Inside Spain’s most controversial site: Valley of the Fallen / Valle de los Caidos

In hindsight, it’s probably no surprise that after coming to Spain numerous times over several decades, I’d never heard of the Valley of the Fallen or Valle de los Caidos. Perhaps Spain’s most controversial monument, the Valley of the Fallen is a Basilica and a tomb that’s also a memorial to Spain’s war dead. Why the controversy? It has to do with who built it, how it finally came to be, and who’s buried inside. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

valey of the fallen valle de los caidos controversialVisiting Valley of the Fallen/Valle de los Caidos

Valley of the Fallen is about a 20 minute drive from the popular monastery-palace, San Lorenzo de el Escorial. It’s not easy to get to without a car; a tourist information officer in Madrid tells us there’s just one mid-afternoon bus per day to the site from the town of El Escorial, so unless you’re ultra committed to seeing it, or have a car, my guess is many people abandon their plans to visit. Which is apparently just how some Spaniards like it.

Visitors will be stopped at a gate and pay €9 each to drive in. From here it’s impossible to see or to know what awaits you.

Driving a winding mountain road towards the site we suddenly glimpse an absolutely massive stone cross jutting from the top of the granite mountain. It’s actually jaw-dropping how big and somewhat unexpected it is here in the middle of the woods.

At a fork in the road we get somewhat lost. We realize later we missed a sign, and there’s almost no visitors or staff up here, and the roads twist in a circle. We end up parking at what turns out to be the back of the monument, where a huge monastery and school are laid out in a grid at the base of the cross we saw from a distance.

Up close to the cross

valey of the fallen valle de los caidos controversial

The Cross, as seen from the rear of the site, near the monastery.

Up here we’re quite close to the cross and can see there are huge and beautiful sculptures at its base. We end up going into some empty rooms before realizing we’re not actually at the site, and instead we’re now snooping through the clergy’s offices so we quickly back out and return to the car to do another loop.

Finding the turn we missed the first time, we drive to main site, the Basilica of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen. The huge main entrance is flaked by two stone porticos that stretch out like arms, making this area and the patio they encircle seem absolutely huge.

Why a massive monument in the middle of nowhere?

So why a monument and Basilica out here, in the middle of nowhere, atop a wintry mountain? This terrain was where some of the Spanish Civil War was fought and there’s said to be tens of thousands of soldiers who found their final peace here in these forests where they fell.

Knowing the area was a massive graveyard of sorts, Spanish Dictator Francisco Franco commissioned “a national act of atonement” and declared this area the Valley of the Fallen. He ordered the construction of a lofty monument, which would house the remains of the war dead (though it’s very unclear to me if soldiers are actually buried inside the monument at all. Some articles I’ve read seem to say there are people buried behind the walls, while others paint as more of a shrine. Still other news items reference men buried under the structure, and a further article I read saw a Spaniard demanding his relative be exhumed from the site, since he was a victim of Franco’s brutality, and the family was incensed at him laying beside the man responsible for his demise).

Spain’s most controversial site: why Valle de los Caidos is so controversial

So where’s the controversy? For starters, prisoners were “invited” to take part in the construction of the Basilica, which was to be blasted deep into into the mountainside beginning in 1940. In exchange for their labours, they’d receive reduced sentences. Many died here.

valey of the fallen valle de los caidos controversial


Then there are the companies in Spain that were asked “donate” materials and resources for the construction. When that wasn’t enough, a National Lottery was held and “donations” requested from rich citizens and corporations. It took nearly 20 years to complete the ambitious project.

General Francisco Franco’s burial site

The other sore spot about this monument is the two men buried beneath it: Generalissimo Francisco Franco, and nobleman and political leader Jose Antonio Primo de Rivera, who was executed during the Civil War.

Franco in particular is a divisive character in history. He opposed Spain becoming a republic, eschewed democracy and was aligned with Nazi Germany, to put several decades into a nutshell. He’s credited with being responsible for the deaths of more than 400,000 political opponents during his regime. He died as Caudillo of Spain in 1975.

Proposal to move Franco’s tomb from Valley of the Fallen

Numerous proposals have been made to move him and Rivera from the site, but so far they’ve not gained traction. On the day we visit there are several bouquets of flowers on Franco’s tombstone, despite the fact many citizens see this monument as a testament to Franco’s brutalist regime and decades-long abuses of power.valey of the fallen valle de los caidos controversial

The long march: beautiful sculpture, quiet darkness

Despite Franco’s place in history, his tombstone is rather plain and bears only his name, with no hint about his long history. To get to his resting place, visitors march down a dark corridor or nave that could easily house a couple of football fields and a small apartment building.

Lining the sides are beautifully brutalist and austere granite sculptures of apostles with appropriately grim expressions. The ambient light cast from illuminating the sculptures tries and fails to spill to the centre of the monument making it both grim and sombre. At the centre, well inside and deep under the mountain, is the cupola of the Basilica.valey of the fallen valle de los caidos controversial

Spain’s leakiest monument, with government funded buckets

Interestingly, there’s evidence of water leaking in everywhere. So much so that the Spanish government has commissioned attractive metal buckets on wheels that are the size of small dumpsters to collect the drippings. When we ask a guard about the water, she admits the mountain is leaking constantly.

On the day we visit we see just four other tourists. Shocking that this might be one of Spain’s least well-known monuments, just kilometers from the El Ecorial UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Back outside in the daylight we stand quietly and take in the views of the 500 foot stone cross as it towers over the Basilica. It’s a very impressive site, no matter which way you feel about its history.


  1. Brenda Williamson on February 13, 2018 at 2:34 am

    Thank you, dear Erin, for this fascinating, informative article; it was wonderfully descriptive and I enjoyed reading it!
    (have to say, I do not think I would like to visit this monument, myself)

    • erinL on February 13, 2018 at 7:01 am

      Thanks for reading Brenda! It was certainly interesting.