by Faye Davies
Closer than Segovia and less mercenary than Toledo, El Escorial makes an absurdly easy day trip from Madrid. Go when it’s fine and you can combine nature, culture and fine dining in the time it takes to reach the front of the queue at the Prado. Well, almost.
As the train draws you into the foothills of the Sierra, it’s hard not to be awed by the prospect of the town’s main draw, the sixteenth century monastery. Best visited at 3pm when the Spaniards have fled for lunch, this austere building still houses many of the masterpieces selected by Velasquez for Philip IV, including Titian’s Last Supper. Leave enough time for the basilica, which makes most Spanish cathedrals look like theme parks.
When hunger strikes, avoid the photo-flaunting restaurants and head for Plaza de la Constitución, favoured by the locals. La Clementina (no. 9) serves high quality modern Spanish food, with the option of sitting outside when it’s sunny.
The tourist office opposite the monastery is helpful and friendly, and can provide details of other attractions, as well as walking routes. The most popular takes you up to La Machota Alta and back again, on a two-hour trek though pine forest – the perfect antidote to three glasses of Rioja.
Trains leave from Atocha every hour, Cercanías line C-8a (see Renfe site). Adult return 5.50€. Monastery entrance (without guide) 8€. See here for opening hours. See the map below for El Escorials location, north-west of Madrid: