A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 8: I Don’t Trust Anyone in Spain… or their Sangria

Blogging has been tough lately. I read about Spain and the posts are mostly about food experiences, or “oh, Spain is so pretty and shiny”, or “Spain is going down faster than a $2 hooker”. What does someone like me, who stands in the middle, post about without sounding like a whiner? It’s impossible.

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A not-so typical holiday snap

I’ve made mistakes in the past, and I’m the first to admit that. Fortunately, Spain is a place that allows people to make mistakes and move on. I once had the opportunity to spend a few years living in Spain, and get to experience being an expat in a country where few of my countrymen and women go to live life abroad. So, when I found myself with the opportunity to have the chance to go back to Spain purely as a tourist, I thought that would be a piece of cake. Turns out I was very wrong.

I first went to Spain in 2005, and landed in Valencia on a hot summer day. After the tidiness of the airport in Auckland, the ruthless chaos of San Francisco, the soulless efficiency of Munich, (the then) basic and dilapidated airport was a real sight. I joked to my husband that it was the kind of the place you expected to see live chickens in cages moving along on the luggage carousel. Imagine the laughter when we heard the call of a rooster only moments later – it turned out to be the ringtone on the phone of our friend who had come to pick us up. With suitcases, prams, portable cots and many other baby items, myself, hubby, and our one-year-old and newborn sons got to see Spain for the first time. Lucky I was 24 and had the exuberance of youth on my side; because after Spanair broke my $1000 double pram, my mood wasn’t terrific. I met another friend at the hotel, who said I could get straight into flamenco classes. Bless him, he had only been in Spain a few months himself, and still full of the joys of expat life in Spain. Of course, Spain wasn’t full of flamenco and sangria – it was real life instead.

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How many friends can fit in one photo for a magazine shoot? Which magazine? Gente in Italy, I think. Don’t quote me

After my complicated permit to live in Spain was revoked in late 2007, I had only just got the hang of Spanish life. There is a beauty of living abroad; you get the reality of living there, combined with only having to take on the customs you choose. You can understand the place, but not be weighed down with a lifetime of expectations or stereotypes. Expats can really live it up; life is filled to the brim with experiences, trips are taken, foods are tasted, wines flow freely, friends are made, and rose-tinted glasses can get you a long way. You also have reality to pull your head from the expat clouds – your health insurance is a constant drama, your language skills always need work, if your gas stops working you know you will wait two weeks for the repair guy to show up, and visiting the bank is an exercise in endurance. Don’t get me started on the hassle of registering a birth of a baby that has foreign parents, and was born in the Alacant region, not the Valencia region, so you need to blah, blah, blah.

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Expat odd moment – because everyone has given money to a billionaire while he wears your homemade apron, that happens all the time

What I learned is that I couldn’t trust anyone in Spain, because as with living there or being a tourist, no two people experienced the country in the same way. One week after I arrived in Valencia, I shared a lift ride with an American woman. Turned out we were going to visit the same friend. Her husband and my husband had come to Spain for the same jobs, and she had been in Spain for several months. She asked me how long I had been in Valencia, and I said one week. Her reply – “give it two weeks before you decide you hate Spain. Everyone hates it, but give it at least two weeks”. (SERIOUSLY – to this day, we still laugh about that). How does that advice help me learn about Spain? It doesn’t. I suspect the reason her husband was a cheat was because he got sick of her complaining. I lived in a community that left me surrounded by expats from many different nations, due to the reason I went to Spain (it was the America’s Cup, that may mean something, it may not. Your call). I had the best of everything in Spain and felt no need to apologise for that. I loved my life there. However, the bubble I existed in was not Spain, it was a lie. It got to the point where many people had no idea about the place, hated so many things and formed a comfort zone around themselves, until we could leave again (note – that’s a generalisation, some people are amazing friends with open minds and hearts). One guy took years to go into Valencia’s old town and then went to the Mercado Central, and had to panic call a friend to rescue him. The notion of Spaniards, speaking Spanish and buying fresh food freaked him out because it wasn’t like home. True story.

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I’ll pass, thanks

About a year into my adventure, two friends were talking. One said “should we go to  (insert generic closed down bar here)”, and the other said, “no way, it’s always full of whining Aussies and Kiwis.” Ouch. I felt relieved to have never gone there. It burst the expat bubble with spectacular success. When I left Spain, I thought I had built up a realistic opinion of the country. To understand the nation and the culture, I studied the history. I grew to understand the politics and the origins of customs (alas, the freedom of time!). I left Spain with double the number of children I started with, and that in itself opens the eyes. An expert on the place? Hell no, it takes far longer to fully understand Spain. It was never my intention to stay away from Spain, but more important things came my way.

Fast forward six years, far more study, novels written and passionate debates abound, I decided to go to Spain for a few weeks just to help me out with writing, to see friends and soak up the ambiance, which I knew had changed remarkably in my absence. So, would it be easier to be a tourist, after knowing so much about the country? This time, would it be all sangria and sunburn? Nope. I fear knowing Spain well only made it harder.

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Valencian manhole cover – as you do

This is why I can’t trust anyone in Spain, because no two people see Spain in quite the same way. If you’re from the UK or Europe, a trip to Spain sounds like nothing much. Everyone does it, all the time. Most go to the same few places, like the Brit and German invasion of the beaches (I hate the beach). I couldn’t read guide books before my trip because a) they suck, and b) I wouldn’t learn anything. After booking my trip, my enthusiasm plummeted. Had I shot my own holiday in the foot faster than King Juan Carlos can take aim at an elephant or family member? But, as I did when I lived in Spain, I decided to grab the opportunity and shake it until its balls hurt. No time-wasting for me!

Talk about mixed feelings. One morning was spent on a tour to El Escorial (yes, a organised tour group – don’t hate me, I’ve done enough self-loathing for us both) and those on the trip seemed to have a good time. They felt like they were educated and saw all the sights. I felt rushed and given info I already knew.

Toledo – you will have to hold a gun to my head to make me visit again. I imagined the battle for the Alcazar during the civil war, but all you will find there are tour groups led around by disinterested chain-smoking guides who don’t take you to the best sights. But who decided which are the best sights? That’s the trouble, the Spain I know and want to see and that of others are totally different. I remembered that piece of my own advice and carried on alone.

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All I could hear was the sound the customs officer would make as he had a heart attack upon my return home

Avíla and Segovia – two places I don’t know well. I met up with a gay couple and a lovely English woman, all on a getaway from work and we had a good day out. Was it Spain, or the people I met? The people and the upbeat attitude.

Barcelona – I felt conflicted the entire time. I went out one evening and had laughs with friends and had a good time. Was trying cheese the highlight? No, it was getting an evil glare of a balaclava covered riot policeman outside the town hall building during a protest. Some people don’t put that in their holiday scrapbook, but I thought it was awesome (until the batons appeared). I was relating to the angry mob who are upset at the state of Catalonia. I got to tour civil war Barcelona and feel like I had received a meaningful connection to a city, but got plunged straight back into Americans complaining outside Starbucks  that the coffee doesn’t taste like it does at home. (Tip – YOU’RE NOT AT HOME) But then, many don’t give a toss about the history of Barcelona, so who is right and who is wrong? No one.

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Romantic postcard image meets reality of living here

Madrid – I wanted to see a bit of civil war-ness and the weather thwarted me. There is still the park, the art museums and the hell that is Gran Via to see, but I didn’t want any of them, though I wandered briefly for specific paintings. I popped into the Dalí exhibit at the Reina Sofia and got crushed by tourists, but then went to their civil war exhibit and had the place to myself (happy dance time). Many other people did enjoy the Prado et al, though. But, the city redeemed itself, in the people I met there. You gain more Spain-ness in a ten minute chat at a bullfight with a guy named Emilio than you can standing in the Prado (Disclaimer, I have ‘done’ the Prado in the past, so whip me with the tourist cane again). I see the Prado paintings and think of them being smuggled to safety during the war and how half a million refugees in France were left to freeze and die while paintings were covered and warm. Does anyone else care? Maybe, maybe not.

Valencia – finally a place where I could breathe! Familiarity with the world’s greatest little city makes a holiday. But do you gain anything out of sangria in a cheap restaurant with English-speaking waiters? So people might, but I didn’t. People flock to the Arts and Sciences, and it’s great, but I feel like I’ve only seen the city when I see a couple kissing in the park (wow, that sounds pervy). Showing a Valencia tourist around the city makes me want to cut my eyes out, but standing at the baseball field watching a portable cricket pitch being set up feels like a good way to spend an afternoon. If I recommend that as a sight to see, people would think me mad.

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Easy little streets to navigate. And by easy, I mean you will never get anything delivered – ever

Cuenca and Teruel – I didn’t give either of these places enough credit. I just didn’t want to visit (is that awful?) I might try Teruel again (with the right people) while meandering out in Awesome Aragon, but Cuenca? No way.

See what I’m saying? You can’t trust anyone in Spain. No two people can see it the same. I went there with no expectation, and found it hard to dig through the shiny veneer of tourism to find what I felt would make a successful holiday. Every time I sipped a sangria, I felt like I had let myself down (because I don’t like it much, a bit meh. Don’t worry, I tried plenty of other drinks too. No glass went undiscovered).

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See? I visited the craft beers, like any good tourist

I Spain I loved –

Buying hairspray at the Mercadona where I used to go food shopping

Sipping wine in Cuenca

Imagining fascist troops in Teruel

Standing the summit sign at L’Oronet

Getting evil looks for talking about Franco in Madrid

Laughing with a maid because we couldn’t get a door open

Taking the No. 19 bus in Valencia

Paying for an umbrella in a Madrid junk shop

The young guy named Carlos at the Cuenca tourist office. He got to try his English, I got five minutes company in an otherwise dull excursion

The Spain I hated –

People who ignore the ‘no photos’ rule! It’s not there to ruin your holiday, they have a reason!

How much Valencia has changed (total foreigner nostalgia moan right here!)

Barcelona – I failed to have anything in common with the place (and I tried!) Though, El Raval was nice

Driving anywhere (and I was only the passenger! Should have gone by train)

Walking around Madrid (the place seems so down on itself these days) Wander Lavapies to wipe out this feeling

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Not finding the right mix of alone time and time with friends (yes, my own fault)

The fact my old Valencian neighbourhood is not only devoid of my family and friends, but devoid of all life and soul (thought I was on the scene of a zombie movie!)

English menus (who orders the ironed sepia?)

Complaints from others about Spain (yep, I’m complaining about complaining)

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Oh, it’s that time yet again

I can’t trust anyone in Spain, because they won’t see the place like I do. By that theory, no one can trust my opinion either! You will just have to go and experience it for yourself! Will I go again? Hell yeah, I have no doubt about that. The beauty is, I have the power improve my Spain experience every time I visit, because the country gives so much choice. However you enjoy Spain, all power to you. Pick your holiday companions carefully, because if they see it totally different, you could find frustration under every tapa. A civil war researcher and heavy on the political and economic conversationalist like me can’t enjoy Spain with tea-sipping, bullfight and flamenco inquisitor with the dream of Spanish romance in the orange groves.  Lucky Spain is big enough for all of us!

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When the everyday places are this beautiful, who cares who is right and wrong?

Up next… back to serious posts… Teruel and the back roads of Valencia and Aragon

Click here to see previous posts in the series – Spain 2013 in Review

A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 7: Valle de los Caídos: A trip to Franco’s tomb to see a divided Spain

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You know how Germans dress in their best every Sunday and go to leave flowers and prayers at Hitler’s grave? Oh wait, they don’t, they opened up about their past, dealt with their issues and moved on as a people decades ago. So why are Spaniards having family picnics near the tomb of fascist dictator Francisco Franco? I packed my best possible neutral opinion and set off into the Madrid forests to find out.

“The moment you move the soil over shallow graves, the agony of Spain will pour out, like fresh blood from a wound. All that pain and hatred is covered by a thin layer. Don’t stir up something you can’t understand” – Blood in the Valencian Soil

I’m no ignorant tourist. I’m aware of the tensions that surround El Valle de los Caídos, the Valley of the Fallen. Some say it shouldn’t be open at all, and for a time when the PSOE was in power, it was closed to the public. It was one of the few places on my trip where I was the only foreigner, trying to quietly pass between families of all ages inside a macabre and eerie Basilica inside a mountain.

What is Valle de los Caídos?  It is a giant memorial to those killed in the Spanish Civil War, but ended up as a monument to only the Nationalist side, headed by ultra-conservative war winner Franco, who is buried there. Even the history surrounding the place is murky. ‘Official’ records say it was built by approximately 2,600 workers, and a handful of them were Republican (left-wing anti-Franco) prisoners. (Long story short, Republican prisoners were basically anyone the new dictatorship didn’t like. Proof that ever committed any crime, against the public or the State was tough to find, unless being a Republican soldier counts as a crime, and it was back then). It was commissioned in 1940 and finished in 1959, but a more accurate report was of 20,000 Republican prisoners taking part, and the number  killed in the process is unknown, some say dozens. You can get an idea of how touchy this subject really is.

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Franco inspects the site of Valle de los Caídos in 1940

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Republican prisoners building the cross

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Remains of soldier killed in Toledo arrive to be reburied in 1959

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Watching the opening of Valle de los Caídos in 1959

(click to enlarge the photos will launch an amazing slideshow of pics)

Franco created Valle de los Caidos in the Sierra de Guadarrama, the mountains outside Madrid city. Nearby is San Lorenzo de El Escorial, the once summer palace of the royal family (I visited, and the golden tomb is WELL worth the visit – for another post).  The trouble is, Valle de los Caídos was filled with the bodies of killed men, Nationalist (Franco) soldiers and sympathisers. It was a civil war, Spaniard against Spaniard, but those who opposed the rebel army takeover of the Republic were simply forgotten. José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder of the fascist Falange party is buried there, and Franco was also placed inside a tomb under the basilica in 1975. The exact number of bodies laid to rest inside Valle de los Caídos is unknown, and could be anywhere from 30-35,000. In the last 10 to 15 years, a large number of Republican families and organisations have found the strength and courage to dig up their relatives who were murdered and thrown in mass graves around Spain. However, some have been removed from these graves and placed in Valle de los Caídos without family permission, which only serves to give this place an even more heartbreaking feel.

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View while driving up the mountain

Political views aside, the sight of this location is incredible on its own. You can see it while driving along the motorway, sticking out of the otherwise peaceful mountains the surround the north side of the Madrid province. We went through an innocuous gate off the main road to El Escorial and made our way several kilometers up the mountainside on a bright and beautiful Sunday morning. You constantly catch glimpses of the behemoth through the trees, but until you are standing below the enormous cross  built on the hillside (152 metres, the worlds’ tallest), you cannot grasp the size and scope of the this place.

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The carpark was filled with cars and buses, and I suspected I was about to turn into another touristed location. Not so! Once at the arch doors to the entrance, the only people in sight were the Guardia Civil. The place itself is situated in a beautiful location and the quality of work done is exquisite. The place could have been built as a place to honour those lost in the war and the healing of a great nation. But given that the crypt is a basilica, and that the church oppressed the Spanish population and the Republican (or left-wing if you prefer) side didn’t support the church, there was never the possibility that the monument could honour both sides of the nation.

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Entrance archway

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View of the Sierra de Guadarrama

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Statue over the entrance – The Pietá

I stepped inside, sadly unsurprised that there is gift shop (After all, what child doesn’t want a gift of a colouring book and pencils from a crypt, or a fan with Franco’s grave printed on it?) I put my camera in my satchel, as photos were forbidden, but I had my iPhone in my pocket, just in case. Then I entered the nave.

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Nave

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Ceiling over the altar

From the moment you go inside, the overwhelming and solemn feel of the cold and dark place takes you over. Giant gloomy and menacing angels brandishing swords bear down on you. The nave is filled with masterpieces of religious painting and tapestries. The attention to detail is second to none. I paused to take in them and the angel statues, but the foreboding sense of the place had already sunk into my bones. Mass was finishing up as I arrived at the altar, and I sat down quietly to listen to children sing in the choir. Children were singing in this place that spoke of death.

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Altar angel

Mass ended and the faithful began to wander around the altar, me included. The first thing I noticed was not the menacing  angels, or the elaborate golden Jesus, but the grave of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, which someone had left flowers. Now, can I judge those who come here? No, I can’t. I don’t know why they come. Perhaps their loves ones were buried here,  as Nationalist believers to the Franco cause. It was a civil war and everyone lost one way or another. Can I, or anyone, look down on these people for coming  to pray? No. Whether it’s for a loved one, to feel closer to the history of Spain, or even if they supported Franco, that’s their decision. But what about the people who came to leave flowers on the grave of the founding father of Spain’s fascist party? What was the motivation there? A grieving loved one, or someone with old evil ideas that haven’t been forgotten? It was shiver up the spine stuff.

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Altar

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As priests wandered about and nodded hello, I found what I had (kind of) came for – the tomb of Franco placed on the opposite side of the altar below the semi-circle of wooden stalls made for the monks and the choir. There lay flowers on the grave, and this time I saw no reason why anyone would place them there. There are many reasons why people continue to support Franco (and it’s a discussion too long for this post) and I don’t see the merit in any of them. Just to the right lay more floral tributes – dozens to be precise, which had been placed to one side presumably because of the sheer volume. A few people were taking photographs, under the watch of a guard. These people had laid the flowers and wanted to capture the moment, no mistaking their alliances in this case. I asked if I could also take a photo with these people and got permission. Why take it? I don’t know, it’s like watching a car crash, it’s awful but you can’t look away.

I was surprised by the state of the place. Perfection? No. Built into a mountain, they must fight their own war with damp, and you can see that in the granite stonework. Water seeps in here and there, which only gave the place a more unearthly and morbid feel. After all, we were all underground, surrounded by graves…

To the left and right are small rooms, with rows of seats and monuments to Spain’s fallen. People lit candles and families laughed and chatted with priests. What says family day out more than this? I sat in the right room, the entombment, which featured an alabaster Jesus statue. I sat and looked at the wall.  Caídos – Por Dios y Por España. Fallen – For God and For Spain.  All of Spain? Many disagree. Republicans denounce this place, and many here on this random Sunday wore Falange symbols on their lapels.

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Inside the chapel of the emtombment

I will admit it – I silently cried as I sat there, which drew the attention of a priest who thought I needed comfort, and the ‘comforting’ hands of old ladies on my shoulder. Me, the young Catholic attending Mass here? Oh boy, that couldn’t be more untrue.

I headed back through the place, fairly certain I wouldn’t ever be back. I stopped by the gift shop to buy a book on the place, in Spanish, about how the place has reconciled Spain. Hmm. I also grabbed an excellent copy of a collection of civil war photographs. The crypt trinkets and religious adornments could stay where they were. After all, who would wear a Valle de los Caídos t-shirt? Why would you, and for what purpose?

The shining moment came as I left the crypt and stepped out in the sunlight. There stood a group of men, all aged 70 or more, hailing a fascist salute at the cross above the entrance. It was well and truly time to leave.

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Panoramic view from the main entrance after the fascist saluters said hello and went inside

If there is one thing, it’s that this place is full of emotion. Good emotions? Not all of them. No good ever came from a fascist salute, but it would be too simple to label everyone who visits there, whether they’re crying at Franco’s tomb or having a picnic outside in the sunshine. I am not a religious person and I am not going to tell Catholics how to pray to their God in that Basilica. The books I bought there, their glossy pages gloss over Spain’s history entirely – after all this time, the war and the subsequent dictatorship is not talked about like it should be. Spain shouldn’t have to hide its past. It has been 74 years since the end of the war and yet its presence still lives in Spanish life, whether people say so or not. In 2011, it was decided that moving Franco’s body would be a way of restoring Valle de los Caídos’ image and making it a truly impartial monument to Spain’s fallen, however as the crypt was elevated to Basilica status, the church can decide, and their opinions are not so easy changed.

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Franco’s burial in 1975  I wonder who the crying  guy is on the left (click to enlarge and view slideshow)

My personal opinion? The place is worth the visit, despite being a pain to get to if you don’t have a car. I travelled alone, and would I want to take my young family there? I’m honestly not sure. It’s not something you will find in the Spain brochures during your Ryanair flight to the beach in Benidorm or Malaga. But if you’re into Spain history, or have a personal or familial connection to the civil war (as have I) you really should visit. Just leave your camera behind and hush your opinions while you’re there. I know what side I stand on, and I took the bus back to Madrid, convinced more than ever of my opinions. But they remain mine. The other people there were very polite, and believe in what they love – that Spain was better under Franco. Nothing I stumble out in Spanish will make the slightest bit of difference. Check out this photo of a wedding over Franco’s tomb though, that was a surprise find. Just goes to show how divided this place can make people.

Photos by abc.es – protesters waved Republican flags and supporters gave out fascist salutes when Valle de los Caídos reopened. The salute seems to be pretty popular

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Want to visit for yourself? – Valle de los Caídos website

Up next, Part 8 of A Little Jaunt to Spain…. Learning to be a tourist in Spain

Click here for past editions of A Little Jaunt to Spain – Spain 2013 in Review

All photos are author’s own, or linked to original sources