Monday, 23 February 2015

A visit to El Valle de los Caídos

Hoping not to be overheard, I almost whispered my destination. 'El Valle?' the bus driver almost yelled back, his eyes wide with surprise.

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.



Finally arriving in front of the basilica, we were staggered by the scale of the huge cross that had been guiding us uphill. At 152.4 metres, this is the tallest memorial cross in the world. The entrance to the church itself is stark and imposing, but once you get inside, you really appreciate the huge effort that went into its construction. It's a chilling place, both literally and metaphorically. The high vaulted ceilings and hushed atmosphere make it almost overwhelming. Those familiar with the ornate adornments of Catholic churches in Spain, which are almost crowded with chapels, pews and carvings, will be surprised by the almost stark nature of the basilica. It's a windowless space, which makes it a rather creepy place to visit.

Far from warm and welcoming...


On our walk around the basilica, we were struck by the number of happy, smiling tourists, as though this was just an average day trip. Families, babies in pushchairs, young students, well-dressed elderly people: many sectors of society were represented on that sunny Saturday. We understood our own motivations for making the journey, but wondered about some of the other visitors. Was this a fun day out for them? Or were they too trying to get to grips with Spain's history? Were some even making a sort of pilgrimage?

The graves of both Franco and Primo de Rivera lie in a prominent position at the top of the nave, where any visitor can walk over them, something I found both surprising and poignant. Do some people come here just to trample over the man who trampled their country for decades?

Back in daylight, we admired the beautiful views of the sierra and made use of the picnic tables, pondering the significance of this curious monument. A historical event; a tourist attraction – El Valle is a paradox. But given the number of people wandering around the complex, it's a well-visited one. Interestingly, when I told my international friends of my visit, none of them had heard of El Valle. I chose not to tell many Spanish friends, concerned about being judged. I may have been wrong to do so, but the bus driver's reaction was enough to instil some Catholic guilt in me for wanting to witness El Valle for myself. And I'm not even a Catholic.


Kim embracing the hike (which we don't recommend)

Is it worth a visit? Yes. If you want to go deeper into Spain's history and try to understand what makes this place so controversial, you should see El Valle for yourself.

This account is a personal one rather than a historical one. As I mention above, sources vary a great deal regarding the facts surrounding El Valle's construction and those buried there. For more historical information, I recommend this excellent post on Spanish Sabores.

Have you visited El Valle? If not, would you?

The details
El Valle de los Caídos is currently open Tues–Sun from 10am–6pm in winter and until 7pm in summer.
Entry is €9.  Also included in the Patrimonio Nacional bonos (multiple site tickets).
Parking is available for those who drive (recommended). There is also an on-site café.

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