Another weekend, another excursion. This time to a place closer to Madrid. Closer not just in miles (or kilometres) but in the minds of many Spaniards. We visited El Valle de los Caídos – The Valley of the Fallen.
Located about 54 km from the centre of Madrid just off the A6 road that leads to Galicia this site can be visited in the same day as a trip to the picturesque nearby town of El Escorial. Set in a huge area of natural beauty construction started in 1940 and was completed in 1959. The most striking feature is the 15- metre high cross, the biggest in the world and clearly visible from 20 miles away. Entering the building is both eerie and spectacular. The long crypt tunnelled some 260 metres through the mountain leads to the main basilica and place of worship. Behind this and outside is a monastery (Benedictine abbey) and hotel.
Beneath the valley floor are the remains of thousands of people, both nationalist and republican, who died during the civil war. Numbers vary up to as much as 40,000. It is impossible to say exactly how many but there are many.
This place is famous. It is also infamous. It all depends on which side of the political spectrum you stand. For this is where the body of Francisco Franco is laid to rest.
The biggest problem however is that the debate is not really about that. There are now people on the left of politics who want to re-write history. At least in as much as they can get away with.
There is no doubt it. This was; and still is, a vanity project by Franco. ‘To the victor belong the spoils’ as the saying goes ** It would have been no different had the other side won. What also cannot be denied is that it is a fantastic work of art. A magnificent feat of engineering. On any side of the argument nobody can deny it is impressive. It is also a working church and people are buried in such places. It is hard to see why some groups are so determined to exhume a 40 odd year corpse. Are there really so few problems at this moment in time that they have to dig up the past? (both literally and metaphorically).
The main reason given for opposing the place is that its construction used prison labour. Including prisoners who just happened to be on the other side in the civil war. Political prisoners no less. And on this the voices of dissent have a point. Some 10% of the workforce were convicts who, in exchange for a reduced sentence agreed to cooperate.
A Common Sense Approach?
The counter-argument is that the place was built to honour all those who lost their lives – from both sides. There are a couple of things inside which state as much (see photo). Not the best way to honour those who helped build the place though. Something larger and more visible would be better. Another important point is that such forced labour was also used to build huge infrastructure projects such as dams for the supply of fresh water to many large towns and cities. Should those be taken down also?
Surely the best and least disruptive thing would be to build a monument to those who actually constructed this magnificent site. Build it alongside the entrance. There are plenty of places lining the entrance where such a memorial could be located. Under those huge arches for example.
My advice to anyone – especially those who have not seen this place – is to visit before it is changed into a new and different political vanity project.
** “To the victor belong the spoils” is a phrase famously used in a Congressional debate in 1831 by New York senator, William L. Marcy.