Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Spirited Away

My first visit to the Valley of the Fallen, the stark, but impressive war memorial to the fallen soldiers of Spain's civil war, was both solemn and oddly strange.

The large stone cross which towers above the monument can be seen from as far away as Madrid. Carved into an austere mountainside, the memorial is the resting place for hundreds of Spanish soldiers, as well as housing the tomb of the late Spanish dictator Francisco Franco. Built by Franco to commemorate Spanish soldiers lost in their bloody civil war, the monument still remains controversial, mostly because it was built on the backs of forced labor, another legacy of the brutal dictatorship. Unlike most western European democracies, Spain came late to the game. The country was run by a strong handed dictator well into the 70's, when it became a constitutional democracy with a figurehead monarchy and the installation of King Juan Carlos of Spain.

Approaching the monument you get that sense of heaviness. A war memorial is meant to cause reflection and have you contemplate the meaning of a great loss of life. On top of that, there is the reminder that the modern workers who built the place were for all intent and purpose, enforced slaves. You feel the gravity of the place, grim, even on a sunny day, the effect is enhanced by the looming stone figures that surround you. The mood for most visitors is rather somber. It was much like that the day I decided to make a visit....quiet and reflective.

Given the somber mood of the place, what stood out to me as a walked off onto a side chapel was the sudden anomaly of two soldiers dressed in what looked to be Spanish Civil war period costume talking animatedly, laughing, and seemingly having a good time. "Ah, tour guides." I thought, dressed up in costume for the period like those at many other European attractions milling about dispensing interesting facts and taking pictures with tourists. The fact that they were the loudest people around, joking and seemingly oblivious to the grim surroundings, at first, gave me pause. "A little disrespectful", I thought to myself, "Especially for tour guides dressed in soldier costumes at a war memorial." Well, anyway, I decided to wander over and ask one of them if they could tell me if it was possible to go to the top of the large stone cross looming above and take in the view of the valley. My first inquiry to them was basically ignored. "OK, well, maybe they don't speak English", I thought. I asked once again, this time in Spanish. My second attempt was equally received like I wasn't even standing there. "Odd", I thought. I turned away, a bit perplexed as most locals I had met while traveling in Spain usually were extremely polite, generous, and almost always eager to help out a traveler. After walking away, I glanced back only to notice that the dressed soldier tour guides had seemingly disappeared. "Strange," I wondered. "That was fast."

Not thinking twice about it, I found my way back to the reception area and the staffed information booth. I asked the modernly dressed staff person behind the counter about taking a tour of the stone cross and casually mentioned that I had just asked two tour guides dressed as civil war soldiers the same question and got no response. She looked at me like I was nuts. Even more so as she likely noticed there were only 3 other visitors in the place beside me, Swedish coeds, and none of them looking like Spanish soldiers in uniform.

That's when she told me that they don't have tour guides dressed as civil war soldiers in period costume. She must have noticed me turning a bit pale at that point. You would think I had just seen a ghost. You would think.

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