A Controversial Visit: The Valley of the Fallen

If a dictator ruled your country for decades, was responsible for thousands of civilian deaths and befriended infamous 20th century leaders such as Hitler…would you agree with the preservation of an enormous grave and basilica to preserve the dictator’s body and memory? 

This is one of many controversies surrounding El Valle de los caídos, or The Valley of the Fallen.

Located in the mountains of the Sierra de Guadarrama (in the municipality of San Lorenzo de El Escorial), The Valley of the Fallen was a 19 year construction project initiated by Spain’s dictator, Francisco Franco, who ruled over Spain for over 30 years from 1936 until his death in 1975.

The end of Spanish Civil War (1936-39) was the beginning of Franco’s reign. The war pitted Spaniards of all classes against each other as the rebel forces (the Nationalists: the army, Catholic Church, big businesses…) fought the Republicans (aka. Loyalists: small businesses, labor unions, secularists…) and took control of the government. 500,000 Spaniards perished. 

In April of 1940, a decree was published by the Boletín Oficial del Estado (BOE) announcing the construction of a basilica to honor those who died in the journey for God and homeland: The Valley of the Fallen. This was the beginning of a 19 year construction project which was carried out by thousands of Civil War prisoners. When the Valley was opened, Franco decided that all of the fallen would be buried there: approximately 33,000 Nationalists and Republicans. This is another controversy as many Spanish families find it repulsing that their relatives are buried with Franco. 

Visiting The Valley of the Fallen has been on my English friend, Greg’s, and my to-do list for over a year now. Every morning on our bus ride to work, we could see the enormous 150 meter granite cross powerfully projecting from the mountain. Since Greg is writing about the Valley for his senior year dissertation, part of his recent visit to Madrid included a close-up visit.

To arrive at the Valley is no cakewalk. There are a few ways to get there, but we left around 9:45 (on a Saturday) from the Moncloa bus station on the 664 and drove to El Escorial. From there, it’s suggested to bribe a taxi driver to not only drive you up the mountain, but wait there for about an hour before driving you back down-a total of 45 euros. We convinced a taxi driver that we only wanted to be brought up the mountain and would walk back down (about 5km one way). 

We were a bit apprehensive about explaining why we were visiting the Valley, but our driver was surprisingly enthusiastic and spent most of the ride looking at us with the rearview mirror and spewing off facts rather than paying attention to the road. His enthusiasm continued past the entrance as we bolted up the hill at 80-100km per hour on a very winding road with no guard rails. I was more focused on the speedometer and hoping we wouldn’t go over the edge of the mountain than his effortless historical recounts. Thankfully, we arrived in one piece and stayed well over an hour exploring the basilica and the grounds which include the surrounding mountain views.

The inside of the basilica is quiet with a heavy structure and gloomy ambiance. The prisoners who built the Valley of the Fallen had to dig out 220,000 tons of solid granite to complete this mountain tomb. Along with Franco, Nationalists and Republicans, Franco’s second hand man so-to-speak is also buried here, José Antonio Primo de Rivera. Both of their graves lie in the center complete with fresh flowers…

Visiting the Valley of the Fallen has reminded me of the horrors the Spanish Civil War inflicted upon Spain. I studied a bit of this era in university, but seeing a part of this history up close is more powerful. I feel for the families who have relatives buried there, and have petitioned for their bodies to be exhumed.

Overall, I wonder why a structure this profound and expensive to maintain remains intact, essentially for a dictator. Some argue that the Valley is a good reminder of the past, but others think that Franco’s body should be removed and buried elsewhere. It is an on-going debate that I imagine will continue for years to come.

If you’d like to read more about The Valley of the Fallen, here are a couple of links:

The Valley of the Fallen-the problem that won’t go away

Visiting Valle de los Caídos (The Valley of the Fallen) 

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