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A Prickly Attraction: Spain's Valley of the Fallen

I con­sis­tent­ly look for­ward to writ­ing my bi-week­ly post here on the Iber­ian Com­pass. It gives me a chance to share some often eclec­tic ideas and expe­ri­ences col­lect­ed as an Iber­ian trav­el­er over the past 35 years. That being said, some top­ics are eas­i­er than oth­ers. There’s not much risk in dis­cussing tapas in Grana­da or street art in Lis­bon. How­ev­er, oth­er top­ics have rough edges. Spain, in par­tic­u­lar, is full of rough edges. Whether it’s bull­fight­ing, the Civ­il War, or the recent polit­i­cal undu­la­tions in Cat­alo­nia, there are plen­ty of ways for a writer to get cut. On the oth­er hand, the con­se­quence of avoid­ing these types of sub­jects is to risk paint­ing an incom­plete pic­ture, in both his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary con­texts. I’ll tread care­ful­ly and respect­ful­ly, but I’ll tread. 

Almost all of the avail­able online lists of cul­tur­al faux pas for trav­el­ers to Spain include men­tion­ing or ask­ing about the Civ­il War. While that may seem a bit dra­con­ian, there are two main rea­sons for it. First of all, actu­al par­tic­i­pants are still alive. It’s not a con­ver­sa­tion about a dis­tant hypo­thet­i­cal event. Sec­ond­ly, the Civ­il War has long thorns, and it’s easy to get pricked. A per­fect exam­ple of one of these thorns is the Val­ley of the Fall­en, the cav­ernous basil­i­ca dug deep into the Guadar­ra­ma Moun­tains just north of Madrid. Thorny is the per­fect adjec­tive here, as count­less Span­ish admin­is­tra­tions have strug­gled with the ques­tion of what to do with the place. 

Let’s start with the least con­tro­ver­sial propo­si­tion. The mon­u­ment is ridicu­lous­ly impres­sive. Peri­od. The stone cross that stands above it is 150 meters tall and can be seen from 20 miles away. This cross sits atop the cathe­dral-like cham­ber blast­ed almost 1000 feet into the moun­tain. From an objec­tive phys­i­cal per­spec­tive, it com­petes with the world’s great archi­tec­tur­al lega­cies. Why then does it rep­re­sent such a del­i­cate pat­ri­mo­ny? This gets back to the root; the Civ­il War. This blog post is not about the War, per se. The War is much too com­pli­cat­ed for a blog post. Suf­fice to say that Nation­al­ists won, pro­pelling Fran­cis­co Fran­co into his 36-year dic­ta­tor­ship. Like many civ­il wars, it was more than a sim­ple exten­sion of pol­i­tics. It was a set­tling of scores and reflec­tion of the hatreds that had grown up in a bro­ken sys­tem over a peri­od of cen­turies. So although Fran­co claimed to rep­re­sent all Spaniards, he actu­al­ly ruled over a sub­ju­gat­ed jig­saw puz­zle of cul­tur­al and polit­i­cal iden­ti­ties, many of which nev­er ceased to defy him or his nation­al­ist ide­ol­o­gy. (I could launch into an essay on Cat­alo­nia here, but I’ll resist the temptation.)

The Val­ley of the Fall­en was Franco’s attempt to_​_​_​_​_​_​. A blank line works fine here. Many would say that it was his way to aggran­dize his own per­son­al lega­cy and to fur­ther sub­ju­gate the thou­sands of post-war polit­i­cal pris­on­ers that labored to build it. Oth­ers would say that it was an attempt to memo­ri­al­ize the war in a bi-par­ti­san way that would pro­vide clo­sure and uni­ty to a suf­fer­ing peo­ple. I will not attempt to inter­pret his true intent. A wide range of uncon­firmed esti­mates reflects the harsh and haz­ardous con­di­tions faced by those that labored in the monument’s con­struc­tion. Once it was com­plet­ed, the first tomb to be estab­lished there was that of Jose Anto­nio Pri­mo de Rivera, the founder of the dictatorship’s uncon­test­ed Falangist polit­i­cal par­ty. That being said, Fran­co did include both Repub­li­cans and Nation­al­ists among the 33,000 war dead that were even­tu­al­ly interred in the ossuar­ies of the great basil­i­ca. The final and the grand­est inter­ment was Fran­co him­self in 1975.

It should be eas­i­er to under­stand now why this mon­u­ment has been a thorny issue for post-dic­ta­tor­ship Span­ish gov­ern­ments. Most recent­ly, the cen­ter-left care­tak­er admin­is­tra­tion of Pedro Sanchez removed Franco’s remains from the Basil­i­ca, mov­ing them to a fam­i­ly plot in the Madrid sub­urbs. This attempt to mol­li­fy the activists on the polit­i­cal and cul­tur­al left result­ed in acri­mo­nious pub­lic dis­course that exposed the very issues that con­tin­ue to make the Civ­il War an unde­sir­able top­ic at the Span­ish din­ner table. The future of the mon­u­ment is also up for debate and will rep­re­sent a polit­i­cal whip­ping boy for both sides of the polit­i­cal spec­trum over the com­ing years. I believe that the most like­ly out­come is that the mon­u­ment will even­tu­al­ly tran­si­tion from Church con­trol to sec­u­lar hands that will con­vert it to a non-affil­i­at­ed muse­um. In the mean­time, it will cost hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars a year to main­tain and will remain one of the war’s most promi­nent thorns. 

Should you vis­it? Yes. It is impres­sive archi­tec­ture, and if you have polit­i­cal objec­tions, you should hold your nose long enough to appre­ci­ate its stark beau­ty. Fur­ther­more, it is very close to El Esco­r­i­al, anoth­er nation­al land­mark that I’ll dis­cuss in a future post. As a day trip from the cap­i­tal, espe­cial­ly in sum­mer, the moun­tain air can be a wel­come relief from the urban heat. There are a vari­ety of ways to get there, and I am hap­py to advise you on the best course of action for your per­son­al sit­u­a­tion. Fur­ther­more, it’s prob­a­bly worth­while to check in with me before you go, since the recent exhuma­tion and polit­i­cal debate has result­ed in uneven oper­at­ing days/​hours. If you do go, shoot me a note and let me know what you think.