EL ESCORIAL, Spain — King Philip II was nothing if not devout, an austere and joyless man who in the 16th Century built what is surely one of the most somber religious structures in all of Christendom, the majestic yet severe monastery-palace-pantheon that has put this village on the map.
Philip was both military hero and spendthrift monarch, gaining control of the Mediterranean and the crown of Portugal, but emptying Spain's coffers with endless wars, the ill-fated Spanish Armada and such prodigal projects as the monastery.
Yet his legacy cannot be bypassed by anyone seriously interested in the history and beauty of Spain--a bountiful trove of the world's finest paintings, priceless furnishings and tapestries, a magnificent library and the marble tombs of Spanish rulers for almost five centuries.
El Escorial, a pretty place 35 miles northwest of Madrid in the foothills of the Guadarrama Mountains, is usually relegated to a day trip from the capital. But it comes into its own after tour buses have left and villagers relax at a cafe during the early evening. This delightful town seems held together by numerous tiny plazas.
Here to there: Iberia flies non-stop LAX-Madrid-LAX every Sunday during summer, TWA regularly via New York. Or take a domestic carrier to Miami or New York for connections with Aeromexico or Iberia. A bus will take you to El Escorial in an hour.
How long/how much? We've made our case for staying overnight, but do it in a day if you have to. Lodging and dining costs in Spain are a joy to all.
A few fast facts: Spain's peseta was recently valued at .007, about 143 to our dollar. Mountain air of the Guadarramas keeps the town pleasant even in summer, a fact noted by Madrilenos who have weekend houses here.
Getting settled in: Victoria Palace (Juan de Toledo 4; $50 double) is the town showplace, a turn-of-the-century hotel with ambiance and furnishings befitting its name. Lush grounds of old-fashioned gardens and pool, handsome rooms, a lovely terrace dining room where linens, waiters' jackets and service are crisp. Food is superb, the sangria given a fillip of Spanish brandy to make it the best we've ever encountered.
Visiting Miranda & Suizo again (Floridablanca 20; $23 high season, $21 low) was like saying hello to an old friend. Same hardwood floors in traditionally furnished rooms, same lively bar-cafe for the aperitivo hour, good dining, the monastery just a step down the hill, views to the mountains beyond.
Principe (Floridablanca 6; $18) shares the Miranda's good location on the main street, owner Soriano Martin taking great pride in his spotless rooms and pretty restaurant. There is also a parilla at street level where everything comes hot from the grill.
Regional food and drink: Menus are loaded with chops and roasts, veal, pork, lamb and steaks. But try the callos madrilena, tripe in the Madrid fashion for a garlic-laced adventure, and judias con chorizo del pueblo, small white beans with local sausage that is usually a house specialty.
Fresh seafood is available anywhere in Spain, merluza (hake) the staple fish. Look for merluza a la vasca, in the Basque style, thick slices of the white fish baked in a hearty sauce and served in an earthenware dish. Good Spanish wines, usually from the Rioja or Valdepenas, are fine company at lunch or dinner, sangria always welcomed in summer.
Moderate-cost dining: Meson La Cueva (San Anton 4) is an 18th-Century Parador de las Animas, probably for stabling horses on pilgrims' visits to the monastery. It still has all the trappings of that time and several rooms for dining on the likes of partridge stewed with garlic, onion, oil and wine. Or try the beans with local sausage or pig's trotters.
Plaza de San Lorenzo nearby has several good places, Fonda Genera having a daily menu with such as garlic soup, pisto manchego (a heavenly vegetable dish), callos madrilena or steak. Upstairs on the same square is another typical restaurant, Alaska, with a three-course menu for $6.50, more elaborate fare for $9.50.
We also liked Meson Serrano (Floridablanca 4) for excellent entremeses variados, the sturdy soups and stews of Asturias, and trout baked with Serrano ham in the Navarra style.
On your own: A guide would be helpful getting through the cultural maze of the monastery. Don't miss the Royal Apartments with their opulent Pompeian ceilings and regal tapestries. The New Museum collection of Titian, Velasquez, Ribera, David, Tintoretto and Veronese is superb. One El Greco was too anatomical for Philip's devout tastes and was never hung by him.
The Pantheon, begun later under Philip III, reflects a newer Spanish preference for the baroque and, now that the monarchy has returned, will be the final resting place of kings and queens.
For additional information: Call the Spanish National Tourist Office at (213) 658-7188, or write (8383 Wilshire, Beverly Hills 90211).