The Valle de Los Caidos, the Valley of the Fallen, just 10km from the Monastery of San Lorenzo de El Escorial, is an emotional and yet enormously impressive monument to visit. Originally conceived by Francisco Franco as a memorial to the dead of the Spanish Civil War, it has roused tremendously varied emotions throughout the years. What cannot be denied, though, is the imposing and spectacular nature of the monument itself. It is certainly well worth visiting, probably at the same time as you go out to El Escorial.
Getting to Los Caidos
In the valley of Cuelgamuros, in the Sierra de Guadarramasits, Valle de Los Caídos is only about 30 to 40 minutes driving time from Madrid – traffic allowing, of course. If you follow the A6 north west from the capital and, at 45km, join the M600 you will arrive at a junction at which you can either turn left towards the monument or right towards El Escorial.
There is no direct train route, but it is possible to journey to El Escorial and then take a bus – line 660 from the local bus station takes you to the entrance. Alternatively, lines 661 and 664 of the Herranz company, leaving Moncloa Metro and Bus Station every 15 to 30 minutes will take you there.
The most convenient option is to take a day excursion from Madrid to El Escorial which includes a visit to Los Caidos.
The site is closed on Mondays. and has an entrance fee of €5, except on Wednesdays when EU citizens are admitted free of charge.
History of Los Caidos
The valley itself is now preserved as a National Park and there are at least 40,000 bodies buried beneath the valley floor – both Nationalist and Republican. The names of the dead are commemorated in a register. Franco announced the building of the monument on April 1st, 1940 – the day of his victory parade to celebrate the first anniversary of his success. The underground crypt, the Basilica de la Santa Cruz del Valle de Los Caídos, is one of the world’s largest basilicas. It is known that upwards of 12,000 political prisoners created the crypt by digging into solid granite – the whole operation lasting 18 years, during which at least 14 people died. At the summit of a cliff known as Risco de la Nava is the largest free-standing cross in the world. This can be reached either by foot or by a funicular railway from the basilica.
When Franco died in 1975, it was decided to bury him in the church itself, along with the previously buried José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of the Spanish Falange. With this in mind, it is probably advisable not to visit Valle de Los Caídos on 20th November – the anniversary of the General’s death – as there could well be different groups of sympathisers meeting there for various reasons and there have, in the past, been unpleasant scenes.
As you enter the main gates of the site you will immediately see Franco’s double-headed eagle and then, in front of you, a wide esplanade, offering spectacular views across the valley towards Madrid and leading to the entrance of the basilica itself. On entry into the shrine – amazingly larger than St Peter’s Basilica in Rome – there is an entrance hallway leading to a nave which is 860 feet in length, with 6 chapels going off to the sides. At either side of the high altar are the tombs of Franco and Rivera and above you will see a 40 metre cupola. You are allowed to take photographs inside, although you are requested not to use flash photography – a request frequently not respected, it must be said. There are daily services in the Basilica, usually at 11.00am.
The cross, made from granite, stands 492 feet high with a width of 154 feet, and has four huge statutes of the Evangelists at its base. On the other side of the mountain there is a Benedictine Abbey where the priests say perpetual Masses for the war dead.
The Valley of the Fallen provokes, as might be anticipated, bitter arguments amongst Spaniards. The government insists that it has to be considered and respected as a memorial for all the victims of the civil war – military and civilian and of whatever political persuasion. For many, though, it still has specific connotations that will undoubtedly remain for many years to come.
However, rising high above the countryside, it is a phenomenally stunning construction, and intensely moving.