Let’s fast forward to last March, when I was hanging out in Madrid before my Easter break trip to Germany. While visiting El Escorial I decided to day-trip on my day-trip (Inception, much?) to the nearby Valley of the Fallen. I was the only non-Spaniard on the minibus that ran between San Lorenzo de El Escorial and the entrance to the complex, but this history nerd wasn’t surprised at all—the monument is hardly known outside of the country, and even within Spain it’s hugely polarizing.
|At the plaza|
The minibus dropped off me and half a dozen other uneasy visitors at a parking lot surrounded by spindly pine trees, which swayed in intense gusts of wind. The entrance was right around the corner: a stark, massive plaza totally devoid of people. The doors to the church backed up to a craggy hill, bounded on either side by twin colonnaded “arms” that reached out to surround the plaza. But while similar “arms” like those at St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican give the impression of a warm, inviting hug that welcomes all into the Church, here, these heavy, granite halls felt cold and menacing.
|Inside the nave|
As I took a step down from the lobby area into the church nave, I was greeted on either side by statues of downcast angels bearing swords. These statues were signs of what I would encounter in the rest of the Valley: a macabre alliance of Church and State.
While checking out the tapestries and side-chapels, I had to weave my way around glossy black cauldrons that were strewn across the floor. I looked up and realized they were catching water leaking from the ceiling, which was stained with minerals that had leached from the mountain above. It was almost as if the rocks themselves were weeping over the tragedy that was the Civil War.
|The high altar|
Moving on to the right wing of the main hall, I came to a small, claustrophobic chapel that felt more like an Egyptian burial tomb than a side chapel. A doorway in the corner was emblazoned with the words “Fallen—For God and For Spain—1936-1939—R I P.” Behind those doors lay the remains of thousands of soldiers who perished on both sides of the Civil War, bodies often removed from mass graves against the wishes of their surviving families, bodies often of Republican prisoners who worked on the Valley of the Fallen’s construction.
|At one of the side-chapels|
And that brings us to Franco himself. Turning to face the high altar, I noticed a small arrangement of fresh flowers resting on top of a plain but conspicuous grave that read simply: Francisco Franco. It boggles the mind that a modern European nation like Spain would continue to maintain the burial grounds of a fascist dictator, but remember that, unlike in Germany or Italy, in Spain, the fascists won. After Franco died in 1975 the country basically just swept the past under the rug and moved on with democracy.
|Francisco Franco’s grave|
How to get there
|Mountain pine forest|
But if you do decide to check it out, you can buy a combo bus + entrance ticket at the San Lorenzo de El Escorial bus station. Bus route 660-A leaves El Escorial at 3:15pm, and picks you up at the Valley two hours later at 5:30pm. Fortunately there’s a café-restaurant nearby if you finish early and need an afternoon pick-me-up.
For more info, you should read Lauren Aloise’s blog post “Visiting Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen)” and El País in English’s “The Valley of the Fallen — the problem that won’t go away.”
What do you think the Spanish state should do with the Valley of the Fallen? Keep it as it is, shut it down, or convert it into a museum? Add your opinion to the inevitable flame war below!
For more pictures, check out my album on Flickr.