El Escorial and Valle de Los Caidos

We were in Madrid a couple of days ago, and decided to take a daytrip out to the town of El Escorial. There were two main sites here we wanted to visit, the palace of San Lorenzo del Escorial and Valle de los Caidos (Valley of the Fallen).

King Charles V, Isabel and Ferdinand’s son, built a palace next to the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, but when his son Philip II took the crown, he began the 40-year construction of El Escorial. The complex served many purposes: a royal retreat, a basilica and mausoleum for the royal family, a place to “safely” learn humanist ideas, and a slap in the face to the rising Reformation movement headed by Martin Luther. The stoic, foreboding palace also became Philip’s headquarters for conducting the bitter Inquisition, in which suspected heretics were tortured and publicly executed.

San Lorenzo del Escorial Philip II Inquisition

San Lorenzo del Escorial

The palace itself has several interesting features. We toured the Royal Living Quarters, centered around the basilica’s high altar (the focal point of a cathedral). Originally, both Philip and his queen Elizabeth’s beds (on opposite sides of the basilica) faced the altar through open windows. But Elizabeth died before construction was done and their daughter took her room. The Royal Pantheon below houses primary, secondary, and a few tertiary royals, as well as infantes (royal children) who died before confirmation. A fascinating library houses 40,000 priceless books in many languages, including Arabic and Hebrew. A sign over the door promises excommunication to anyone who leaves without properly checking out their tome.

Our other stop was Valley of the Fallen, a Spanish Civil War memorial. The 33-month war claimed 500,000 victims split along ideologies rather than borders. Neither side was innocent, both committed unspeakable atrocities. In 1936, the military rebelled against the democratically elected liberal government. Two parties emerged: The Nacionalistas lead by Generalisimo Franco (ultra-conservatives and nobility) and the internationally-aided Republicano militia (liberals and socialists). The next three years resulted in a starved and broken nation–many older Spaniards are actually very small, their growth stunted due to these hungry years. Mussolini and Hitler both lent their aid to Franco. The last of the resistance fell in 1939 and Franco ruled with a religious iron fist for 37 years, allowing only “safe” ideas to cross his borders.

Valle de Caidos Valley of the Fallen Franco Spanish Civil War

Franco’s Valle de los Caidos

He almost immediately began construction of Valle de los Caidos, a basilica, mausoleum, and war memorial. There is a great deal of controversy over this site, which was built at least partially by POWs, either forced or voluntarily. Around 50,000 fighters of both sides rest here with Franco himself. The nave is 300 yards long, but only 262 of those are blessed by the Vatican, keeping it smaller than St. Peter’s.

Valle de Caidos Valley of the Fallen Nave

View Through the Gates and Down the Nave in the Valley of the Fallen Basilica

It’s hard to repress a thrill of horror as you pass beneath the giant Pieta, Mary cradling her dead Son, and walk down the chilling underground granite aisle to the high altar. You wonder how mothers and wives felt as they made the same passage on their pilgrimage to the urns of their sons, fathers, brothers, and husbands in two rooms marked “RIP 1936-1939, Died for God and Country.” Franco lies in the middle of it all in a flower-strewn grave at the altar. All the while, stern bronze angels in niches stare at you as you slip by.

Valle de Caidos Valley of the Fallen Angel

Armed Angel in the Valley of the Fallen Monument

It is an interesting irony that two brutal religious dictators are both buried in this town, separated by 300 hundred years. Does history repeat itself? Over and over.

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One Response to “El Escorial and Valle de Los Caidos”

  1. G Says:

    Hello, I just saw Verdi’s opera Don Carlo. The lyrics mentioned El Escorial and the crypt. My research led me to your blog. Thank you for recording your thoughts while visit El Escorial and Valley of the Fallen. Maybe I will have the opportunity to visit to. Cheers,

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