|El Valle de los Caidos: Spain's most controversial monument|
Such is the infamy of the Franco-commissioned monument El Valle de los Caídos (the Valley of the Fallen) that it doesn't appear on the bus timetable, even though I was reliably informed that it was on the route. On the approach to El Escorial in the sierra outside Madrid, El Valle was constructed under the former dictator's orders as a memorial to those who fell in the Civil War. Work began in 1940, and the idea was that it would serve as a final resting place for victims from both sides. However, there are estimated to be far more soldiers from the Nationalist (or Franco's) side than Republicans, although exact figures are unknown. This is just one reason why El Valle is incredibly controversial.
It took almost 20 years to build the huge Basilica of the Holy Cross into the rock mountain face, and to top it with a huge cross that's visible from miles around – even as you land at Madrid Barajas airport on a clear day. During this gruelling process (building something of this scale into rock can't exactly be easy), a number of prisoners of war who were working on the construction died. I say a number: what little information is out there varies wildly, sometimes depending on the political persuasion of the author. Once El Valle was finally completed, more bodies began to be moved there, as mass graves around the country were exhumed and the dead reburied at El Valle. This is another sore point, as many families of Republican soldiers were against their relatives calling this pet project of Franco's their final resting place. In a further twist, Franco himself and Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Falange Española (Spanish Fascist Party) are both now buried inside the Basilica. In the past few years, suggestions have been made that their bodies should be moved to another site.
|Inside the basilica at El Valle|
So controversial is the monument that several years ago it was closed to the public for a time. Now reopened (although you can no longer go up to the base of the cross), it's a sight that divides opinion. Its absence from the bus timetable is telling; some of the reactions I received to my visit plainly highlighted that even the subject of this monument can still cause a lot of pain. The best reaction I received was puzzlement. As a foreigner who's interested in Spanish culture, I was spared the accusation of being a fascist, but I know this insult has been levelled at others who have visited. However, that interest in the culture and history of the country where I live is what drove me to visit: unfortunately, we can't skip over history's unsavoury chapters, and I wanted to see El Valle de los Caídos with my own eyes.
On a warm autumn day, Kim of Becoming Sevillana and I set out for the sierra. El Valle is accessible from Madrid by bus 664 from Moncloa, but what its's website makes clear is that it's a 6km walk uphill from the entrance to the monument. Seeing no alternative, we weren't deterred by this, but in hindsight it would be a better idea to take the bus to El Escorial and then a taxi from there to the monument if you don't have your own wheels. After almost an hour in the heat, we made a half-hearted attempt to hitch-hike: not something I'd normally do, but as we were off public roads and exhausted we thought it was worth a shot. We were picked up by a maintenance man in a van who was rather puzzled by the pair of day-tripping guiris on foot, but thanks to him we saw a little more than the average visitor, including accommodation for workers and visiting priests.