Travels March 2008

The Caudillo’s Cloister

Searching for tranquility in the monastery Franco built
THE GRANITE CROSS at the Valley of the Fallen, near Madrid

The Sierra de Guadarrama, a 120-mile-long chain of mountains northwest of Madrid, has historically been a refuge for urbanites escaping the heat of the Castilian plain. The Spanish kings built summer palaces there, and their courtiers followed suit; even now, the Sierra remains a weekend and vacation destination for residents of the capital. Yet in recent decades, urban sprawl and the booming Spanish real-estate market have transformed much of the area into bedroom communities. Shopping centers and billboards are common sights.

The suburban atmosphere ends abruptly, though, at the Valley of the Fallen. For one thing, the entrance is manned by officers of the Civil Guard. A military-police guard for a monastery might seem odd, but the complex is part of the National Patrimony of sites officially belonging to the Kingdom of Spain. Because of its association with Franco, it is also a potential target of political violence (left-wing terrorists set off a bomb in the basilica in 1999).

A steep road leads from the gate up through three and a half miles of forest to the monastery. Along the way, signs warn of the fire hazard from accumulated pine needles, and of animals, such as wild boar, that might cross one’s path. Although the basilica is a popular tourist attraction on weekends, on the weekday afternoon in late spring when I arrived, mine was the only car on the road. Eventually I found myself in a large esplanade bounded on one side by the monastery and on the other by a guesthouse. After knocking on several doors, I located the padre hospedero, the monk in charge of guests. Although my arrival had interrupted his siesta, Padre Isidoro, as I’ll call him (he asked me, for the sake of humility, not to use his real name), was much friendlier, in a teasing way, than I had expected from his peremptory manner over the phone. Which was a good thing, since he was the only monk with whom I was supposed to speak.

After showing me to my room in the monastery (sparely furnished but spacious and clean, with its own bathroom and shower), Padre Isidoro gave me a tour of the monastery and its grounds: the cloister garden; the chapel, with its modern bas-reliefs of the miracles of Saint Benedict; the cemetery, where past members of the community are buried amid naturalistic arrangements of lichen-covered rocks; and above all, the cross—a granite icon that with its base stands almost a thousand feet tall and is visible from 25 miles away.

“This was an act of faith, no?” Padre Isidoro said, gazing up with evident satisfaction. “The cross by which we are all redeemed.” There seemed no point in mentioning that not everyone who built the cross or the structure beneath it did so out of faith. Many of the workers, at least 14 of whom died during construction, were political prisoners from the losing side of the civil war (they received time off their sentences for their “voluntary” participation).

Next Padre Isidoro gave me a copy of the schedule and rules. To my surprise, I saw that I was expected to attend the daily liturgy of the hours of Lauds, Vespers, and Compline, at 8:15 a.m., 7:30 p.m., and 9:30 p.m. respectively, as well as Mass at 11 a.m.—almost four hours of religious observances per day, with “punctuality recommended.” There was also a curfew of 10 p.m.—normally the start of the Spanish dinner hour.

With such a heavy worship regimen (I had frankly expected something a bit more laissez-faire), I would clearly have to scrap most of my tourism plans. I would not, after all, be taking in the area’s several medieval castles or the spectacular Roman aqueduct at Segovia. Nor would I be visiting the small Picasso museum in Buitrago del Lozoya, which houses a collection assembled by the painter’s longtime barber. Instead of sampling the exquisite cochinillo asado (roast suckling pig) for which the Sierra’s restaurants are renowned, I would be dining on potato salad and fried eggs in the refectory, eating in silence while one of the monks read aloud from the biography of a saint. It was just as well that I had no interest in the many local opportunities for rock climbing, because there would be no time for that, either.

Since I had no pious thoughts to occupy me, the solitude and silence to which I had so looked forward soon became oppressive. The experience began to feel like the opposite of Merton’s paradoxical freedom; now I understood why the words cloister and claustrophobia derived from the same root. To console myself, I opened a bottle of liqueur that I had bought at the guesthouse’s gift shop, originally as a souvenir. The copy of Benedict’s Rule in my room offered some justification for this indulgence: “making allowance for the weakness of the infirm,” chapter 40 grants each monk “one hemina [about 10 ounces] of wine per day.” Certainly the sweet liqueur, made from the monks’ own recipe, enhanced my enjoyment of chapel. At 76 proof, however, it was probably not the dosage Benedict had had in mind.

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Francis X. Rocca lives in Rome, where he is the Vatican correspondent for Religion News Service.

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