“It’s Franco’s Valhalla,” a wry Scotsman once told me. “You have to go see it.”
He was referring to the Valle de los Caídos (The Valley of the Fallen), a monument built by the victorious Falangist dictatorship to commemorate those who died in Spain’s bitter Civil War (1936-39). Although “monument” falls well short of describing the place. Its cross (the world’s tallest at 108 meters) can be seen for miles, perched atop a small peak of the Guadarrama Mountains, just outside Madrid. Underneath the cross is a basilica (officially declared so by Pope John XXIII), carved into the mountain. An underground basilica, hewed out of the bare granite over the course of almost 20 years (1940-58) by prisoners from the losing republican side of the war. The formula was: two days’ freedom for one day’s work. One source claims that over 20,000 prisoners were involved in the monument’s construction. Nobody knows how many republican prisoners died on site, but estimations put that number in the thousands.
In a typical Spanish way, the Valley is attempting to be everything at once; it doesn’t know quite what it is. Is it a monument, a basilica — or a cemetery? (There are over 40,000 bodies interred in a series of crypts and catacombs off the eight chapels inside the basilica.) Also typically Spanish, the complex is huge. It is said that Franco wanted something on the scale of the nearby San Lorenzo de el Escorial monastery, which was built by Felipe II at the height of his power and represented a bold statement of his empire’s wealth, power and technological advancement. As such, the Valley of the Fallen can be seen as an attempt by Franco to show the world how ambitious, capable and Christian his Falangist regime was. So the entire complex occupies the best part of the valley of Cuelgamuros and consists of: the Benedictine Abbey of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen — built in a similar style to El Escorial and comparable in terms of grandeur and size. The monastery serves as a guest house and restaurant and its monks as the monument’s protectors/caretakers; the aforementioned cross, below which are sculptures of the four evangelists and their symbols; an enormous plaza stretching out before the entrance to the basilica in which one can imagine legions of troops parading grimly during torchlight processions before the approving gaze of el Caudillo; a number of minor monuments scattered around the mountain (the stations of the cross etcetera); the basilica itself.
The first words you read on the plaque at the head of the long tunnel that leads from the huge bronze doors at the entrance to the basilica’s nave are “Francisco” and “Franco”. Not “God”, nor “Spain”, nor “in honour of those who died in the Civil War”. In the passage’s gloom, as you make your way towards the basilica and feel the weight of the mountain on your shoulders, you get the impression that the basilica is less about religion, less about God, less about commemorating the deaths of thousands of soldiers in a bloody civil war and more about a certain dictator and the cult of personality that surrounded him. Before you enter the basilica, you have to pass a pair of sculpted archangels; bronze, hooded, with swords, nasty, pointed, veined eagles’ wings, larger-than-life and menacing as hell. Their forbidding presence serves as a warning: “any messing from you— any disrespect — and we’ll fly down out of here and stick you!” The basilica is enormous. Football-pitch enormous. 262 meters in length and as high as any over ground basilica. 20,000 cubic meters of granite blasted and torn from the mountain.
The nave is even more dark and shadowy than the tunnel. There are a series of chapels along its length dedicated to various Spanish virgins. These suffering female archetypes are, bar the image of the crucified Christ on the Alter, the only touch of humanity in the whole place. The rest of the art is warlike, designed to instil fear and make the point that life is a crusade — a war between the forces of good (the Church, the Falange) and evil (the Devil [who features in many of the tapestries] and the Republicanos). Between each of the chapels are a series of replicas of seventeenth century Flemish tapestries whose themes centre on the apocalypse of St. John. Surrounding the alter are massive statues of four archangels, as awe-inspiring, mysterious, glowering and otherworldly as the abandoned temples of Gondor from the Lord of the Rings. Then, fore and aft the alter, are the tombs of José Antonio Primo de Rivera and Franco, respectively, lying underneath a dome of staggering scale (42 meters high by 40 diameter) and featuring the mosaic of Santiago Padrós (the righteous flocking into God’s paradise). And you realise that here is the culmination of the entire project — a fitting home for the architects of Spain’s Falangist “salvation”. Buried underground, away from the light of day, a place to justify the bloodshed, to inspire fear, respect, awe. A warning and a vindication. A burning longboat pushed out to sea. Franco’s Valhalla.
The Spanish don’t know what to do with the Valley of the Fallen. In a country still divided rigidly along the fault lines of the Civil War — left vs. right, PP vs. PSOE, facha vs. rojo — the Valley is so clearly a partisan triumphalist monument that what to do with it in the context of a country still struggling to heal the still-weeping gash of the Civil War seems like an insoluble conundrum. What can they do with it? Close it down? Impossible: apart from the huge political implications of doing so, the Valley is a functioning basilica of the Roman Catholic Church and a cemetery in which are buried soldiers from both sides. Turn it into a museum with a balanced historical non-partisan explanation and interpretation of the hows and whys of the Valley’s construction? Even the idea of the presence of a museum on-site has been rejected by the Right and the Catholic Church. The socialist government led by José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero passed a Historical Memory Act (2007) in which there is an article specifically dedicated to the Valley. Therein is to be found an explicit wish for the Valley’s depoliticisation, mention of the establishment of a body to take responsibility for the Valley’s management and which was to have as its objective the honouring of all of those killed in the Civil War, regardless of whatever side they may have taken. The Act specifically prohibits the enactment of rallies of a political nature on site, especially those glorifying the Civil War or Francoism. To date, nothing has really been done to depoliticisise the Valley. It remains, depending on your viewpoint an embarrassing, offensive or glorious monument to a fascist dictator and his quest for immortality.