Northwest of Madrid, in the foothills of the Sierra de Guadarrama, is one of Spain’s best-known and most visited sights – Felipe II’s vast monastery-palace complex of El Escorial. The vast granite building, which contains a royal palace, a monastery, a mausoleum, four thousand rooms, fifteen cloisters and one of the finest libraries of the Renaissance, embodies all that was important to one of the most powerful rulers in European history. The monastery was the largest Spanish building of the Renaissance: rectangular, overbearing and austere, from the outside it resembles a prison more than a palace. Built between 1563 and 1584 to commemorate the victory over the French at the battle of San Quentin on August 10, 1557 (San Lorenzo’s Day), it was originally the creation of Juan Bautista de Toledo, though his one-time assistant, Juan de Herrera, took over and is normally given credit for the design. Felipe II planned the complex as both monastery and mausoleum, where he would live the life of a monk and “rule the world with two inches of paper”. Later monarchs had less ascetic lifestyles, enlarging and richly decorating the palace quarters, but Felipe’s simple rooms remain the most fascinating.

Visits to the Real Monasterio del Escorial have become more relaxed in recent years, and you can use your ticket (purchased in the visitors’ entrance) to enter, in whatever sequence you like, the basilica, sacristy, chapter houses, library and royal apartments. To escape the worst of the crowds avoid Wednesday afternoons and try visiting just before lunch.

The Biblioteca and Patio de los Reyes

A good starting point is the west gateway, the traditional main entrance, facing the mountains. Above it is a gargantuan statue of San Lorenzo holding the gridiron on which he was martyred. Within is the splendid Biblioteca (Library), adorned with shelves designed by Herrera to harmonize with the architecture, and frescoes by Tibaldi and his assistants, showing the seven Liberal Arts. Its collections include the tenth-century Codex Albeldensis, St Teresa’s personal diary, some gorgeously executed Arabic manuscripts and a Florentine planetarium of 1572 demonstrating the movement of the planets according to the Ptolemaic and Copernican systems. Beyond is the Patio de los Reyes, named after the six statues of the kings of Israel on the facade of the basilica straight ahead. Off to the left is a school, to the right the monastery, both of them still in use.

Basílica

In the Basílica, notice the flat vault of the Coro above your head as you enter, which is apparently entirely without support, and the white marble Christ carved by Benvenuto Cellini and carried here from Barcelona on workmen’s shoulders. The east end is decorated by Italian artists: the sculptures are by the father-and-son team of Leone and Pompeo Leoni, who also carved the two facing groups of Carlos V with his family and Felipe II with three of his wives; Mary Tudor is excluded. The reliquaries near the altar are said to hold the entire bodies of ten saints, plus 144 heads and 306 arms and legs.

Sacristía, Salas Capitulares and the Panteón Real

The Sacristía and Salas Capitulares (Chapter Houses) contain many of the monastery’s religious treasures, including paintings by Titian, Velázquez and José Ribera. Beside the sacristy a staircase leads down to the Panteón Real, the final resting place of all Spanish monarchs since Carlos V, with the exception of Felipe V and Fernando VI. The deceased monarchs lie in exquisite gilded marble tombs: kings (and Isabel II) on one side, their spouses on the other.

Just above the entry is the Pudridero Real, a separate room in which the bodies (which are covered in lime) rot for twenty years or so before the cleaned-up skeletons are moved to the final resting place. The royal children are laid in the Panteón de los Infantes; the tomb of Don Juan, Felipe II’s bastard half-brother, is grander than any of the kings’, while the wedding-cake babies’ tomb with room for sixty infants is more than half full.

Museos Nuevos, Salones Reales and Claustro Grande

What remains of the Escorial’s art collection – works by Bosch, Gerard David, Dürer, Titian, Zurbarán and many others, which escaped transfer to the Prado – is kept in the elegant suite of rooms known as the Museos Nuevos (New Museums). Don’t miss the Sala de las Batallas, a magnificent gallery lined with an epic series of paintings depicting the most notable imperial battles. The surprisingly modest Salones Reales (Royal Apartments) contain the austere quarters of Felipe II, with the chair that supported his gouty leg and the deathbed from which he was able to contemplate the high altar of the basilica. However, Felipe’s successors occupied the more lavish Palacio de los Borbones, that takes up the northeastern corner of the complex.

Claustro Grande and Patio de los Evangelistas

You can wander at will in some of the Escorial’s courtyards; most notable is the Claustro Grande, with frescoes of the Life of the Virgin by Tibaldi, and the secluded gardens of the Patio de los Evangelistas which lie within, while on the southern flank lies a series of parterre gardens known as the Jardín de los Frailes.

Outlying lodges

The Casita del Príncipe (aka Casita de Abajo) and the Casita del Infante (aka Casita de Arriba) are two eighteenth-century royal lodges located within the grounds of El Escorial, both full of decorative riches, and built by Juan de Villanueva, Spain’s most accomplished Neoclassical architect – so worth seeing in themselves as well as for their formal gardens.

The Casita del Infante, which served as the present King Juan Carlos’ student digs, is a short way up into the hills and affords a good view of the Escorial complex; follow the road to the left from the main entrance and then stick to the contours of the mountain around to the right – it’s well signposted.

The Casita del Príncipe, in the Jardines del Príncipe below the monastery, is larger and more worthwhile, with an important collection of Giordano paintings and four pictures made from rice paste.