Monday, March 28, 2011

Spain and the lingering legacy of Franco

The fascist dictator's shadow still hangs over Spain – but can this generation or the next finally bring catharsis to the nation?

Everything is as grey as granite. The skies, the mountains, the enormous crucifix hewn from the mountain rock – said to be one of the tallest in the world – and, in its shadow, the vast basilica of Valle de los Caídos in the Sierra de Guadarrama, near Madrid, where rests the body of General Francisco Franco, the last dictator of Spain.

Inside is no different. The church is as wide and tall as any cathedral, the distance from entrance to altar long enough to rival St Peter's in Rome. And all of it is filled with the cold, stone grey of the mountains. Above the pews, standing like sentries on their outsized columns, loom hooded statue monks, their granite hands resting on unsheathed swords, as if ready.

At the altar 14 purple-clad Benedictine monks conduct morning mass, a solemn ceremony faithful to the most unchanged Catholic ritual. An altar boy rings a bell and, at that second, the lights are turned off, filling this cavernous place with darkness – save for the beam shining on Christ upon the cross.

There is no denying the sheer, intimidating power of both spectacle and location: the Catholic-raised translator at my side gasps, confessing that he has never seen anything like it.

Spain's socialist government understands the potency of Valle de los Caídos, or Valley of the Fallen. Indeed, much energy has been devoted to taming it. Since 2009, the site has been closed to general visitors; only those attending mass are allowed. Just to make sure, a guard hands arrivals a slip of paper, reminding them that they are there "for religious purposes only".

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