Today we all took an field trip (or excursion, as they call them) to a couple of rather historic places just outside of Madrid. We started our day at el Monasterio de San Lorenzo del Escorial (or just el Escorial). This absolutely enormous (truly) building was built by King Philip II after we won his first big battle as king. In order to remember this great victory and to offer thanks to God, he had this part basilica, part monastery, part college, part library, part palace, part royal tomb built. This place was incredibly massive and probably the coldest building I have ever been in - it would be quite possible to get lost in there and still be trying to find your way out several days later and nearly all of the rooms were several degrees colder than it was outside (which I endured by telling myself that it was still warmer than it was back home =)). Continuing...
A most interesting fact-that-sounds-made-up-but-isn't about El Escorial is that the floor plan is in the shape of a grid, or grill, because King Philip was a major wierdo and had this obsession with martyr's and his favorite martyr, San Lorenzo, was cooked to death on a grill. True story. Also, there was a huge, shiny room (why won´t they let me take any pictures of the shiny things??) where the kings from Philip up to today are buried. The queens that produced a future king are also buried there. The odd thing was that the coffins were noticeably shorter than the average person (even for several hundred years ago), which was puzzling until we were told that the bodies are left out to dry for several years before they are put into these coffins. Lovely mental image associated with that one.
After lunch at a place claiming to have the best tapas (we didn't have any, although they did have really good sandwiches) and using the world's sketchiest bathroom at the bus station a couple of hours later, we were off to the Valle de los Caidos - Valley of the Fallen. This is a huge (there's no way I can describe to you how big this place was) basilica built into the mountains by Franco as a monument to those that died during the Spanish Civil War. At this point, however, Franco was in power (as he remained until his death in 1975), so this was really only a monument for his supporters. Usually churches and cathedrals evoke a sense of awe and majesty, yet seeing Jesus depicted in this building that Franco basically built as a monument to his own power was almost sacrilegious, especially given that both Franco and one of his biggest supporters are buried there. Basically, this place was totally creepy and we were quite glad to leave, though the view just outside was quite beautiful (once again, completely out of place with the building behind it).
I'm hoping to spend the weekend checking out the city a bit, since at this point I haven't really had a chance to wander much outside of my neighborhood. I feel a trip to El Rastro, this huge flea market held every Sunday morning, may be in order.