Sunday, October 23, 2011

El Escorial & Valle de los Caídos.

On October 1st, I went on a day trip with the Vas-Wes Program to El Escorial, a palace-monastery about 30 miles northwest of Madrid. It was built under Felipe II during the second half of the sixteenth century, and according to my lit professor, it's the ultimate representation of Counter-reformation Spain. ...aaand I didn't get around to posting about it til now because I don't like any of the pictures I took (#photosnob) and also because Firefox has decided to be one giant glitchfest lately. I had to re-download Google Chrome so I could finish the post.

[photo: Wikipedia]

Palace entrance
There were CLOUDS in the sky! ...that's a big deal here
Pretty impresionante
I couldn't take pictures inside cus security at UNESCO World Heritage sites is always insane, but as usual, I did sneak a few. I really wish I could have taken pictures of El Panteón de los Reyes (Pantheon of Kings), where almost every single king and queen (but only the queens who bore an heir to the throne) are entombed. There are 26 coffins in total. You walk down this dark marble tunnel to get into the crypt, and emerge in a circular room with so much gold leaf, it glows. It's both beautiful and incredibly creepy.

[photo: Wikipedia]
Kings on the left, queens on the right
While we were in the crypt, whenever the tour guide would refer to a king, she would poit to his coffin and talk about him as if he were right there--which I guess he actually is (but just the bones, because there's another special crypt for the flesh to rot off of newer corpses. So gross, but 100% true). Entertaining and macabre...

In a fortuitous change of events, we weren't able to go into the basilica...because there was a WEDDING! We convinced the tour guide to let us watch the beginning of the procession, because it was clearly the wedding of some ridiculously rich people (all the women were wearing Royal Wedding hats!) I was a major creeper and took pictures of the little kids in the wedding party, because like all children in Spain, they were wearing the most adorable outfits EVER.
I almost kidnapped them all

The basilica

Lastly we stopped by the library, which had all its books arranged with the spines facing the back of the bookshelves, thus rendering it absolutely impossible to find anything. Spaniards are so delightfully illogical pretty much all of the time.

The ceiling was divided into 7 sections, each with paintings representing a different sect of knowledge (religion, grammar, math, etc.)

In front of El Escorial
Then came the best part of the day: FREE LUNCH. My high school gov teacher was wrong all those times he told us there is no such thing as a free lunch, because I get one on every excursión. (Okay, I guess I pay for it with my tuition, but that's not my money...I hope)

Walking to the restaurant
Did you know that Hong Kong is located in Spain?

Sam & Pepa
Per usual, I was so hungry I ate all my food before I remembered to take pictures of it (probably for the best; my food photography is dismal), but just picture about 2303890 fish croquettes (simultaneously disgusting and addicting) and a huge duck leg/wing/somethin'. It was my first time trying duck and I was pleasantly surprised! For dessert, there was something I thought was regular cheesecake, but it turned out to be evil cheesecake (aka, cheesecake made with bleu cheese). I ate it anyway because I am disgusting.

After dinner we lumbered back to the bus with uncomfortably full bellies and then headed to Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a monument/basilica erected by Franco (starting in 1940) to commemorate the lives of those lost in the Spanish Civil War. Today, it's very controversial because Franco forced Republican POWs to join the construction team, and many of them lost their lives as a result. A lot of people's host families were shocked that the program was taking us there, because they felt it has a cultural significance we can't understand--after all, tourists aren't allowed into the crypt which holds many bodies of those killed in the Guerra Civil. I understand where they're coming from, since I've never lived in a dictatorship and thus don't understand the gravity the Valle holds, but how will I ever learn if I don't visit it?

I immediately got chills.

Going into the basilica was about 23098 times creepier than going into the Pantheon of Kings earlier in the day, because there are two kinds of death: natural death and murder. The Pantheon was created to honor natural death. This basilica felt like it was created to honor murder, the murder of all the citizens of Spain who died under Franco's rule.

The interior of the basilica is cold and cavernous, with an eerie minimalism. As cheesy as it sounds, I felt like I was walking into Voldemort's lair or something.

The worst part was these 30 foot faceless metal angels
Franco is buried in the basilica, he essentially built the whole thing as a huge monument to himself--another reason why it's such a controversial location. It felt absolutely bizarre to stand at the foot of his grave and know that someone so horrible was just a few meters under my feet. As a small crowd grew around it and I wanted to leave, I hopped over the corner so as not to step on it, and one of the monitoras leaned over to me and said, "No tengas cuidado--¡písalo, písalo!" ("Don't be careful--stomp on it, stomp on it!")

I wonder who put those flowers there...
Behind that door lie 9 levels of crypts of those who died between 1936 & 1939 in the Guerra Civil
This was by far the shortest and most somber of our excursiones. I guess field trips can't always be filled with non-bleu cheesecake and devoid of reminders that Spain has a very dark recent history.

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