Few monuments capture the spirit of past rulers as does El Escorial, the vast monastery-palace built by the brooding Phillip II, who presided over Spain's Golden Age in the second half of the 16th Century. Phillip, great-grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, was so pleased with the buildings that he spent the last 14 years of his life there.
But the remote little village that so pleased Phillip in 1562 has grown into the lively provincial town of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, where the more than 800,000 tourists who visit annually have taken a toll on the castle. Or, to be more precise, their cars have taken a toll on the 400-year-old stone buildings, which have been eroded and blacked by vehicular air pollution.
Thus the monastery and palace--about 25 miles northwest of Madrid--will early next year join other tourist sites in Spain by closing off its grounds to cars and other motor vehicles. This follows a conservation trend already underway in some of the Spain's other ancient cities--including Toledo (the beautiful fortress city on a hill), Granada (site of the Alhambra) and Cuenca (site of the famous "hanging houses" that cling from a cliff). In these places, visitors this summer may notice construction of escalators and elevators that will be used to connect the hill-top enclaves with parking lots being constructed nearby. (Free buses will carry visitors to the sites from the parking areas.)
El Escorial is open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., April through September; and Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., October through March. Admission is $3.50 per person with reduced prices available both for children and senior citizens.