Last month I went to a Dark Tourism conference in Amsterdam where I saw a number of presentations from people studying various aspects of what is commonly known as “dark tourism,” although most sites under that umbrella don’t like to be considered as such (a conversation perhaps for another post). One of the presentations was on the Valley of the Fallen (Valle de los Caidos) and about the troubled heritage it represents for Spain, and what it means for everyone involved (the Spanish in general, to the families whose members are buried at this monument (many without their families’ consent), to the tourists that visit there). I remembered reading about this place a few months ago and knew I would probably visit it, but after seeing the presentation I knew I would approach the place a little more differently as a result.
The Valley of the Fallen is only a few kilometres from El Escorial, so many day-trippers from Madrid will visit both together. As I mentioned in my previous post, when I was looking for tours to get me out here, one of the common complaints I found was that there was not enough time given to this place. It could be just time constraints (there is a lot more to see at El Escorial), but I wonder if for some of the guides who go here, that they would rather not spend too much time in a place that is difficult for many Spanish to deal with. I don’t know. I meant to ask my own guide that, but we had our own troubles that day (something completely unrelated) so I didn’t. In any event, she did say at the very end of her spiel that this was a controversial place for many Spaniards, but she felt that it was a part of their history, and it should be kept not only to reflect on what happened, but so that they don’t repeat the events that happened in the past.
We went there after lunch (which is Spain is very late) so we got there around 4 p.m. There were a few people there and couple of groups, but by the time we left an hour later, we were the only ones there. Grant it, this is early March so not exactly high season, but that might be something to consider if you plan on going out here. I have a feeling (again, from my research into the tours) that most tours come here first and do El Escorial second, so that might explain why there was no one there at the end of the day.
Long before you get here, the first thing you’ll see is the massive cross – it’s 152m in length (and 47m across), weighs over 200,000 metric tons, and you can see it from over 30km away. It’s based on a rocky outcrop that is 150m above the basilica. At the base of the cross are statues of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, but at the moment there’s no way to see them as the funicular that used to take people up there is no longer working (I don’t know if that’s permanent or not). Below the cross is the basilica, which is built directly in the mountain (so no windows letting in light here). Officially it’s bigger than St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, but there is a gate that lets you know what part is consecrated and what isn’t, and the consecrated part is less than St. Peter’s, so St. Peter’s gets to keep it’s status as the largest in the world. Ah, politics.
Just before you enter, you’ll notice a large statue (the pieta) of Mary and Jesus at the very top of the building. Inside, once you get past security and the x-ray machine, you walk past two colossal angels, holding swords (downward), meant to represent the fallen soldiers of the Civil War. After that there’s a long walk to the alter past many versions of the Virgin Mary (reliefs high on the wall) with alcoves below representing different religious scenes. In addition, there are some large tapestries that cover the walls, which apparently help to warm it up. Once you get to the alter, the first thing you’ll notice is the massive dome covered in shining mosaic. It has Christ up there, along with Mary, many Spanish saints, including St. James (Santiago), patron saint of Spain. Right below the dome is the alter, and two graves. Both graves are unremarkable, with just the name of the person listed on the stone. The first grave, in a prominent position in front of the alter, belongs to José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the Falange movement that so inspired Franco. The second grave, behind the alter, as you may have guessed, belongs to Franco himself. Franco had no plans to be buried here, after all this is a monument to those died during the civil war, which he did not, but after his death his remains were put here temporarily, which then became permanent. However, this has led to the main controversy over the site. Many people want his remains removed elsewhere, and de Rivera’s remains moved to a less prominent position in the basilica (perhaps with the others). Just researching this I came across several motions that were debated in the Spanish parliament in 2017, so this is still a very current issue.
Off to either side of the alter are two chapels (?), beyond which lie the remains of 40,000 people who died during the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). Many of the remains were dug up secretly in the night to be reinterred here, since they knew families would protest. In addition, there is no way of knowing whether the remains belonged to Republicans (left-leaning, democratic), or Nationalists (Catholic, fascist, led by Franco). Above the doorways that lead to the graves it says (in Spanish) “For those who died for their God and their Country,” a saying that many Republicans have trouble with. This is another part of the complex that remains controversial – some want the remains to be identified and returned to their families, and a recent commission suggested having all the names of those killed during the civil war to be engraved on the walls that surround the basilica.
Outside the basilica is a huge esplanade that provides a stunning view of the landscape beyond. It’s hard to believe that such a stunning place was once the site of a lot of fighting, and is now a very controversial place for the country.
Edit (Sept 2019): The Spanish courts have just ruled to have Franco’s body exhumed and buried with his wife in the El Pardo Cemetery in Madrid..
Monuments: A lot of massive statues, mostly of angels (including 4 of the archangels – Rafael, Michael, Gabriel and Uriel). However, there are no funerary monuments as such.
Grounds: The basilica, being underground and made of rock, is quite cold and chilly. I expect that even in summer having something extra to wear would be useful. There are a few stairs but it’s pretty easy to get around. The funicular was not working when I visited.
Visitors: A few individual groups and 2 tour groups were here when we arrive at 4 p.m., all were gone by the time we left at 5 p.m. But the place is so huge you almost have it yourself.
Notes: When we went, no photos were allowed inside (although that was not the case a few years ago, as some other blog posts I’ve read about this place can attest). In any event, it’s so dark in there you would really need a flash to get anything useful, and I can see how that would disturb people who are used to the dark environment.
Site: Basílica de la Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caídos or, Basilica of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen
Established: Work started in 1940, completed in 1959. Some of the labourers who built this place were political prisoners.
Notable Internments: Francisco Franco (1892-1975) plus the 40,000 Spaniards buried here
Location: Cuelgamuros Valley in the Sierra de Guadarrama, near Madrid, about 10km from El Escorial
Hours: 10:00-18:00, closed Mondays. Fee: 9 euros.