And here, before setting forth, let me indulge in a few previous remarks on Spanish scenery and Spanish travelling. Many are apt to picture Spain to their imaginations as a soft southern region, decked out with the luxuriant charms of voluptuous Italy. On the contrary, though there are exceptions in some of the maritime provinces, yet, for the greater part, it is a stern, melancholy country, with rugged mountains, and long sweeping plains, destitute of trees, and indescribably silent and lonesome, partaking of the savage and solitary character of Africa.
-Washington Irving, Tales of the Alhambra
One sunny Saturday in Madrid, I took a motorcycle ride into the mountains north of the city. Riding through Spain's beautiful somber-hued landscape and drinking in the sleepy towns tucked into the hillside was quite an experience. Unfortunately, UNESCO-listed El Escorial was closed by the time I arrived so I enjoyed a quick evening stroll around the stunning complex. According to UNESCO, "the Escurial Monastery stands in an exceptionally beautiful site in Castile. Its austere architecture, a break with previous styles, had a considerable influence on Spanish architecture for more than half a century. It was the retreat of a mystic king and became, in the last years of Philip II's reign, the centre of the greatest political power of the time.
About an hour northeast of El Escorial is Rascafría, a municipality of Madrid. Things were surprisingly quiet in the little town center that Saturday afternoon, probably something to do with staying out of the intense mid-day sun. Rascafría is best known for its magnificent Monastery of Santa Maria de El Paular.