El Escorial is the ultimate symbol of Spain's former royal glory

( dpa )- When talk turns to the massive fortified palace and monastery of El Escorial , Spaniards like to refer to it as the "Eighth Wonder of the World".

The huge Renaissance edifice can be found some 50 kilometres north of Madrid and is visited daily except Mondays by huge numbers of tourists.

The complex is 207 metres long and 161 metres wide and is dominated by a mighty cupola which stands 90 metres tall. The royal mausoleum in the crypt is the final resting place of almost every king and queen to have sat on the Spanish throne.

Spaniard Miguel Pelayo , a young man studying history, explains to visitors how this huge monument came to be built more than 1,000 metres above sea level and within the remarkably short space of 19 years between 1563 and 1584.

"It was built to honour San Lorenzo after the Spanish defeated the French in a battle on August 10th, 1557 which was also his birthday", said Pelayo .

Astrologists chose the lofty site in the thinly-populated region of El Escorial as being particularly auspicious.

"That is why the full name of the palace is Real Sitio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial ." The magnificent structure was a symbol of Spain hewn in stone, of its royal glory and of its erstwhile influence as a world power.

Contemporaries of Philipp II describe him as a deeply-religious, somewhat gloomy and ascetic person who lived modestly.

"It was during his regency that the dreaded Spanish Inquisition came to the fore", said historian Alice Schmidthuber from Vienna. After the palace was completed the ruler spent the years until his death in 1598 living in just three rooms of the monastical residence.

German author Lion Feuchtwanger once spoke of the "icy munificence" of this building although exceptions to its sobriety are the richly-decorated church along with the impressive library rooms whose shelves contain priceless manuscripts and illustrated volumes.

Philipp II probably never got to know the entire complex and tourists are only allowed a glimpse.

"There are some 2,000 chambers, 3,000 doors, 2,673 windows, 16 courtyards, 86 staircases and 88 wells", says a guide named Jose, the numbers rolling off his tongue.

"From 1861 onwards Spain's kings stopped living in this gigantic palace", Jose tells his eager listeners, adding: "And El Escorial has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984".

Alice Schmidthuber prefers to stroll around the complex on her own and concentrates her attention on the art galleries." You can find marvellous paintings such as works by Bosch, El Greco, Velazquez and Tizian ", she enthuses. "It would be easy to spend the whole day in this part alone".

Infobox : El Escorial

GETTING THERE: Take the number 3 metro line in Madrid to the bus station next to Moncloa station and catch a bus to El Escorial . The monastery is about 10 minutes away on foot. From the northern mainline station of Charmartin , which can be reached using the number 1 metro line, the suburban C 8a train travels to El Escorial . The entrance is a 20-minute walk away.

WHEN TO GO: The whole year around, although it can be particularly cold in autumn/winter and very hot in high summer - a visit in August is not recommended.

OPENING TIMES: Tuesday through to Sunday (April to September) from10.00 to 18.00, otherwise until 17.00. Admission to the entire complex costs 10 euros (around 15 dollars). There are discounts for citizens of European Union countries. On Wednesdays entry is free of charge.

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