The route from Manzanares Real to El Escorial took us to the foothills of the Sierra Guadarrama mountain range and directly past one of the few remaining reminders of the Franco regime – the Valle de los Caídos. The Valley of the Fallen is a shallow green natural basin tucked into the folds of the mountain about fifty kilometres north of central Madrid. It is the controversial last resting place of the dictator General Francisco Franco who conceived this place for himself out of his own arrogance and conceit.
For almost forty years until his death on 20th November 1975 the Generalíssimo was someone that Spaniards could not escape from. He was there in school books, church prayers, statues, plaques, street names and thousands of other reminders of a violent insurrection that led to a vicious civil war. Now though his face and name are being erased from public view and even the army, where nostalgia for the dictator survived long after his death in 1975, has pledged to remove all plaques, statues and monuments to the regime of a man it once revered.
From the entrance gate there is a five kilometre drive to the monument on a road that passes through lush vegetation of tall pines punctuated by a scattering of oak, ilex and poplar trees and which passes over a couple of elegant stone bridges and at the top is the most recent piece of fascist religious monumental architecture to have been erected in western Europe. A huge blue-grey granite cross soars one hundred and fifty metres into the sky which on a clear day can be seen from the centre of Madrid and no wonder because it is claimed to be the largest in the World. Below the cross are a series of arches overlooking a wide featureless concrete esplanade and beyond the galleries is the entrance to the basilica through two modest bronze doors.
The floor is made of granite and black marble and above it there is an interior dome lined in gold mosaic. The basilica is longer than St Peter’s in Rome and almost as high and is built to dimensions that matched the mountainous ego of its creator. Officially it is a war memorial in remembrance of all those who perished in the Spanish civil war and a symbol of forgiveness and peace but the monument has never actually managed to achieve this worthy status because it was built partly by using Republican prisoners as labourers and the grim intimidating monument has always been seen rather as a symbol of the victory of the Nationalists.
Today the monument is an embarrassment to the State and successive Spanish governments have agonised over what to do with it. Since 2004 the left-leaning government, which has been following a policy of the removal of Francoist symbols from public buildings and spaces, has had an uneasy relationship with a monument that is the most conspicuous legacy from Franco’s rule.
In November 2009, Patrimonio Nacional, who manages the building, suddenly and controversially ordered the closure of the basilica for an indefinite period of time, citing as a reason deterioration and preservation issues which may affect the cross and compromise some of the sculptures. These allegations have been contested by technical experts and the religious community that lives in the complex, and had been seen by some conservative opinion groups as a policy of harassment against the monument, an opinion reinforced when in 2010 the Pieta sculpture group started to be ‘dismantled’ with hammers and heavy machinery.
Every year on the first Saturday after the 20th November old hard-line Francoists attend a religious ceremony at the monument in his memory, which is really a massive political rally, and this annual gathering of fascists is also an embarrassment to the government and to most of modern Spain.
We had read that the monument was closed but the gate was open so we swung inside anyway and pulled up beside the pay kiosk at the entrance where a middle aged lady explained that the monument wasn’t open and we should leave. I followed some cars and drove on expecting to find a turning point but after a kilometre it was obvious there wasn’t one and the cars we were following were authorised to be there so I did a three point turn instead next to two vertical granite columns at either side of the road.
What we hadn’t known about was the significance of the 20th November and being only a week away this must have been making the people on the gate a bit nervous because as we drove down we passed the woman from the kiosk who was pursuing us in a red Seat and who waved frantically to us as we drove by.
Political rallies in celebration of the former dictator are now banned by the Law of Historical Memory, voted on by the Congress of Deputies in October 2007 and it seems that the authorities were anticipating extra trouble this year in response to the closure of the monument and back at the gate two burly guards were shaking their heads and giving disapproving grimaces. I gave my best socialist smile and made pathetic gestures of apology but then left as quickly as possible and rejoined the road to El Escorial where we hoped we might be made to feel more welcome.