Welcome to the first of a new series: Great Football Day Trips from Madrid!
In this occasional series, I’m going to take a look at some of the best places around the Spanish capital for a quick getaway, the things you can do there, what you can eat and of course, where you can see some football!
First up, I’m focusing on San Lorenzo de El Escorial, where I went with Sarah earlier in October.
The best way to get to San Lorenzo de El Escorial from Madrid is to take the Cercanias, the Renfe operated network of commuter trains which cover the region and help connect the city with some of the outer towns which aren’t touched by the Metro.
The only train which goes all the way there is Line C3, which passes through the major central stations, Atocha, Sol, Nuevos Ministerios and Chamartin.
A return ticket costs €8,10 and the journey will take around an hour from the centre of Madrid. At weekends these trains leave every hour, but even so they tend to be quite busy with day trippers or hikers, so it can occasionally be difficult to find a seat.
The final stop, El Escorial station, has actually received a significant facelift recently, so if you want to stop for coffee or breakfast after your journey, then you have options in the station now which weren’t there before.
You will have to walk a bit further to reach the places of interest. Almost a mile separates the station from the main attraction – the Real Sitio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial – but fortunately it involves a rather pleasant walk through a park – the Parque y Jardin de la Casita del Principe. It is uphill, so take it slowly and enjoy the clean, mountain air as the Monastery comes into view.
The Real Sitio de San Lorenzo de El Escorial is the main reason most people visit this small mountain town.
Built under the Habsburg king Philip II between 1563 and 1584 at a time when Spain was the dominant power in the world, it has served a number of functions throughout its existence, a royal residence, a monastery, a basilica, a museum, a university and as the final resting place for Spanish monarchs.
It’s definitely worth setting aside a few hours to fully explore this place. My favourite rooms are definitely the Royal Library and the Hall of Battles, both exquisitely decorated (unfortunately photography is prohibited in both) with frescoes depicting the seven arts and famous Spanish military victories respectively. A fun fact, the library is believed to have been the first one in the world to display books on shelves with the spine facing outwards.
You can also explore the royal palaces which contain art from the Renaissance masters right up to late 18th century works by the likes of Goya and head outside to walk around the gardens from where, on a clear day, you can see Madrid’s iconic skyscrapers looming on the horizon.
Tickets are €12 (€6 concessions) and booking ahead is strongly recommended as lines will build up quickly, especially at weekends. And the last thing you want to do is spend most of your day trip standing outside.
The San Lorenzo de El Escorial tourism office, located not far from the entrance to the monastery, also has suggestions for some walking routes in the hills behind the monastery, but if you’re hoping to fit in a few more things in your visit, these are probably left for a return trip sometime in the future.
Anyway, after the journey, the walk up and a couple of hours looking around the historic building, you’ve probably worked up quite the appetite…
Dining Out 🥘
San Lorenzo de El Escorial might be a small town, but it is absolutely jam-packed with restaurants.
When we went in early October, the town was still full of visitors so the streets were crowded and queues of people waiting to get into restaurants were evident everywhere.
My number one piece of advice? Research the restaurants in advance and make a reservation (especially if you want to sit on a terrace) – we didn’t know this was necessary and unfortunately we weren’t able to go to the restaurant we wanted.
That’s not to say we didn‘t have a good meal. We ended up going to Las Viandas in Plaza de la Constitución and although their terraza was reservation only, they had plenty of space inside.
We ate pretty well there, a selection of traditional Spanish tapas and raciones with drinks came to €30, a little bit more than we’d normally pay, but we were happy with the quality and the service. The croquetas were a particular highlight, incredibly creamy inside and clearly homemade.
While we were researching restaurants in the town there was a slightly surprising entry amongst the top-rated places. Alongside all the Spanish eateries was a place called Ronnie’s Family Terrace, which specialises in American-style food.
It’s not normally the kind of place we’d go for when we’re travelling but we were intrigued by the good reviews and specifically the amount which mentioned their cheesecake. One reviewer even said that they had travelled from Madrid just to have it.
Our lunch had been pretty filling but after a bit of a walk, we felt ready for some dessert. The cheesecake was really good – and definitely lived up to the hype. A little touch of cinnamon in the base really set it off nicely.
It was really busy and there were a lot of kids there, meaning it was noisy, probably par for the course on a Sunday afternoon. In spite of this, the staff were friendly and we were able to have a chat with one of the owners who is originally from Cornwall.
The Football ⚽️
And so, onto the main event!
Helpfully for day trippers, San Lorenzo’s games tend to kick off at 4:30pm (though as the days get shorter, that may change) meaning you have plenty of time to do your other activities before walking down to the Campo La Herrería.
It’s easy to find, at the bottom of the path leading up to the monastery, just head down the hill on Camino de Calleja Larga and the ground will soon come into view. Do be careful though, there isn’t a footpath on this part of the road and the sides are usually filled with parked cars, so you may find yourself stepping in and out of the path of cars.
Local club Unión Deportiva San Lorenzo are actually one of the oldest clubs in the Communidad de Madrid, having been founded in 1919, but they have never troubled the upper echelons of Spanish football. The Autumn of 2021 sees them in Segunda Regional, the eighth tier of the pyramid, although they have serious ambitions of climbing higher.
They not only share their name with Argentinian side San Lorenzo, one of that country’s “big five” (and favourite side of Pope Francis II) but they have also adopted their red and navy striped shirts.
The Campo La Herrería is, for the most part, fairly standard Spanish lower-league ground. A small covered stand on one side, limited terracing on two, a fence to lean on if you want to stand pitchside.
But it has one unique selling point, the views it offers of the Monastery and the mountains of the Sierra de Guadarrama rising up behind it.
It was seeing a game with this backdrop which had brought me up into the mountains in the first place and I wasn’t disappointed. Well, I’m told the best view is actually from closer to the halfway line, but no one was allowed to stand close to the dugouts on this occasion.
Entry to the ground is free, which is always a bonus, and if you get a mild afternoon like we did, there can’t be many finer locations for watching a game of football in Spain. The view on one side, a forest on the other.
A small bar lavishly decorated with azulejos, old team photos and a giant photo of the monastery can be found in the far corner, offering everything you’d expect of a Fútbol Modesto ground, cañas, bocatas, café, caldo – but alas no merchandise. I did ask about scarves as they had a couple pinned to the wall behind the bar, but was told that this season’s new stock hadn’t arrived yet. A shame, but it gives me a fair excuse to go back sometime soon.
The football would be reason enough! San Lorenzo have started the season brilliantly and on this occasion, recovered from the setback of conceding an early goal to go on and defeat their opponents 6-1.
The variety of their goals was one of the most striking things: a confidently-struck penalty, a couple of well-worked team moves, a powerful towering header. There could have been more too, but for the absence of assistant referees, normal at this level of football, which forced the man in the middle into a couple of dubious offside calls.
There was also entertainment on the sidelines. The home side’s manager is quite the character and his style of coaching did not involve sticking to the dugout. He ended up on the pitch on more than one occasion, even making it as far as the edge of the penalty area to shout instructions when they were defending a corner. “Stay focused, it’s still 0-0” (a rough translation) he shouted, even though his side were defending a 2-1 lead at that stage. It’s reassuring to know that some football clichés are universal.
Seven goals, some sightseeing, good food and fresh mountain air, it really was a wonderful day out in San Lorenzo de El Escorial. I’m glad we managed to make it up there again while the weather was still good and before the evenings got too short.
A return visit is definitely on the agenda for the spring!