Kerr's Corner

Kerr's Corner is a regular feature in East Antrim and Newtownabbey editions of The Wizard. David Kerr would like to hear your memories of life in your own area. Maybe you'll trigger some thoughts for a future column. kerrscorner@ulsteronline.org.uk

Saturday, May 20, 2006

Magnificent Memorial To Tragic Era

David Kerr visits the Valle de los Caidos, Spain.

Basilica del Valle de los CaidosCarretera de Guadarrama-El Escorial(Valle de Cuelgamuros)El EscorialSpain 28209
Tel: +34 91 8905611

I REALLY enjoyed Alan Thompson’s excellent – and highly amusing - article in the last issue of Around and About with Travel Buzz. Here, Alan described his New Year sunshine holiday break to Tenerife, where he stayed in an up-market hotel in Santa Cruz. And whilst in late December/early January we endured freezing temperatures and miserable rain, he was sunning himself beside the pool!!

Alan mentioned that the reason for his holiday was twofold. Firstly, it was to relax and recharge the batteries over the holiday period. Secondly, he’s always had a fascination with the rise and fall of the late disgraced publishing tycoon, Robert Maxwell. So this holiday to Tenerife also allowed him to retrace Capt’n Bob’s final steps before he boarded his luxury yacht, the Lady Ghislanine for the last time in November 1991.

Alan’s account of his visit to and from the Hotel Mencey, where Maxwell had his last meal, was both hilarious – but also highly informative. It was part holiday review and part ‘who done it?’
Alan’s reasons for going trip to Tenerife – part holiday, part outside interest - reminded me of a holiday I took a few years ago for similar reasons. Anybody who knows me will know that I have a great interest in history. However, I’m particularly fascinated by the Spanish Civil war. Therefore, I jumped at the chance of visiting Spain for an ‘historical holiday’. Here’s my account of my visit to the impressive Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen), which is near El Escorial. (To ‘set the scene’ I’ve included some background material to the conflict itself).

ONE OF THE most vicious civil wars to disfigure Europe in the twentieth century took place in Spain between 1936 and 1939. The Spanish Civil War took the lives of nearly three-quarters of a million people as a result of a combination of military campaigns, murderous atrocities and bitter feuds. Many more were injured or made homeless.

For the protagonists, matters were simple. To Spanish nationalists, it was a struggle for God and Spain against the Red Terror. To republicans, democracy in Spain had to defeat an attempted coup by Fascist plotters. Many writers, artists and intellectuals were attracted to the Spanish republic. One, George Orwell, became disillusioned when he witnessed the role of Stalin and the Communist Party in suppressing anarchist and other leftist groups, notably the Catalonian Workers' Party, POUM. This bitter experience prompted his popular work, Animal Farm. The Communist International sponsored ‘International Brigades’ to fight for the Spanish Republic. Ireland, virtually uniquely, sent volunteers to fight for both sides. The so-called ‘Connolly Column’, made up by Communist Party and Irish Republican Congress members, fought for the Republic while a small group of Blueshirt volunteers formed an ‘Irish Brigade’ to fight for nationalist Spain. The Irish Christian Front raised money for Franco at massive public meetings.

General Francisco Franco eventually won control of Spain in 1939 and kept his country out of the Second World War. He remained in power until his death in 1975. In 1940, the decision was taken to erect a monument to all those who lost their lives in the conflict. This magnificent monument, the Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen) took nineteen years to build.

Republican prisoners, whose sentences were reduced accordingly for every day that they worked on the monument, carried out some of the work. A 150-meter tall cross dominates a mountain range close to the El Escorial monastery where the kings and queens of Spain are buried. Travellers on the motorway to Madrid can see the cross for miles in either direction. Beneath the cross is a vast esplanade and basilica that was dug out of the mountain. A funicular railway can take visitors up to the base of the cross.

The entrance to the basilica is by 15-meter high bronze doors. Once inside, the atmosphere is awe-inspiring. (When I was there, visitors had to undergo searches by police and security officers before proceeding beyond the vestibule. However, at the time, to a visitor from Ulster this was nothing out of the ordinary!)

Two archangels flank the entrance to the nave of the church, standing leaning on their swords with heads bowed like the soldier on the Enniskillen cenotaph. A number of small chapels stand on each side of the nave. Eight enormous tapestries hang on the walls between the chapels. They display St John on Patmos and other images from the Book of Revelation.

Under a mosaic dome, which portrays Christ in majesty and triumph in heaven, lies the transept. In these ornate surroundings, polished marble slabs on each side of the altar mark the simple tombs of two Spanish leaders. General France lies behind the altar. Spain’s lost leader, Jose Antonio Prima de Rivera, lies in front.

(Jose Antonio’s vision for Spain was very different to that of Franco. He did worry about the workers and his solution was a Spanish version of national-syndicalism. However, he was in Alicante prison when the civil war broke out. His enemies murdered him on 20th November 1936. Franco was able to remould Spain in his own image, so he adroitly merged by force Jose
Antonio’s Falangist party with a monarchist group under his own leadership).

Guidebooks are universally scathing of the Valley of the Fallen. They describe it as monstrous and vainglorious. However, I beg to differ. I found it magnificent. Any visitor to Spain should go. When I went, admission cost 650 pesetas but EU citizens could get in free on Wednesdays. (I’m not too sure how much admission would cost in Euros today – or if the special Wednesday offer still exists). Several tour companies in Madrid run all-day and half-day tours.

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