(Continued from my post on Consuegra.)
The most famous monastery in the community of Madrid is, undoubtedly and deservedly, El Escorial—the grandest monastery in the country. Though impressive, El Escorial is, however, no longer a working monastery. (I have since found out that this is not true, and there are still monks there.) Indeed, its primary function was never to be a home for monks, but a seat of power. To see a proper monastery without leaving the bounds of Madrid, one can go to Las Descalzas or La Encarnación, two historic and lovely monasteries in the center.
Yet more impressive than either is El Paular, which is located near a small village, Rascafría, in the Madrid mountains. Getting there on public transportation is not easy, especially on the weekend. Bus 194 leaves the Plaza de Castilla every Sunday at 8 am. The trip lasts well over two hours, mostly because the indirect route travels over local roads, making frequent stops. And since the only viable return bus leaves Rascafría at 6:30 pm, going there is an all-day commitment. (Admittedly there is a return bus at 3:00 pm, but if you visit the monastery and take the tour you won’t make it.)
Let me pause here for another linguistic lesson. When we wish to make a compound word out of a noun and a verb in English, we normally put the noun first and add “-er” to the verb. Thus we get “skyscraper.” Spanish follows the opposite procedure, with the verb first and the noun second, which is plural. The word for “skyscraper” in Spanish is rascacielos (lit. “scrape skies”). Learning this principle was invaluable to me, since it makes trips to hardware stores infinitely easier. Can-opener is abrelatas and pencil-sharpener is sacapuntas. At first glance the toponym Rascafría follows this principle, rasca being from “scrape” (although “fría” as a noun isn’t known to me). This appearance is entirely illusory, it seems, since the name derives from rocas frías, or cold rocks.
The bus deposited me in this cold and rocky place at around 10:30 in the morning, on a chilly November day. The walk to the monastery took about twenty minutes. I arrived in time to be there when the gates opened at 11:00. Before going inside, I retreated a little from the entrance so as to see the monastery amid its surroundings. The best place to see El Paular is from the Puente del Perdón, a picturesque stone bridge (built in the 1700s) that runs over the river Lozoya. From here you can see the monastery’s tall spire presiding over a square building, adjoining a series of domes and semi-domes on the right. With the looming mountains serving as a backdrop, the monastery is quite a quaint sight.
El Paular was founded around the year 1390 as a Carthusian monastery, a purpose which it served until, in 1835, like so many monasteries in Spain, it was confiscated by the state. Bereft of purpose, the monastery suffered the effects of time and neglect. In the twentieth century there was an ineffectual attempt to incorporate it into the national park of the Guadarrama Mountains. Later on, the monastery was converted into a sort of artist residence for landscape painters—a task for which, due to its surroundings, the monastery was admirably well-suited. Finally, in 1954, the monastery became, once again, a monastery, this time for the Benedictine order; and it remains so to this day.
I paid the entrance and went inside. They were having mass in the church when I entered, so I proceeded directly to the cloister. Here I discovered an unexpected delight. Lining the walls of the cloister is a series of 52 oil paintings by Vicente Carducho, a contemporary of Diego Velazquez. These paintings tell the story of the Carthusian Order from its founding to the present day. Thus the series begins with the Carthusian founder, St. Bruno, and ends with the closure of the monasteries during the English Reformation. Individually, these paintings are masterful works of Golden Age realism, telling stories of miracles, martyrs, and myths with a dynamic flair worthy of Carducho’s friend, Lope de Vega. (Indeed, the two of them can be seen in one of the paintings.) But together they have a cumulative effect that goes far beyond their technical merits.
And we must count ourselves extremely fortunate to be able to see the series all together, since after the monastery’s 1835 confiscation the paintings were acquired by the Prado, and for many years were loaned out to various museums around the country. During this time two of the paintings were lost (there were originally 54) in the confusion of the Spanish Civil War. It was only in 2006 that they were restored and finally reunited in their original home.
Once I finished appreciating the paintings—which took the better part of an hour—I wandered over the entrance of the church for the scheduled tour. Mass soon finished; and about a dozen people, mostly elderly, shuffled out of the elaborately decorated church door. A short, rotund man wearing a monk’s habit—a plain dark robe in this case—appeared and shepherded us inside. The church itself is a plain, clean, white space, mostly devoid of elaborate decoration. The exception to this is the magnificent main altar, which contains 17 Biblical scenes in finely detailed alabaster.
In a jovial and bouncing voice, the monk explained all about the monastery and its history. Then we moved further into the monastery, passing through the vestry and the chapter house, while the monk rapidly rattled off the dates, styles, and provenance of the art work to be seen. Finally we reached the Capilla del Sagrario, or the Chapel of the Sanctuary.
This chapel is undoubtedly one of the greatest works of Baroque art to be found in Spain. The colors are regal and soothing: silver, pink, and sky blue. Every surface is covered with extremely intimate ornament, in a style the monk called “Churrigueresque,” a Baroque manner of decoration native to Spain. Floral designs squirmed up the walls; silver curled and bloomed; columns twisted and angels burst from walls. The chapel comprises several separate nooks, each one dedicated to a different saint. In the central chamber a hexagonal tabernacle rises up several meters off the ground, constructed of colored marble taken from all over Spain. It is an extraordinary work. Even the floor is impressive, made from interlocking triplets of diamonds that, together, form the image of a cube.
The monk then led us to the refectory, where the monks eat their meals in silence, while somebody reads scripture aloud. Finally we reached the church and concluded the tour.
I now had about three hours to kill before my bus left back to Madrid. Thankfully, aside from the monastery, Rascafría is itself a lovely place. Madrid’s northern mountains provide some of the best hiking in the country. Rascafría is no exception to this. Even on this chilly winter day the place was full of men, women, and children in windbreakers carrying pointed walking sticks. I joined them, crossing the Puende del Perdón and turning to walk alongside the river Lozoya. Unknowingly I had entered the Bosque finlandes, or the Finnish Forest, a pretty natural park formed by importing trees and vegetation from that Scandinavian country. Though at the time I did not know this, I did notice that the trees were strikingly tall and straight.
I walked on, passing by ruined farms, masticating cows, and once again over the shallow river. Eventually I came upon a sign about the local trails. There was a short caption about an old legend pertinent to the area, which told of a beautiful Moorish girl who fell in love with a young man, and every day washed her face in the river while waiting his return (from where, it didn’t say). It is said that she waits still in a cave somewhere. Well, I certainly did not find any beautiful enchanted lasses, Moorish or otherwise, on my walk; but I did take some nice pictures of the scenery. Eventually I wandered onto the route of the Cascada del Purgatorio (everything seems to have a religious name in Spain), named after a nearby waterfall that the hiker can visit.
As the hour of my departure neared, I went back to the town to eat something. Though small, Rascafría is itself a charming sight, with the Artiñuelo Stream passing its center. There are also many attractive restaurants, though they are strangely expensive, due to the many visitors of the trails and the monastery, I suppose. I ate a delicious chocolate cake with raspberry dressing and then got on the bus, to doze during the long ride back to Madrid.