I just happened to chose the most expensive visit on International Museum Day; therefore, my entrance was free. On top of that I was in a secluded town out of the way for many tourists. Had I been in Madrid every museum would have been packed. El Escorial is the name of Philip II's palace, built during Spain's Golden Age. It symbolizes the height and impending decline of the Spanish empire. Riches from the colonies had been pouring in for years, but were wasted by Philip II on this palace and numerous wars on the continent. Given the story line, I expected El Escorial to resemble Versailles. The same insulation and monarchy waste had occurred in France. But, I was wrong; El Escorial has nothing to do with the grandeur of Versailles. Instead it reflects the austere and plain man who had it built. Philip II was intensely Catholic, but not in a decorative-papal way. He built El Escorial to serve as a monastery, a burial place for the royal family, and a private place of command outside of Madrid.
Arriving at the "palace," I agreed with the Rick Steves comment that it resembled a prison. It is an imposing gray block with a domed cathedral in the middle. The interior was equally plain, but it gave off an eerie feeling. I was interested in Philip II's bedroom, not gaudy by any standard. A plain bed chamber is situated next to a door that opens to the altar of the huge inner cathedral. The king did not have to leave his bed to enjoy service. The amount of gray stone and the size of the place was overwhelming. The best room was the library; it was also the most lavish and Versailles-like (see below). I have actually not seen many libraries like this one in Europe.
El Escorial Library (taken from http://www.miragebookmark.ch/most-interesting-libraries.htm)
I returned to Madrid in time to meet up with Wendy Anderson, a friend from Collins at IU. I knew she was studying in Madrid, so I sent her a facebook message with my Spanish cell phone number hoping that we could meet up. She was quick to respond, inviting me to her graduation ceremony that night. There I ran into Jeremy Hage, a friend from high school and colleague at IU. I had no idea he was in Madrid; this was a big surprise. Then I spotted Katie Green, a friend from confirmation class in Indianapolis. She was at Georgetown studying foreign service. I would also run into her the next day at the Prado for yet another total coincidence. After the ceremony, we were treated to tapas by the program; this was the first time in days I ate food, and it actually sat well.
I headed to Wendy's apartment for a taste of Madrid life. We had a long chat about our respective experiences. I realized that she has had a radically different experience than me. She has lived in an apartment in an international city. No family has introduced her to Spanish cuisine or traditions. She eats roughly the same food she eats in America, preparing it herself in her kitchen. Going out to eat, she chooses between Indian, Turkish, Italian, and more--not just Spanish (in Sevilla, there is no cuisine choice). I decided I was even more grateful for my small town, intensely local and Spanish experience. That being said, Wendy has had a wonderful time in Madrid and many wonderful travel adventures elsewhere in Europe. Thank you, Wendy for a fantastic reunion.
A few days in Madrid had given me a taste of the place's spirit. Before coming to Spain, I had watched nearly all of Pedro Almodóvar's films. As a proud Madrileño, his movies exude the feeling of the city, from the aesthetic to the mentality. I felt I was a part of Almodóvar's world in Madrid. It would be like a foreigner watching movies of New York and going there for the first time. The place most indicative was the metro. Riding the metro many times that week, I was able to people-watch. Madrid resembled London, yet all of the people had come from Spanish colonies in the Americas or Africa. It was the first international setting I had been in where the universal language was not English; it was Spanish. And unlike New York, the metro was not a place of silence, but conversation. The colorful people, conversation, and spirit were reflected in the rainbow colors of the Metro. Like the Almodóvar films, bright colors dominated Madrid (even seen in Wendy's dress above). From what I have read, it may have something to do with the reawakening of the capital and country after Franco. Together it distinguished city in my mind from any other in Spain.
A colorful scene from an Almodóvar film with Almodóvar on the left
(photo from http://top-people.starmedia.com/movies/opinions_pedro-almodovar_16637.html)
To see photos of this day, see "Madrid Day 3 (5-18) - El Escorial" at https://picasaweb.google.com/bradleywilliams39