Our first stop on the road trip from Madrid to Salamanca was the Valley of the Fallen. This is about an hour’s drive away from Madrid, and it is a place that many Spaniards would rather not acknowledge exists. To understand this sight, you have to know something about the Spanish Civil War. Here’s a very quick 7 sentence run down.
Around the time of Hitler and Mussolini, Spain elected a liberal government which many citizens thought was too disorganized. The army staged a coup and a civil war between the conservatives (catholic church; the monarchy; big business owners; backed by Hitler and Mussolini) and the republicans (Unions; peasants; socialists; backed slightly by USA funding) began. The war ripped families and towns apart and killed thousands. General Franco who lead the conservatives, won the war after 3 years. He then ran a fascist government for 39 years until he died and his successor liberalized the country. Franco took down the monarchy and any international influence, and his republican prisoners were forced to construct the Valley of the Fallen basilica where he is now buried.
The highlights of the valley are the large underground basilica and a massive cross above it that you can see from miles away. Visitors can’t get any closer to the cross than the entrance to the basilica, but the view from there is spectacular. Once your neck grows tired of staring at the cross, turn around to get the unobstructed view of the valley below you.
To enter the basilica, walk all the way across the entrance plaza and into the center of the crescent-shaped monument. The basilica is creepy — it’s gorgeous, but once underground, the statues depict Devils with swords and the tapestries depict scenes from the apocalypse story. The basilica is basically one long hallway with a rounded ceiling, and instead of gold or fresco for decoration, the decor is concrete and stone.
We had to wait for a mass to be finish before going all the way into the main cathedral, which includes a three side chapels and circular dome. Franco is buried right under the dome and the side chapels hold the caskets of other important people from that era of Spanish history. These graves are what many Spaniards find controversial — the fact that the people who orchestrated such a terrible time in Spanish history were given special graves.
There’s also monastery at the Valley of the Fallen site, and the monks run mass in the cathedral every day.
On the practical side, parking is ample at the bottom of a long staircase to get to the entrance plaza. There was no obviously handicap accessible entrance. The basilica is open 10:00 to 19:00 Tuesday – Sunday, and is closed to visitors on Mondays. No photography is allowed inside the basilica.