We visited El Escorial, near Madrid constructed in 1563, considered by some as the eighth wonder of the world and one of Spain’s most visited landmarks but the philistine in me found it anything but interesting. However, as we were so close we thought we’d take a side trip to the Valley of the Fallen, the incredibly controversial Spanish Civil War monument.
As we drove along the motorway, although we were a fair distance away, we could see the enormous cross, looming in the mountains. It is the largest memorial cross in the world at 152 metres making it visible from miles around.
General Franco ordered the constructed in 1940 as a memorial to the tens of thousands who fell in the Spanish Civil War, the idea was that it would serve to commemorate victims from both sides. However, one reason why El Valle is so controversial is that it is believed far more soldiers from the Nationalist (Franco’s side) than Republicans are here, and many think it is actually a shrine to victory for Franco rather than a memorial to the fallen of the war.
It took almost 20 years to build and numerous prisoners (numbers vary drastically) died in the process. When finally completed, more bodies were moved as mass graves around the country were exhumed and the dead reburied at El Valle. This is another sore point, as many families were against their relatives being moved.
Arriving at the basilica carved into the mountain, we were staggered by the sheer size of the cross that had guided us to this spot. The entrance is stark, dark and threatening. It made me feel queasy and I wasn’t sure whether I really want to go in. Once inside, the high ceilings and hushed atmosphere make it feel rather creepy. Footsteps echo on the stone floor and the vast nave is decorated with sword-bearing angels and six chapels, where the remains of the dead lie.
To add to the controversy, Franco and Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish Fascist Party are buried here, although there has been talk of removing Franco. Divided opinions are plainly obvious, some people were praying over the graves while others walked over the man who trampled on their country. So controversial is the site that for several years it was closed to the public.
Back in daylight, it was nice to breathe fresh air and admired the beautiful views of the sierras. However, it was hard to decide is El Valle a tourist attraction or a commemoration of a historical event? There were certainly plenty of people wandering around but I was shocked that there was so much misinformation. I tend to think that we should not ignore the past, however painful, and this site has the potential to educate people about the Civil War, providing the facts and information are not skewed.