Finals, Toledo, and San Lorenzo
Friday, June 24, 2011
After our finals were over on Monday (June 20), I felt freer than I ever had after taking a final in the states. We toured Seville for the rest of the afternoon, Rachel, Erin and I stopping by El Corte Inglés before returning to the square around La Catedral de Santa María to shop for our last few souvenirs for friends and family. I bought my niece a beautiful red and white flamenco dress, and, finally, a couple of shot glasses to give to friends back in Lubbock. I contemplated buying a funny but vulgar triathlon shirt for our team captain Chris Daniels, but decided against it. Getting him a captain armband for Real Madrid and a bracelet seemed more tasteful anyway.
On Tuesday, we returned to Santa Justa at the ungodly hour of 6:30 to head to El Castillo de Calatrava, an ancient castle that rests high above the vast empty plains of central Spain atop a mountain. The castle became the site for the Order of Calatrava in 1217, after the Almohads recaptured the city in 1195. The view from the top of the castle was spectacular, and the drop down below breathtaking.
Our next stop was in the small town of Almagro, where the heat was ratcheted up to an almost unbearable degree. The city itself was pretty and verdant, and we passed a couple of hours there window shopping. Somehow, inexplicably, my friend Diana’s purse also happened to catch fire while we were in a store that sells lace. Luckily we got her outside, where she tossed it to the ground before I took her water bottle and doused the purse to put it out. It wasn’t until later that Caroline remembered a man smoking a cigarette as we passed him a few moments before entering the lace shop, and how some of the ashes blew past her and, we assumed, somehow got into Diana’s purse. Needless to say, we were ready to leave Almagro before our time was up.
We arrived in Toledo later that afternoon, and everyone was definitely relieved to check in to the hotel and rest for a while. Our hotel room at the Hotel Carlos V was the most beautiful of any we had on the entire trip. The room was small, with a slanted ceiling and a small rectangular window that opened to a picture-perfect view of the cathedral of Saint Mary of Toledo. Later that night we had the chance to walk around the cathedral, as there was a concert held next to it in a large square. Toledo was, in my mind, nearly as beautiful as Granada. Seeing the fiddlers play frenetically but skillfully during the concert was also a memorable experience.
Nothing has ever been as moving to me as the walk into the main alter at San Lorenzo de El Escorial, which we visited on June 22. This mausoleum, palace, and monastery is magnificent from a distance, and even standing far away it’s impossible to see even a part of the gardens or the truly epic façade in its entirety, which towered above us-six stories I counted-as we got closer. Upon entering, we first went to a set of rooms in which several large tapestries hung on the walls. Only a few minutes later, we descended down to the architectural museum, a chain of eleven show rooms with various tools, cranes, and several reproductions of blueprints and drafting documents. From there we returned to the first floor and walked through the art gallery, which contained several paintings by El Greco, Claudio Coello, Velázquez, and other artists.
The descent to the Pantheon of the Kings was unnerving, and the air grew much cooler the further down we went. The octagonal room houses gilded tombs placed in slots in the walls, some of which are still awaiting their residents, the current Spanish monarchs. The amber walls and the soft glow of the overhead light only added to the disquiet of the place. When I emerged from the crypts, I was relieved to find a gift shop with no sign of deathly white marble or tombs.
I could write several more paragraphs about the enormity of El Escorial, but I’d like to write one more about the most awe-inspiring, holy, magnificent site in the entire palace: the basilica. This monastery, which comprises the central building of the complex, is mainly a long nave connecting two transepts, which run north and south. Passing through large double-doors, we entered the high alter, and it was then that I was immediately overwhelmed and calmed. Above us, we saw stunning paintings on the ceiling of angels and other holy figures amidst clouds; so perfectly rendered were the images that they seemed 3-D from our point of view. In front of us, the high alter nearly moved me to tears. Behind it are three-tiered reredos, which are fashioned out of red granite and adorned with gilded bronze. The three religious paintings placed within these reredos were nothing new, but along with the life-size bronze figures of the family of Charles and Philip on either side, the entire image was other-worldly. As I walked past the set of candles next to the high alter and circled back around the outskirts of the enormous monastery, walking into semi-darkness, I knew, without a doubt, that I had found the most peaceful place on earth to ever be constructed by man.