|THE ROYAL MONASTERY of San Lorenzo of the Escorial|
Staying in monasteries and convents is a culturally enriching and cost-effective way to visit Spain and the other countries of Catholic Europe. (My room and meals at the Valley of the Fallen, for example, were just 20 euros a day.) Standards of comfort and convenience vary, so ask in advance about such amenities as a private bath and telephone. Eileen Barish’s The Guide to Lodging in Spain’s Monasteries gives detailed information about some 150 institutions.
The Valley of the Fallen (011-34-91-890-5411; ask for the padre hospedero, and be prepared to speak in Spanish) accommodates only men in the monastery proper; guests here are expected to attend several hours of worship daily. The external guesthouse (011-34-91-890-5511) is open to women and children as well, and visitors can come and go without the constraints of scheduled services. The Valley and the Escorial—the 16th-century monastery built by Philip II—are within an hour’s drive of Madrid.
The Sierra de Guadarrama’s many activities are all an easy day trip from Madrid. Visitors to Segovia can see a Roman aqueduct, medieval castle, and late-Gothic cathedral and sample especially fine regional cuisine at the Mesón de Cándido (Calle Azoguejo, 5), whose proprietor boasts the title of “Major Innkeeper of Castile.” Classic dishes include cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) and cordero asado (roast baby lamb).
In the medieval walled town of Buitrago del Lozoya, the Picasso Museum (Plaza de Picasso, 1; www.madrid.org/museo_picasso) exhibits drawings, lithographs, and other objects—including an engraved wooden box for haircutting tools—made by the artist for his longtime friend and barber, Eugenio Arias.
Opportunities for hiking are plentiful (the climb up Mount Abantos from the Escorial is particularly breathtaking), and the granite massif of La Pedriza in the Cuenca Alta del Manzanares Regional Park offers challenges for beginning and expert rock climbers alike.