To the 16th-century contemporaries of Spain's Philip II, it was known as the eighth wonder of the world, the severe and dramatic explication of Philip II's personal ideology. El Escorial, Philip II's monastery palace, is the awesome legacy of that once ''most lavish and ceremonial court'' which flourished in the midst of Spanish national bankruptcy and misery.

Alas, I came to El Escorial exhausted after a wearying zigzag across Western Europe, with one day in Brussels, the next, London, and on to Paris. I had long lost my instinct to adapt and had gladly missed Amsterdam and Hamburg with long afternoon naps. It was the other half of my working life, as a member of the National Symphony Orchestra. I was ready for a change.

Though initially I resisted El Escorial, I was gradually jarred from my somnolent state, shoved into awareness by the raw wintry landscape and this magnificent structure. El Escorial is palace, monastery, basilica - church, scholarship, domesticity.

In Madrid, I had felt the first hints of spring, the luminous skies and warm light signifying February's end. The mountains of Guadarrama, whose mist-cloaked peaks rise coldly behind the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, spoke of a darker season. The mist was drizzle in the nearby village, the dampness eventually torment inside El Escorial's heavy stone walls.

Philip II built a giant granite parallelogram, an astonishing maze of cloisters, towers, and patios, a collection of over 1,200 doors for the inhabitants of his court and 2,600 windows for them to gaze from. Its builder was the great-grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, his father, Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire (Charles I of Spain). The father would abdicate both thrones, the Holy Roman Empire to a younger brother, the Low Countries and Spain to his son, Philip, in 1555 and 1556.

Within a year, Philip II would first envision El Escorial. It would honor both the Spanish Hapsburg kings and San Lorenzo, the Spanish saint on whose feast day in 1557 Spain had routed France at Saint-Quentin. Philip had long wanted this victory, its coming too sweet - and too important - to lie in the obscurity of a scribe's record of the times.

At first sight I was almost indifferent to Philip's accomplishment. The vast stone esplanades that enclose the north and west sides were empty of life. This granite mausoleum, with its regular facade, untrimmed windows, and cold anonymity, recalled tomb and prison more than a luxurious court.

A 19th-century visitor called it a ''desert of granite . . . a monkish necropolis,'' and left with relief. The chill of temperature and austerity together do lend themselves to this first response. But El Escorial is a masterpiece. Its surprising - for the times - architectural unity and pure grandeur gradually envelop your senses. In these less aesthetic and less spiritual times, it would not be built.

This is theocratic architecture, what has been called - outside of St. Peter's in Rome - ''the heaviest article of faith that rests on the surface of Europe.''

The first stone was laid in 1563. In a mere 21 years, it was completed. It was a structure for living as well as worship, and Philip's quarters - called the 16th Century Palace - overlook the Plain of Castile to Madrid.

I wandered first to the Royal Apartments, whose opulence offer a revealing counterpoint to the simpler quarters of Philip II. The Royal Apartments are the Palace of the Bourbons, the 18th-century kings whose ways were as French as they were Spanish. At the death of Charles II, the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs, in 1700, a French flavor began to permeate El Escorial. Its isolation and austerity , however, held little appeal for kings whose upbringing had tasted of the court of a Louis XIV or the like. The post-Philip II Hapsburgs had neglected it as well, and it was not until the reign of Charles IV (1788-1808) that El Escorial came back to life.

The richness of the Royal Apartments is a relative matter, of course. Intimacy and warmth are scarcely a hallmark of El Escorial. Nonetheless, the tapestries of the Bourbon apartments - their colors so fresh they might have been woven yesterday - are a dazzling collection.

Though the damp and cold made me shiver and complain, the tapestries seem to have thrived there. When Philip V, the first Bourbon king, came to the throne, he established the Royal Factory of Tapestries and Rugs in Madrid. The great Spanish painter Francisco de Goya and his painter brother-in-law Francisco Bayeu were among those whose cartoons were transformed into tapestries hung in El Escorial. Goya and Bayeu were court painters for Charles III. His son, Charles IV, introduced the tapestries to El Escorial.

It is a philosophical leap from the Empire chairs and Sevres porcelain among the tapestries to the 16th Century Palace. I strolled through the Hall of Battles, whose vaulted ceiling overlooks frescoes of renowned Spanish wars. Seeing the depiction of the Taking of Saint-Quentin - Philip's justification for building El Escorial - I was back in the 16th century. And ready for lunch.

I walked onto La Lonja, the granite esplanade, and climbed from there into the village of San Lorenzo de El Escorial. Its steep streets and walkways reflect the beginnings of the grim Sierra de Guadarrama. The midday closing of El Escorial gave me time for a leisurely walk and a hearty meal of soup, pork, and salad. The garlic soup - olive oil, tomato, chunks of soft bread and garlic - I ate with primitive zest. The casual crowding of the neighborhood cafe warmed and strengthened me for the afternoon tour.

I began, after lunch, with the 16th-century quarters of Philip II. No gilt, gold, and flamboyance here. His throne was a campaign chair, his bed narrow and plain. From his bedroom, the king could step into the church, a spiritual imperative to this intellectual and religious monarch.

The basilica was Philip's particular triumph, and here I was suddenly overwhelmed. The church is entered from the Court of the Kings. It's the anteroom to the heart of El Escorial. The absolute symmetry of the basilica's facade, the stern dominance of the enclosing towers and splendid dome, prepare the visitor for the treasures within.

In ''Notre Dame of Paris,'' Victor Hugo remarked that Michelangelo ''piled the Pantheon on the Parthenon and created St. Peter's of Rome.'' And so it is in the basilica of El Escorial - the dome of the Roman Pantheon (Santa Maria Rotunda) and the Doric facade of the Parthenon. Philip II's first architect, Juan Bautista de Toledo (succeeded upon his premature death by Juan de Herrera), trained in Italy and, some historians say, may have worked under Michelangelo in Rome.

Hugo's comments will not trouble the visitor, however, for the basilica's language in stone is an eloquent one indeed. I attached myself to a group of English schoolboys, supplementing my guidebook with their escort's lecture on history and art.

The dull light of the gray, rainy day obscured the frescoes in the nave vaulting, but the guide turned on electric lights to reveal the ornate reredos (ornamental screen) behind the main altar. This retablo, as the Spanish say, is nearly 100 feet high, a complex interweaving of jasper, onyx, and red marble columns. These, adorned by gilded bronze, create four territories for Italian paintings and bronze statues of various saints.

El Escorial was conceived as a monument to God and to the Hapsburg kings. The Royal Pantheon, where Philip II is buried, lies beneath the basilica's high altar. Though a pantheon was Philip's idea, it wasn't completed until the reign of Philip IV. An octagon of marble and jasper embellished by a baroque fantasy of bronze fittings, the Pantheon of the Kings is the resting place of both monarchs and queen mothers of crown princes of the realm. Philip - with his penchant for the austere - would have protested against the Pantheon's gaudy scheme.

I had yet to see the Pantheon of the Infantes, El Escorial's library (once the most famous in all Europe), the Nuevos Museos (New Museums) with their collection of El Grecos, and the Museum of Architecture of the Monastery. A full day - and I was just beginning.

Philip II, as well as his legacy, had stirred my mind. I wondered what form of absolutism or indifference had driven El Greco to Toledo and out from under the patronage of the king. It is curious, too, that Toledo itself - the town that Philip's father, Charles V, had designated an imperial city - would be shunted aside by Philip in favor of then ungainly Madrid: Both would be neglected in favor of El Escorial.

Philip II would send the Spanish Armada to its doom, perpetuate to some degree the Inquisition his grandparents had begun, and establish a philosophical and religious symbol impossible in our times. This juxtaposition of failure and glory creates a remarkable portrait.

The walls of El Escorial are hung with paintings of the king. These reveal his figure, his mien, his youth and decline. El Escorial, however, is the image of his mind. It is an embodiment of great power and taste, a symbol of the relentless will of the last great king of Spain. Practical details To get there: El Escorial is about 30 miles from Madrid. To drive: Take Route N 4 to Route C600 below Guadarrama and on to El Escorial. To rent a car: Avis, Hertz, Budget, and National agencies all have counters at Madrid's airport. For commercial bus tours, contact the concierge in your hotel. For bus and train information, go to the provincial tourist office, Plaza Mayor, Madrid.

Where to stay: the two star Hotel Miranda-Suizo (phone, 896-0000) costs $18 to $20, double; single, $12-15. Restaurant on premises.

Where to eat: La Cueva (three forks), San Anton 4, phone 890-1571; lunch, $8- 15; dinner, $10 to 20. Charoles, (two forks) Florida Blanca 24, phone 896-0491; lunch, $8-12; dinner, $10 to 15.

The hours at the monastery, April 1-September 30, are: 10 to 1, and 3:30 to 6 :30. Entrance fee is about $1.25 per person.

Guides: Best deal is uniformed staff of El Escorial itself (look for the navy blue outfits with gold braid). Not all speak English, so buy the guidebook ''El Escorial,'' Editorial Patrimonio Nacional (in English) at gift counter.

Before you go: read ''El Escorial,'' a volume of Newsweek Book Division's Wonders of Man series, available at your library or at Newsweek Book Division ($ 16.95, phone 800-526-2595)

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