The Valley of the Fallen and El Escorial

Last weekend was our very first excursion trip. We left early Friday morning (as we never have class on Fridays) and our first stop was the Valley of the Fallen. I could go on for days about the interesting history surrounding this place because it’s centered on the Spanish Civil War which shook Spain to the core. The war is something that has been unanimously and silently decreed as something that isn’t discussed and should be forgotten. It’s actually quite a phenomenon that the entire country has selective amnesia regarding this rather recent period of their history. It’s understandably so since there was much bloodshed of innocents, betrayals, families torn apart, cultures suppressed, and heartache on both sides. Even the Nationalists who supported the dictator Franco have a difficult time talking about the war due to the shame they feel for their part in it. All in all, it is a very controversial topic that would never be brought up in public or even at the dinner table except in whispers and scattered hushed arguments. The Valley of the Fallen is a monument designed by Franco to commemorate all sides of the issue and it is where Franco himself is entombed. It also functions as a cathedral.

The entire place, I believe, can be summed up in the word eerie. It is situated high on a mountain and boasts a huge cross that can be seen for miles around. As we ascended the windy mountain road, we were enveloped in a cloudy mist. It was almost like the very elements forebode the monument. However even the frightening mood that hung in the air could not detract from the harsh beauty of the cathedral. As the largest cathedral building in the world (only part of it is dedicated to make sure that Saint Peter’s in Italy is the biggest), it looked more fitting to be in a fantasy tale of giants than a monument to a civil war. After studying the ornate sculptures and many tombs surrounding the great alter, we were shepherded to our seats for the beginning of mass. As this was my first real mass, I had a whirlwind of thoughts and questions in my head as I observed, but I couldn’t help but appreciate the beautiful order in which the service is conducted in. Suffice it to say that I will be attending another in the future to unravel more symbolism. At the conclusion of the service, we quickly exited the monument; but I couldn’t help but look over my shoulder as we descended the mountain. I can still see in my mind’s eye the contour of that great cross disappearing into the clouds.

Our next destination was El Escorial, a grand palace that was commissioned by King Phillip II and contains a monastery at its heart. King Phillip II was also a very interesting and influential character in Spain’s incredibly intricate history. During his reign, Spain reached the height of its influence as the country’s Golden Age. He was a lover of the arts, an introvert, and a devoted Catholic. He filled El Escorial with priceless paintings, many of which are now housed in the Prado; pushed the boundaries of the Spanish Empire; and had great foreign relations. The most stunning parts of El Escorial was the library and the cathedral. The library contained thousands of books lined with gold leaf and had the most impecable paintings decorating the ceiling. The most interesting detail of the cathedral was a small door right to the right of the high alter in which King Phillip II could enter without needing to mingle with the other church goers. It’s said that even on his deathbed, Phillip would open the door and listen to mass. I was impressed with this idea that one would go to such efforts to be so close to God. Although King Phillip and I definitely have disagreements on many things, I can definitely learn something from the example of a man that lived his life not only as prudently as he could, but also very conscious of self and what he valued.

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