Valle de los Caidos
The colossal monument built on Spain
's dictator Franco's orders to honour the "fallen" of the Spanish Civil War
… and eventually Franco himself was buried here too (from his death in 1975 until October 2019, when his remains were removed and reburied elsewhere).
More background info:
The plan for such a National Monument came shortly after Franco's victory in the Spanish Civil War
– to “honour the fallen” of the war. That's what “Valle de los Caidos means”: 'Valley of the Fallen'. The original name of the place was Cuelgamuros Valley. It's in the Sierra de Guadarrama mountains near Madrid
The construction of the monument was first ordered in April 1940, a year after the end of the war, and construction began in 1941 but wasn't finished until 1959, just in time for the 20th anniversary of Franco's victory. It is still by far the most prominent and biggest relic of the Franco era.
The main visual feature of the monument, the gigantic grey stone cross on top, gives the site its full name “Santa Cruz del Valle de los Caidos”. It is a whopping 150m (ca. 500 feet) tall, and sits atop a rock of nearly the same height towering above the wide plaza in front. So together that's almost the height of the Eiffel Tower in Paris
On the one hand, the choice of a cross as the main feature underscores Franco's allegiance with the Catholic Church (which, in contrast, the communists and anarchists of the Republican side had so despised). But together with the colonnades and the plaza at its feet, it is also a drastic example of sheer 'intimidation architecture'.
And if you think the cross is big, then wait for the dimensions of the rock basilica underneath it: hewn from the bare rock the cavern stretches into the mountain for a total of 263m (860 feet), that's longer than St Peter's in the Vatican
, which is normally regarded as the overall largest church in the world.
Much of the hard work in the construction of this artificial cave was done by POW
forced labour – or rather, partly forced: they were promised a “redemption scheme” by which they could shorten the length of their sentence by six days for each day of toil. In the end it was more like a ratio of 3 for 2.
The “fallen” that were actually buried in the crypt initially were only from the Nationalist side, as you might have expected for a site whose function it was to glorify the Nationalist dictatorship and the Falange party. However, some fallen Republicans were also allowed in – but only if they had been Catholics (so it was a rather limited concession after all).
One particular “fallen hero” of the fascists, Falange party founder Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera (who had been executed by Republicans in 1936) was exhumed and reburied in a special place right by the altar of the basilica.
Franco himself joined after his death in 1975. His tomb is marked with just a simple marble plate stating his name, but the pride of place is the same – right at the altar of the basilica. The services conducted by the members of the monastery adjacent to the basilica still take place almost literally atop Franco's remains.
Since Franco's death and his entombment in the Basilica de Valle de los Caidos, the site may have diminished in political importance, but it is still a kind of pilgrimage site for backwards-looking old Francoists and other right-wingers. Rallies were still held here on important days for the fascist movement until these were practically outlawed in 2007.
But a visit to this huge monument is also often included, quite innocently, as a stopover during day trips from Madrid
to the El Escorial Royal Palace that is located not far from here.
Given how historically-politically charged this site is, it's no wonder it has been viewed in an increasingly controversial manner in the last few decades, as Spain
was slowly, painfully, beginning to come to terms with its dark fascist past.
The discussion as to what to do with this site in the future is still ongoing. There have even been proposals to exhume Franco and Primo de Rivera, while others argued that one should just let the dead rest in peace. For a short while the whole site was closed to the public, adding yet further controversy to the whole complex issue. But it was reopened in 2011 (except for the funicular and the base of the cross, which remain closed).
UPDATE, on 24 October 2019, after a long campaign, Franco's remains were finally exhumed and taken away for reburial alongside his wife. So the right-wing pilgrims to Valle de los Caidos have been deprived of their main reason to come here. Good. Whether there will be further changes at the site remains to be seen.
What there is to see: The Valle de los Caidos is a National Park and the monument, basilica and Franco's grave are just the core part of it. As you drive towards these you can see a few other parts belonging to the park as well. One curious site that you pass shortly after the park entrance is that of the “Juanelos”.
These are four huge monolith granite columns, 5 feet (1.5 m) in diameter and 35 feet (11m) high. Apparently these date back to the 16th century, but their exact intended function remains a mystery. They remained, unused, in their quarry, until they were transferred here in 1949 and erected in the present location in 1953. They are like a gateway to the upper parts of the road towards the monument, a kind of introduction to the grandeur that awaits up there ...
And then you suddenly get close. You will have seen the giant cross from miles away (you can easily spot it from the main railway line and motorway heading north from Madrid
). But only when you arrive at the bottom does it really hit you just how enormous the cross is in size.
But that's just the beginning of the over-the-top grandness here. Once you've climbed the steps from the car park to the main esplanade and stand in the middle of it with the full view of the cross and the flanking colonnades, you really get the full-on intimidation architecture treatment.
This was clearly built to make you feel small and something else look big. That “something else” is only superficially the Christian symbolism with the cross and all that. The area size of the plaza in front and the oversized colonnades to the sides of the basilica entrance are in no small measure reminiscent of the Nazi party rallying grounds
. And that's hardly a coincidence.
I felt a very odd, almost stifling uncomfortable mix of emotions standing in the middle of that square. On the one hand the whole oversized massiveness doesn't fail to impress and almost overwhelm. But at the same time you can almost smell the evil ghosts from the past that brought all this about …
This feeling was only further amplified by the presence of some of the other visitors who were there at the time I went (on a Sunday morning). There were several small groups and individuals who were clearly not here as tourists, but who marched purposefully and with obvious routine towards the basilica. They were attending the Mass at 11 a.m., as I soon found out. However, you couldn't help but wonder how many of them were just here for the religious aspects of it all or rather for something beyond, a bit of reminiscing perhaps, if not full-on Generalissimo-Franco-worship … but who knows …
After exploring the enormity of the outside I eventually also made my way towards the basilica entrance. As you get closer you also see the sculptures at the base of the cross better. They have a strange air of classical Greek plus modern Tolkien-like fantasy style about them. Very odd.
Right above the massive main door to the basilica is the oversized pietà – i.e. the familiar, classic depiction of Mary cradling Christ post-crucifixion. The theme and the execution of this particular sculpture may be very familiar, but the size is definitely not. The ensemble is absolutely enormous.
Exaggerated enormity also remains a dominant theme inside. It is basically a cavernous, long tunnel consisting of different sections. Following a spacious vestibule comes an even bigger portico/atrium. At the gateway where a few steps lead down to the following nave, huge sinister-looking sculptures guard the entrance. These alleged “archangels” echo their counterparts at the base of the cross in their odd fantasy-likeness.
Then comes the largest part of the whole church – the massive nave. It is lined with tapestries, reliefs and chapels, all of purely religious themes (Mary, the apocalypüe), but the torch-like lamps on the walls in between these sections maintain the undercurrent of a decidedly fascist look at the same time.
The final section of the nave, just before the altar, is the only part that has benches and is the “active” part of the church. As it was approaching 11 a.m. when I was there, I was not allowed to proceed any further from here, as access was reserved for those wanting to participate in the service that was about to commence.
Clearly being there as a tourist (not dressed up like the churchgoers who came wandering in in their dozens) I didn't even pretend to be part of that category of visitors and dutifully stood back.
I contemplated waiting until Mass was over, but in the end decided against it. Firstly, I knew that Catholic services can drag on and on (and I had no eagerness to expose myself to that, even from the sidelines), and secondly, I still had a long drive to Olite in Navarra ahead of me.
So instead I headed back – but not before I caught a faint glimpse of the very Nazi-like military statuary flanking the front section of the nave. However, I did not get to see the altar properly, nor the dome, or the choir, or anything else at the back. (The tunnels and lift shafts behind the basilica that connect it to the monastery on the other side of the mountain are out of bounds to visitors at all times anyway.)
And most significantly I was thus not able to see Franco's grave with my own eyes. Looking at the photos in the guidebook I purchased on my way out from the little souvenir shop, however, I don't think I really missed that much in visual terms. The gave is very humble for somebody of that calibre. You wouldn't think he was such a long-standing ruthless dictator going by his tomb. UPDATE: the tomb is now empty anyway, since Franco's remains were removed on 24 October 2019.
Back outside I wandered under the huge colonnades for a bit – getting an impression very much reminiscent of classic Nazi architecture, e.g. the Congress Hall
, before heading back to the car park.
Before driving off I also had a look at the cafe/canteen and checked that the funicular was indeed still out of action. Nor was there any access by steps or footpaths to the base of the cross. Whether either of these ways of getting up there will reopen any time soon, I cannot say.
I probably wouldn't have walked up anyway. Given that time was flying and that I had to push on, I decided to give the monastery behind the big cross a miss too and drove off.
All in all, is it worth visiting this controversial site? In a way yes. The sheer size of it all is indeed something to behold. And on a less superficial level it does also give you a shiver down the spine, remembering what a shrine to Spanish fascism this used to be … and to an uncomfortably degree still is even today. But I can fully understand if you rather decide to stay away for precisely that reason.
And to be honest, the basilica felt mostly just like an oversized church, with some odd elements, but not all that dark in character after all. The really dark associations here remain rather symbolic, if not completely invisible (Franco's grave excepted, perhaps – but then again I didn't actually see that ...)
The place is part of the National Park of the same name, which lies a few miles north of the equally gigantic El Escorial Royal Palace, some 30 miles (50 km) north-west of Spain
's capital Madrid
Co-ordinates and Google maps locators:
Entrance to the Basilica:
Monastery and Guest House:
National Park entrance:
Access and costs: a bit tricky to reach on an individual basis except by car, not cheap.
Short visits to the cross and basilica are part of various guided coach tour packages from Madrid
whose main destination is the famous El Escorial Royal Palace. So if you want to see that anyway, have no private transport and don't mind being restricted as to how long you have at Valle de los Caidos, then this might be the most convenient option.
Otherwise, getting there is by far easiest by car. From Madrid the fastest route is along the AP6 motorway. Take exit 47 (signposted El Escorial / Guadarrama) leading to the M600 road; at the roundabout take the second or third exit following signs for El Escorial and Valle de los Caidos. The entrance to the National Park appears a few hundred yards further on to the right.
Once you've paid your admission fee and entered the park, keep driving, leaving the first road branching off to the right and eventually turn off right towards the car parks (free parking). There is one by the access to the main esplanade and colonnades and another one by the cafe and funicular.
Going by public transport is complicated and inconvenient, though not entirely impossible, apparently. You'd first have to get to San Lorenzo de El Escorial (bus connections from Madrid
) from where bus line 664 could take you to the National Park entrance, but from there you'd have a long steep walk ahead of you to get to the monument and basilica. Allegedly there is one bus a day (3:15 p.m.) from San Lorenzo that does go up to the monument as well, but to be honest I wouldn't want to be reliant on this. Alternatively you can get a regional train to Tablada and Gudillos and get a taxi. But that could cost you more than a hire car.
Opening times: Tuesdays to Sundays from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. in summer (April to September), only to 6 p.m. in winter (October to March). Last admission to the basilica is half an hour before closing.
Closed at Christmas and New Year's Eve as well as on some days when official events, functions, celebrations are held.
During Mass (held at 11 a.m.) access to the transept and altar area from the nave in the basilica is restricted to participants in the ceremonies. Tourists have to wait until it is over. The same may apply if other events are held.
Inside the basilica, there is officially a no-photography rule in place, but given the number of pics you can find on the Internet (check out TripAdvisor alone), this rule does not seem to be obeyed or policed that much. I too managed to sneak the odd shot in using my silent paparazzi-style bridge camera rather than the noisy SLR.
Access to the so-called “Way of the Cross” hike is restricted and only possible by prior arrangement. Many parts of the forest are also out of bounds to ordinary visitors (as a forest fire precaution – which is a high risk in these parts, apparently).
Admission: 9 EUR (various concessions apply to seniors, children, groups and members of various associations). Admission is paid at the National Park entrance. There's no further fee charged at the basilica.
In the past, the funicular to the base of the cross cost an extra 1.50 EUR, but that remains closed and at the point of writing there is no indication when or if it will ever resume running.
At the monastery behind the giant cross you can even find accommodation! The Hospederia Santa Cruz offers rooms of different sizes, costing between 25 EUR for a single basic room and a still reasonable 140 EUR for a junior suite with full board at the on-site restaurant.
This service is mostly for conventions, gatherings (religious or not) or weddings and such occasions but can also be booked, as far as I can tell, on an individual basis by tourists. You are free to join the local Benedictine community in mass, prayer and Gregorian chants …
Those who prefer it a bit more secular can find a self-service cafe/canteen by the car park next to the former funicular (but no accommodation).
Time required: anything between just an hour or less for a mere quick look, to a whole day or even more if you also want to see the monastery/abbey and explore the rest of the National Park more.
Combinations with other dark destinations:
Nothing in the more immediate vicinity. But Madrid
isn't far away and from there most other parts of Spain
are quite easily reached.
Combinations with non-dark destinations: The monument and basilica are only one part of a larger National Park (also called Valle de los Caidos) and there's plenty of nature to be enjoyed in it. Right behind the cross is the associated Benedictine monastery that may also be worth a look.
The nearest major tourist attraction is the El Escorial Royal Palace, which is only 4 miles (6 km) south of the Santa Cruz monument (as the crow flies – more than twice that by road). It's both a traditional grand residence for the King of Spain as well as a large monastery. This World Heritage Site is an extremely popular tourist attraction, mostly reached through day-return trips from/to Madrid. And since some of these tours also include a brief stop at the Valle de los Caidos monument, it is almost a naturally given combination.
The same applies to Spain
's capital city Madrid
, of course, which will be the base for these excursions for a large majority visitors.
In the other direction, to the north, the city of Segovia is also a popular and attractive destination. A key attraction here is one of the world's best-preserved Ancient Roman aqueducts. To the west, the city of Avila sports one of the most massive and complete city walls.
- Valle del los Caidos 01 - the Juanelos on the approach road
- Valle del los Caidos 02 - approaching
- Valle del los Caidos 03 - intimidation architecture
- Valle del los Caidos 04 - cross on top of and basilica inside the rock
- Valle del los Caidos 05 - Santa Cruz
- Valle del los Caidos 06 - base of the cross
- Valle del los Caidos 07 - oversized pietà
- Valle del los Caidos 08 - entrance and signs
- Valle del los Caidos 09 - illicit interior photo
- Valle del los Caidos 10 - colonnades
- Valle del los Caidos 11 - massive granite
- Valle del los Caidos 12 - stately symbol
- Valle del los Caidos 13 - view from the plaza across the land
- Valle del los Caidos 14 - snowy mountain-tops in the distance
- Valle del los Caidos 15 - abandoned shop at the base of the plaza
- Valle del los Caidos 16 - old poster
- Valle del los Caidos 17 - defunct funicular
- Valle del los Caidos 18 - park by the cafeteria