For several years I have wanted to visit El Escorial, Philip II of Spain’s enormous palace-monastery in Castile. I think I first saw a photograph of that vast edifice with over 300 windows on each facade in a book on World Heritage Sites when I was still a teenager. On a previous trip to Madrid I gave priority to an El Greco pilgrimage in Toledo, and so El Escorial remained as a idea in my head that was based on photographs. Having studied Renaissance Venetian art I knew there were some pretty good paintings, but it really is an extraordinary treasure house of Titians, Tintorettos and Veroneses, so much so that its easy to become blasé. But actually, it’s the setting for me that was so special: walking up from the train station in clear January sunshine through the pine trees it gradually revealed itself against the hills (and even snow on some). But although its an unmistakable presence in the landscape, all those windows seem to look inward. It’s a strange place, endless corridors and hallways, antechambers, stairways and reception rooms, before reaching some quite remarkable rooms with painted murals of battles and heavenly scenes. The religious painting becomes almost too much. It is may be a royal monastery but there is a darkness there. In a bizarre twist of architectural planning the king’s bed has a view of the vast altar of the basilica, and the staircase from his chamber leads directly down to the royal mausoleum with the likes of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and others. A reminder of our mortality perhaps, but it also made me think of the more sinister side of the Spanish Inquisition.

(Source: ElEscorial)