SPAIN BOOK REVIEW: A Englishman in Madrid by Eduardo Mendoza

An Englishman in Madrid

Anthony Whitelands, an English art historian, is invited to Madrid to value an aristocrat’s collection. At a welcome lunch he encounters José Antonio Primo de Rivera, founder and leader of the Falange, a nationalist party whose antics are bringing the country ever closer to civil war.

The paintings turn out to be worthless, but before Whitelands can leave for London the duque’s daughter Paquita reveals a secret and genuine treasure, held for years in the cellars of her ancestral home. Afraid that the duque will cash in his wealth to finance the Falange, the Spanish authorities resolve to keep a close eye on the Englishman, who is also being watched by his own embassy.

As Whitelands – ever the fool for a pretty face – vies with Primo de Rivera for Paquita’s affections, he learns of a final interested party: Madrid is crawling with Soviet spies, and Moscow will stop at nothing to secure the hidden prize.

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An Englishman in Madrid has been in my reading pile since it was released two years ago. When I posted on Twitter last week about starting to read, I expected (at least those interested in Spain) to scoff that I was last to read it. But it seems not. Perhaps they had the same hesitations that I did – an ageing academic goes abroad and bound to have an unlikely affair with some girl a third of his age. We’ve read that before, more times than we care to remember. Was this book the same? Actually, it was combo I have never read before.

Anthony Whitelands, the ‘hero’ of the story, is fresh from Cambridge university, an art nerd of undetermined age, but with the usual male middle-aged thoughts of life and his career. An ex-wife in the distance, Anthony is busy dispatching with his married lover, Catherine. Perhaps she has made a lucky escape. From the beginning, the police are tracking him, only he is too thick to notice.

Anthony is an art specialist, who loves to compare literally anything – paintings, conversations, people, probably shrubs, to Velazquez (who was a painter in Spain in the 1600’s, if painting isn’t your thing). Anthony is no stranger to Madrid, but in the spring of 1936, shiz is going down all over the place, the prelude to the civil war, which broke out in July that same year. Our hapless character knows all is not well as soon as he arrives, but he is fairly dim, so it takes him a long time to figure out the realities of wandering into an-almost war zone.

The book covers everything, from toffs of the upper class, to the poverty of the times and the social and political realities everyone is facing. The prelude to war is described brilliantly by an author who has taken the time to get things right. Between protests, street killings and strikes, Spain is preparing for implosion and bumbling Anthony has wandered into the eye of the storm.

Our self-confessed art genius finds himself at the beck and call of the Duke of La Igualada, who wants to offload his Spanish art collection, to pay to get his family out of Spain. Selling off the family silver (literal and proverbial) isn’t something particularly legal, but the Duke is a chatty dude, and has Anthony dancing to his tune soon enough. If Anthony’s description is ever written, I have already forgotten it. But he must have been one hell of a looker, because the Duke’s teenage daughters are taken with him in a heartbeat, ready to profess their love before dinner’s first course is even served. Anthony wouldn’t win them over with charm, let’s just say. As an author, I realise how convenient ‘love at first sight’ is for moving a story along, but this group is a crazy set-up, with minimal interactions, yet pounding hearts (real or imagined, anyway). Between the charming Duke, his dim-witted duchess (sticking to stereotype here), the two daughters and the up-and-coming wannabe fascist son, and heir to the money, Anthony accidentally walks into the history books.

The Duke’s paintings are duds, and also a cover-up. Because Paquita, the eldest daughter (with wandering thoughts and as cold as a fish) lures Anthony to see the real treasure – an undiscovered Velazquez in the basement of the palace. Anthony sees his name in lights with the discovery, but knows he simply can’t steal a 300-year-old treasure. He is so blinded by the thought of fame and his never-that-apparent love for the girl he met five minutes ago, Anthony makes mistake after mistake.

The author of this book moves the story on Spain-time, but no matter what others think, this book blows away many similar books written by British authors. I would take on stories with this buffoon-style protagonist before many I’ve read before him. The author wanders into chit-chat about Velazquez so often he is almost holding an art class, and I admit to skipping pages because of it. This is not a criticism, because I admire the author’s research. When it comes to the realities of Spain, Madrid in particular, in that dangerous spring of 1936, the quality is excellent. It can’t be faulted. It is this setting that kept me going.

I like to think I’ve eaten pretty much anything Spain can throw at a stomach, but Anthony, our so-called gent, has weird things like beer and squid in the morning. Um, eww, bit early, my gentleman colleague. He is ethically clueless at times, like giving his passport and wallet to a stranger, who took him to an underage prostitute, whom he bones at her mother’s place. WTH, Anthony? You have no class sometimes. He parties with the hooker and her family, he parties with the Duke (snore-fest), his daughters, and also José Antonio Primo de Rivera, leader of the Falange fascist party, who will eventually align with Franco and be with the rebels (read: baddies of the civil war). The Duke won’t let all-talk, no-action José Antonio marry Paquita, but she loves him while dancing around Anthony (maybe, she doesn’t know herself half the time). She has as little sense as everyone else. Don’t get me started on the little sister, Lilí.

Running with the fascists, the elite, the working class, the police, and hanging with the Prime Minister himself, and pretty much everyone in the mess called Madrid, Anthony nearly gets his head blown off, sees others suffer the fate, and generally can’t figure out who the Communist Russian spy trying to kill him really is. But all because he wants to the art historian who found a Velazquez, he finds himself vying for an item that could invoke an entire civil war.

This book is part art history, part Madrid history teller, part war correspondent, all laced with fictional and not-so fictional characters who make you shake your head (or hope they get theirs blown off). I love the author’s use to detail to set the scene for war, and his use of French-farce type characters lost in world completely screwed in a mess of its own making, makes for something better than the usual old academic/hero and young duchess/whore/idiot that graces these types of books. Sometimes you want Anthony to escape, sometimes you wish someone would just pull the trigger. Will the end satisfy you? Is this book a thriller, a history lesson, or a comedy? The whole lot. Definitely recommended.

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A LITTLE JAUNT TO SPAIN – REVIEW PART 9: Thunderstorms, Jesus and Ghosts in Cuenca

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You will long know by now that Cuenca is one of the central locations on my novel, Blood in the Valencian Soil. What you may not know is that when I wrote the novel, I worked purely on information given to me when researching the real characters that inspired their fictional counterparts in the book. While I know the outlying areas around the town, I never made it to the small hilltop town the entire time I lived in Spain. So, once the book was finished, I decided that while on my trip to gain information for my second Spanish novel, it was time to visit Cuenca in the flesh.

Name a town anywhere in Valencia province and I can almost certainly say I’ve been there. The mountainous region north of Valencia city is one of my favorite places. I have also spread out north-west of the city into the Aragon region many times, but Cuenca was last on the list of places to visit.

Whilst the town of Uclés was the ‘real-life’ town that my 1939 book characters worked in during the war, I moved the story to Cuenca for the later war storyline, and the town did not disappoint. The views of Cuenca are well-known, the cliffs, the hanging houses, the parador, but the place largely gets ignored during the lists of places to visit in Spain. Personally, the (albeit oddly shaped) triangle that runs from Valencia to Barcelona to Madrid is my favourite part of Spain, and it lies mostly untouched by tourism.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to launch into a high-and-mighty speech about the ‘real Spain’. What Cuenca does offer is an opportunity to have a day trip to a town where there are no set rules on what you should experience.

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The trip started well enough, out of Valencia. I was torn by leaving my  favourite city; while I could easily stay in the place forever, heading for Cuenca was 200 kms closer to getting back to Madrid and on a flight home, which I am not ashamed to say I was missing. The A-3, while a quick route inland, does mean you miss little opportunities to explore the Valencia region more, but I was not the driver (I hate driving); instead I settled for a familiar sights along a familiar road (my ill-fated trip to Teruel had the exact same problem).

We headed up the N-320, and Spain’s quiet interior peace settled in. It doesn’t take long to leave the world behind and head through small villages. For me, just seeing little places and knowing their wartime history was a great experience, though I had no one to share any of the information with. To be honest, I did wish I had taken the train, which I had in my original plans, but never mind.

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We arrived in Cuenca at about 2pm, and quickly bypassed the new town, filled with your standard Spanish locales, since obviously the locals require these businesses for work and life’s daily needs. My car-ride companion had a desire to get through the area as fast as possible, complaining of its ugliness. We arrived at the parador, the former Convento de San Pablo, one of Cuenca’s most enduring sights. As it is a location in my novel, I was determined to stay there, despite the fact a single night cost me more than three nights in a classy Madrid hotel on the same trip.

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View of the parador

I applaud anyone who has the desire to take care of a historic building and those at the parador have done just that. With a quiet, well maintained yet basic courtyard in the building, and hallways that give you the chance to feel the soul of the place. With a room on the second floor, I felt lazy taking the elevator, despite carrying my bag, and opted for the stairs for the rest of the stay, since the elevator is slow and filled with tourists not quite as agile as me.

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Main hallway

The room – I paid for a view, hence the slight increase in price and the view did not disappoint for a moment. Located above the main entrance, the room gave an instant view across the bridge over the gorge and over the old town dangling over the precipice of silent cliffs. A huge thunderstorm hung over the town, reminding me to stay inside for a little while. After an irritating car trip, I didn’t particularly want to hang out in a dated and poorly decorated room with terrible wifi, but the pouring squall slashing its way over the town was best viewed from the behind the windows.

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I left my dark depressing room and headed down the hallway to a charming area where seating was laid out, with a view over the interior courtyard of the building. I met a charming man named Jesús, on holiday with his parents from Madrid. He said the town has become a popular place for visitors from the capital over the past few years, but as we sat together, all that passed us was a Japanese family eager to do some sightseeing. The silence of the building made us wonder if the nuns were still running the place! Jesús was the only person my age (ie. 30’s) I saw there. Maybe the price puts younger travelers off; Jesús had just got a new job and wanted to treat his parents because he hadn’t had a job for over a year.

I bid farewell to the flirty Jesús and headed outside into the frail sunshine, amazed (though not surprised) by the cool temperatures of the mountainous area. Still free of my car-ride buddy, I started a walk down to the base of the Huécar gorge, and I was entirely alone the whole time. Not a soul walked by and as I wandered around the base of the town, and back up, popping out on the side of the old town, skipping the gorge walk bridge entirely.

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San Pablo bridge all to myself

After the frenetic tourist-ridden locations like Barcelona, to stand alone in this picturesque area is a real chance to breathe. I took about 1001 photos of the area, which could easy take up your whole day. With my handy copy of BITVS in tow, I got to see the areas that has been so accurately described through photos and friends while working on the book.

Past the Casas Colgadas, the Hanging Houses (which houses the Museum of Spanish Abstract Art), I wandered in the Barrio San Martín, a labyrinth series of streets, portrayed regularly in my book. More photos and some glorious time to be alone, something I wanted more of, I got to see the places in my book, which made me immensely happy. I didn’t pass a soul in the area, and walking along the steep and easily confusing area, it would be easy to think you have gone back in time. The silence is stunning and the town speaks to you instead.

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Legit street in Barrio San Martín

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House used as inspiration in BITVS

Onwards to Plaza Mayor, the heart of the old town. After popping out onto the square by luck rather than planning, it was interesting to see a main plaza with almost no people. For all the talk of the place being a tourist area these days, there wasn’t a tourist to be seen, and not many locals either.  I went straight in the direction of the cathedral, another pivotal location in my novel, and will also feature in subsequent books.

The interior of the church doesn’t disappoint. The solemn religious works sit in an air of silent and cold (almost as cold as Segovia’s frigid cathedral) peace. I sat at the altar for a while, the first time I had taken a break on my whole trip (or so it felt), to soak in the moment. It may sound crazy, or juvenile even, but being in Cuenca made my own book come to life for me, more so than Valencia and Madrid. I could imagine Cayetano Beltrán praying in the same seat, with Luna Montgomery watching in silence, wondering what the hell she was doing there with the bullfighter.

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Cuenca cathedral 

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With the intention of walking up Calle San Pedro, the ‘main’ road leaving up out of Plaza Mayor (try watching a bus go up there with a car coming down the other side – impressive skills and nerves), I instead peeled off along tiny and intriguing little alleyways, in search of my Cuenca (mine, as in ‘in the book’ Cuenca). The lack of people and noise makes it easy to develop your own opinion of the town and indeed imagine yourself in a novel.

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I reached the 18th century San Pedro church. Though basic, it’s home to a bell tower,  is a must-climb. The few hundred stairs are an easy climb and the views once up there are amazing. The climb is a real highlight (see what I did there?)

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Parador view from bell tower

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View of Júcar gorge from bell tower

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odd bit of artwork looking to old town from Júcar gorge

For me, I felt exceedingly lonely in Cuenca. I missed my family, who weren’t on this research trip with me. Without them, the majority of sights seemed hollow. Cuenca is a sight best seen with someone you love (or at least like!). I wandered back to Plaza Mayor, and grabbed a map from a nice young guy named Carlos at visitor information. I prided my lack of maps on my trip, but it was quite handy for a quick walk up and down stairs on the hillside to view the Júcar gorge on the other side of the old town, and then I was officially tired of the whole area. My enthusiasm had gone. I went back to the parador, this time over the San Pablo bridge, and took a break.

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Creepy homage to Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, see the little Falangist symbols beneath? I nearly fell over when I saw this on the cathedral wall near the entrance to the Archbishop’s palace. Odd in 2013.

Surely evening could be interesting. With exhaustion ruining the trip, my car-ride buddy suggested a drink at the restaurant in the parador. Before even poking my head in, she said that everyone looked too old and boring (note from me – if you are in your 50’s, I’ll happily share a drink with you). Instead, we headed over the gorge and into the old town, to a random little in Plaza Mayor bar where I spent my evening mulling over several white wines from Cuenca – all of which I would recommend. The barman brought so many tapas over that dinner wasn’t required!

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The walk home at about 1am was a highlight, I’m not one for heading out late at night, but walking the pitch dark and silent alleyways, suitably spirited with wine and relatively lost makes you feel like someone is creeping up behind you, or that you’ve stumbled into a Jason Webster novel. The cliffs lit up at night is a sight to behold, even if my iphone couldn’t capture them very well, as is crossing the bridge in the dark.

A rough attempt at sleep on a bed so hard I thought it had been built from nearby rock, I got up at 4am and went for a walk on my own, to the amusement of hotel staff. I did this on almost every night of my trip and it’s interesting what you can see and hear when out when no one else is stirring. I crossed the bridge in the freezing air, and heard what I think were owls, the sound echoing through the gorge like an eery cry. It took little imagination to feel like it was 1913 or even 1713. I sat between some trees on a lonely bench and felt very alone, which felt strangely liberating. The oddest thing, and I don’t believe in ghosts et al, but I felt very watched. I walked down under the bridge and walked the lonely road that arches through the waterless gorge. The sun had began to ease its way through the darkness as I headed back along the path to the hotel. A solitary figure stood on a driveway at one of the basic houses in the gorge, an old woman, who placed a hand on my shoulder as I passed her with a hello. ‘Women are always busy here, even when the men sleep’ she said and then simply turned away. I felt like I had found Spain, there that moment in the dark gorge, the wild Spain I had been looking for, one filled with a presence that was intangible.

After the fear of loneliness and darkness combined with bitter temperatures chased me back into the hard bed for an hour or so.  The creepy quiet night walk was worth staying in the town, otherwise I would recommend Cuenca as day trip rather than an overnight.

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one last look

I checked out of the parador as soon my car-ride buddy was ready to leave and we headed for Madrid, just 165 kms away. I felt great for having seen Cuenca, but more than ready to catch up with friends in Madrid.

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legit two-way street!

Must see and do –

Covento de San Pablo, even if only from the outside, just to see the view of the town staring back

The San Pablo bridge, were you must add your pledge of love to

Plaza Mayor, were tourists don’t exist

The bell tower at Iglesia San Pedro

The narrow streets of Barrio San Martín, and stop in any almost medieval-looking bar you can find

The view over Júcar gorge tends to get forgotten in postcard snaps but it just as beautiful and wild, and has a long nature walk in and around

The Cathedral, even if you just take in the facade

The alleys that lean against the edge of the Huécar gorge, try Ronda Julián Romero for a quiet alley walk

The wilds that surround the area. The landscape makes you want to cry, especially this civil war nerd

Drink the wine, eat the snacks. Nobody ever regretted that

The not-so great – 

Unless you are planning to take on the wilds around Cuenca, I would recommend taking the train. Cuenca is an easy place to get to by public transport and having a car was a pain in the ass, and I didn’t even drive it! Plus you meet fun people on trains, unlike in tedious car trips, especially if you can’t stop along the way. Plus I don’t like being yelled at for not knowing where to go/park in locations I’ve never been to, or haven’t been to in years

The parador – iconic, yes; but worth the costs? Neither Jesús or I were convinced of that. With other options available, do your homework first. If you’re determined to stay there (as was I), you should. I got the chance to visit the restaurant for breakfast (included in room cost) which served a buffet of both Spanish and English choices. Any day with churros is a good one. The rooms are not that nice or big, so be careful who you room with. Prince Felipe stayed there on his honeymoon, but I’m guessing he had more fun things to do and had well-chosen his companion! The cost of the bar/restaurant has been debated as over-priced, but I saw plenty of unusually pricey menus in windows while out on my walk. But, not every place is attempting you rip you off.

Spain is not hot all year around, despite what some think. Cuenca is located in a gorgeous but unforgiving landscape, so take a jacket unless its August.

Don’t expect Cuenca to be lively and exciting like a city. You might be disappointed. The place met all my expectations, but if you want to meet a sexy 19-year-old man-boy in an old town bar to engage in a fling with, you might be pushing your luck (What?! Some people like to judge people on looks and dream of Spanish interludes. Not me, but some people, it’s how romance novels are born). Likewise, if you’re not interested in war history, don’t travel with me!

The same generic Made in China souvenirs are available, like with anywhere. I did manage to buy a heavy stone model of the hanging houses, which was made locally.

Want to go but don’t know where to start? Take a look at the Spanish Thyme Traveller, who have just added Cuenca to their list of already well-planned holidays. Here is their latest blog post, all about a trip to Cuenca – A Visit to Cuenca Spain

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people declare their love on the San Pablo bridge so I did just that!

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