By Rick Steves
The Royal Pantheon of Spain's El Escorial Palace, an hour northwest of Madrid, is the gilded resting place of 26 kings and queens...four centuries' worth of Spanish monarchy. All the kings are included — but only those queens who became mothers of kings.
There is a post-mortem filing system at work here. The first and greatest, Charles V and his Queen Isabella, flank the altar on the top shelf. Her son, Philip II, rests below Charles and opposite to (only) one of Phillip's four wives, and so on. There is a waiting process, too. Before a royal corpse can rest in this room, it needs to decompose for several decades. The three empty niches are already booked. The bones of Juan Carlos' grandparents, Alfonso XIII and Victoria Eugenia (who died in 1941 and 1964, respectively), are ready to be moved in, but the staff can't explain why they haven't been transferred yet. Juan Carlos' father, Don Juan (who died in 1993), is also on the wait list...controversially. Technically, he was never crowned king of Spain — Franco took control of Spain before Don Juan could ascend to the throne, and he was passed over for the job when Franco reinstituted the monarchy. Juan Carlos' mother is the most recent guest in the rotting room. But where does that leave Juan Carlos and Sofía? This hotel is todo completo.
The next rooms are filled with the tombs of lesser royals: Each bears that person's name (in Latin), relationship to the king, and slogan or epitaph. They lead to the wedding-cake Pantheon of Royal Children (Panteón de los Infantes) that holds the remains of various royal children who died before the age of seven (and their first Communion).
The paintings which line El Escorial's walls provide an instructive peek at the consequences of inbreeding among royals — a common problem throughout Europe in those days. The Spanish emperor Charles V was the most powerful man in Europe. His illegitimate son was famous for his good looks, thanks to a little fresh blood. Many other portraits show the unhappy effects of mixing blue blood with more of the same blue blood. When one king married his niece, the result was Charles II (1665–1700). His severe underbite (an inbred royal family trait) was the least of his problems. An epileptic before that disease was understood, poor "Charles the Mad" would be the last of the Spanish Habsburgs. He died without an heir 1700, ushering in the continent-wide War of the Spanish Succession, and the dismantling of Spain's empire.