this place, or whatever other picturesque opportunity there might be.  Oh yes, did I mention I didn't have a map of any sort?  El Escorial, it seems, isn't hip enough for Lonely Planet.

As there was a cafe right outside the train station, it seemed like a good place to warm up with coffee and ask directions.  There were a few people at the bar, most notably two older men enjoying an animated conversation.  I sipped my coffee solemnly and ate my tortilla española, trying to process my predicament.  Not that I was worried at all, just inconvenienced, and I hate inconvenience more than anything else so... paltry.

Anyway, there was a pause in the men's conversation, but when I asked them how to get to the monastery, they commenced on a new debate as to whether I should walk or not, and even the barista joined in.  On the one hand, it was a pretty walk, but qué no!  It was snowing!  Yes, but still, I was young, so I wouldn't mind the snow as much... but the bus would take her there just as well... At length, they decided that I would surely fall and break a leg in the snow, and that it was better to wait for the bus.  Even better, they said, wait ten minutes, and if it doesn't come, walk on up.

It was decided then.  One of the gentlemen went out for a smoke while I waited inside, and they began the usual interrogation.  Where was I from? How did I speak such good Spanish?  What was I doing here and for how long?  Etc.  By this time, the other fellow had come back in and was preparing to leave.  What!  his friend cried. Why don't you just take her with you!

Oh... oh, lovely.  And I thought I had a predicament earlier!!  This time, the matter was decided amongst the three in a matter of seconds,  but seeing my hesitation, they laughed.  Look, said the first.  She's worried!  The barista laughed.  Don't worry, she said.  Te confianza.  Y si no, si no regresas, llamamos el Guardia Civil.  I'll vouch for him. And if you don't return, we'll call out the Civil Guard.

It was at this point I felt myself to be having an out-of-body experience, looking down on the scene and laughing, wondering the mothers of the world would say about talking to strangers and accepting car rides from strange men, but realizing that it would make quite a story later on... assuming I came back alive!  If I hadn't just learned the phrase "te confianza" two days earlier, I might have refused.  But... it was snowing, after all... so of course I agreed.

It was a quick ride up - literally straight up a hill about a mile. I was glad I wasn't walking.  We chatted amiably, but I didn't catch much of what he said, feeling it was more important to focus on worst-case-scenario survival instead... the snow would cushion my fall, if necessary.  But at the top, he showed me where to go, extended his hand and asked my name.  Ah, my name is difficult for you English-speakers, he said.  You don't understand it.  I braced myself for a multi-syllabic torrent.  Oh?  What is it?  I asked.  Jesus, he said.  Of course it is, I thought.  The cherry on top, right?  I'm not sure irony is the right word, but I enjoyed the moment quite a bit.

As for El Monasterio de El Escorial, it was not as cool as I remembered (perhaps I was thinking of The Valley of the Fallen, where Franco is buried, which is closed for renovations) but still worthwhile.  Built to rival the Vatican, it boasts a prestigious art collection and a library that really did rival Rome in its earlier days and survived two fires.

It struck me, though, how cold the past must have been.  There is simply no good way to heat up 75 acres of stone, no matter how important you are.  No amount of fresco, artisan marble, and priceless artwork can make up for constantly stiff joints and clammy fingers.

Additionally, the monastery is also a basilica, hosting over 66 tombs of past royals.  Now, call me crazy, but if I'm going to retreat from the affairs of the State for a while, I'd rather not be reminded of my own eventual demise.  It's just not something I tend to include in my itineraries.  On the other hand, maybe it provides a good outlet on reflection and humility.  Still, many of the caskets were for children - mostly from the distant past, but that would be difficult, I think.  Not a recommendation for Camp David, that's for sure.

Anyway, that was the adventure.  Other than soggy socks and frozen pant legs, the rest of the day passed without incident, and I got back into Madrid just in time to leave again.

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