In a tin of keepsakes which I inherited from my grandmother, there is an old photograph of my father standing together with his mum at el Valle de los Caídos. It must have been taken by my grandfather in 1966 or 1967, when the family of three went on a coach tour of Spain. My father, who was still a bachelor in those days, is wearing dark shades and a skin-tight polo neck and looks a little like a slimmer, slightly dishevelled version of Marcello Mastroianni. My grandmother está vestida de luto – with a frumpy black dress and a pillbox hat – the kind of get-up that she wore for years after her mother Paula’s death in 1965. Once, when I was sixteen or seventeen, I asked my grandmother whether el Valle de los Caídos was as impressive as her photograph suggested – and she responded like only Bertha Sanchez, née Duarte could:
Tanto dinero se gahto el shalau ese de Franco, y pa que? Pa ehta entehrrau aí en ese sitio tan feo y malvado.
Fifty-two years later I am standing more or less on the same spot where my grandfather took that photo and I have to say that I agree with my grandmother – the place is not as overwhelming as I had imagined. Yes, there is a lot of empty space around me and the views are spectacular enough, but the complex is dwarfed by the hills encircling the Cuelgamuros Valley – Nature, as always, trumping whatever man can come up with. This perception alters radically, however, the moment I enter the basilica cut into the side of the mountain. Barrel-vaulted and paved in dark marble, its massive, granite-clad walls lit by iron-spiked, brazier-shaped lanterns, it combines the monumentality of a Gothic cathedral with the clean lines of a modern railway tunnel and is quite unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. Medieval paintings alternate on either side of the nave with statues of sword-bearing angels – moody, menacing, strong-armed figures that remind me both of the Egyptian God Horus and Jacob Epstein’s infamous Rock Drill sculpture. If walking through El Escorial Palace yesterday morning felt like taking a stroll through Philip II’s death-obsessed mind, then surely I am now wandering through the private fantasy world of some poorly educated, megalomaniac vulgarian, the type who will stop at nothing to belittle you and remind you of your own insignificance.
I continue moving down the length of the basilica, wondering whether I should bring out my phone and risk taking some photos. At the far end of the nave, I come across the tomb of José Antonio Primo de Rivera, the founder of la Falange Española and Francoism’s most famous martyr. Franco privately dismissed Primo de Rivera as ‘un playboy pinturero’, but had the foresight to recast the murdered aristocrat as a political martyr, creating a cult of personality around him that lasts to this very day. This is reflected in the closeness between Primo de Rivera’s grave and Franco’s own sepulchre, which is located between the high altar and the apse, just a couple of metres away. Cordoned off by a modest pole and rope barrier, el Caudillo’s tomb is adorned with a wreath of red and white flowers placed on the space between his first name and his surname. It is all so simple. So elegant. So touching. If it is true, as historians make out, that Franco outwitted Hitler and Mussolini because he lived a full life and clung to power till the end of his days, then it is also true that he outwitted them in death as well, for look at how the murderous bastard lies here in great pomp, in such lavish surroundings, sanctuary lamps forever shining in his memory. While I am busy having these thoughts, one of the tourists who had been with me earlier on the bus from San Lorenzo de El Escorial comes sauntering past. He is a short but stocky fellow with curly blond hair. Darting, inquisitive eyes. Moderately sunburnt face. A rucksack stamped with the San Antonio Spurs logo dangling off one shoulder. Something tells me that he is desperate to communicate his impressions – and, sure enough, as he walks past the flower-laden altar, he lingers beside me for a moment.
‘This is something else, isn’t it,’ he says in what sounds like a Texan accent. ‘Back in the States we have nothing like this. Nothing that can compete,’ he insists, his pale eyes bulging earnestly out of their sockets. ‘Nothing at all.’
‘Yes,’ I reply, not knowing what else to say to the man, ‘it’s not every day you come across a place like this, is it?’
M. G. Sanchez has written nine books on Gibraltarian subjects, among them novels, short story collections, books of essays and autobiographical memoirs, all of which are available on Amazon. More information on his writing can be found at www.mgsanchez.net/media or on his Facebook page. He also tweets under the handle @MGSanchez.