By: F. DuBose - Harvard University
I went on a program day-trip outside Madrid with Sonia, our student services coordinator, and some other CIEE students. We arrived at the national historic site El Valle de los Caídos, or Valley of the Fallen, which is a controversial Spanish Civil War memorial. The size of the construction was stunning. The plaza could easily fit a couple of football fields, and the building stretched out far along the face of the mountain and rose high above us. It was deceptive in its magnitude. In the pictures below you can see the stone structure compared to some tourists. We explored the far end of the plaza where we could see some towns in the distance and enter the forest that surrounds Valle de los Caídos, but soon turned around to enter the actual monument. There was a security gate to pass through just inside the door, with a second door that obstructed a view of whatever was further inside the mountain. After going through security, we entered into a massive hall that reminded me of Hogwarts’ Great Hall from the Harry Potter novels. My first thought was that it would make a great event venue, either for a concert or a ball of some sort. The very center of the intersection was a large communion table on a raised circular platform. On either side of this platform were large stone slabs laid into the floor with flowers placed on them – the graves of Primo de Rivera, founder of the fascist party in Spain, and Francisco Franco, the dictator who ruled Spain from 1939 to 1975. Before coming to Spain I knew very little about Spanish history, but in my time in Spain I observed that there is a very strong negative sentiment toward Franco for what he did. Being mere feet above the corpse of somebody who caused so much pain and suffering in Spain was chilling. Our group knew that Franco and Primo de Rivera were buried there before we arrived, but seeing their graves in person was still powerful. I took a seat in a pew and was just trying to soak everything in when a man who had been walking down the aisle stopped abruptly in front of Primo de Rivera’s grave and gave a Roman salute – his arm straightened and pointed up at an angle. My heart nearly stopped. The attendant in the church immediately came up to him and told him he could not do that here. The man then walked around the center circle to Franco’s grave and paid his respect, this time without a salute. Sonia pointed out to me that this man´s shirt cuffs and collar had the colors of the Spanish flag and explained that in certain contexts these colors are still closely associated with Franco and his supporters. The man walked into one of the chapels briefly, returned to Primo de Rivera’s grave where he once more paid tribute, and left. I was shocked at this display of support for Franco. Until this point I had only heard negative opinions of him, and while I of course knew in the back of my mind that there had to be some Spaniards who supported him I figured I would never come into contact with those people. If I felt chilled when I saw Franco’s grave, seeing this man’s salute sent a shiver down my spine. I recognize that I do not know enough about what Franco did to his country, but the fact that I have almost exclusively heard Spanish people say they do not like Franco made me uncomfortable in the presence of this man who supports Franco to this day. El Valle de los Caídos was spectacular in a visual sense. Everything outside is enormous and appears pretty, and the inside of the memorial is incredible in its engineering and construction. Before seeing it, I had heard that many Spaniards would never visit the site and have negative sentiments for it. After visiting it myself and seeing the significance that it still holds for supporters of Franco, I feel that I understand the popular Spanish sentiment very well and would absolutely agree that the monument, while stunning, holds a darker significance. The amount open space at this War Memorial was overwhelming, especially considering it was carved from the inside of the mountain, and the walls were beautifully decorated with art. At the other end of the hall was a church where Sonia explained that services are held regularly. The layout of the interior was in the shape of a cross, and while we had entered through the bottom of the cross the church was found in the intersection of the two beams. There were small chapels on the two ends of the cross that point to the left and the right, and in the top of the cross there was a choral section.