Today, despite the heavy rains in Madrid, I decided to head to the mountains and visit the Valle de los Caídos (Valley of the Fallen), a fascinating memorial conceived by Franco to honour and bury those who fell during the Spanish Civil War.
It is an incredibly huge monument with a grandiose basilica towered by a 150-meter-high Christian cross. Well, with today’s weather conditions, the cross reached the clouds and could hardly be seen – but I found the basilica itself incredibly fascinating.
1- A fascinating architecture
The basilica esplanade is huge, but inside it is even more breath-taking. A long vaulted crypt takes you to a massive dome, all of which was tunnelled out of the mountain’s rocks between 1940 and 1959.
The atmosphere inside is solemn and reminds of the darkest hours of Europe.
2- A fascinating propaganda
The crypt features on both sides alternatively large tapestry works featuring scenes of the Bible, and chapels dedicated to a series of virgins.
These well-chosen saints are there to mystically legitimate Franco’s regime:
- The first one on the left is the Virgen de Africa (Lady of Africa) in memory of the beginning of the civil war; she faces the Virgen de la Inmaculada (Immaculate Virgin), saint patron of the Army
- Follow the Virgen del Carmen, saint patron of the Navy, and the Virgen de la Merced, saint patron of the captives
- And finally, the Virgen de Loreto, saint patron of the air force, faces Virgen del Pilar, the saint patron of Hispanism (yes, they have dared) to bless Franco’s regime
3- A Soviet-looking little touch
This is probably meant as art deco. But Stalinist social-realism is never too far from art deco. While you are aproaching the immense dome of the basilica, where a giant mosaic Jesus captivates your attention, a series of benevolent statues that look as if they just escaped from a Russian WWII memorial, pray for you.
4- An incestuous mixture of politics and religion
Originally created by Franco as a symbol to honour the dead of his camp and reinforce his legitimacy, the memorial was visited by pope John XXIII who made it a basilica in 1960. And indeed, faith to God and faith to Franco’s regime are depicted as two ideas of the same kind in this bizarre memorial.
5- A fascinatingly controversial existence
What would you do if you had such monument in your country? On the one hand, it is part of Spain’s historical heritage. But we know that countries are happy to showcase their heritage only when it supports their current official national propaganda – and this is not the case any more in Spain.
The Spanish left wing keeps protesting against this monument, alleging part of the workforce who built it were war prisoners (but let’s face it, we were really far from gulag), probably mostly embarrassed by the fact the memorial may remain a popular pilgrimage site amongst franquists.