The Caudillo’s Cloister

Searching for tranquility in the monastery Franco built

Part of me has always wanted to be a monk. Ever since I read Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, in my senior year of college, I’ve fantasized about forsaking worldly cares and goods for what Merton called the “four walls of my new freedom.” And like many other moviegoers, I was captivated by the image of cloistered life in the recent surprise hit Into Great Silence, a documentary about a Carthusian monastery in the French Alps. That film’s vision of order and peace seemed the perfect antidote to the 21st-century lifestyle. Though I had not practiced Catholicism or any other faith since I was 12, I longed to partake of such tranquility, at least for a few days.


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Slideshow: "An Unquiet Grave"

Francis X. Rocca narrates photos from his monastic tour of the Valley of the Fallen and the Escorial.

"The Travel Advisory"
Where to stay and what to see

As it happens, monasteries are commonly accessible to outsiders, and always have been. In his seminal Rule for the religious life, the sixth-century Saint Benedict of Nursia enjoined his followers to “let all guests that come be received like Christ Himself.” Among those guests were the crowned heads of Europe, who during the Middle Ages were drawn to monasteries, abbeys, and convents by their vitality as centers of learning and culture, and by the presence of holy men (or women) who would pray for royal souls after death. Sticking close to monks also reinforced the all-important belief that the sovereign ruled by divine right.

Nowhere were such institutions more prominent than in Spain, where monasticism retained its influence far longer than elsewhere in western Europe. As late as the second half of the 16th century, King Philip II built the Royal Monastery of San Lorenzo of the Escorial, a masterpiece of Renaissance architecture 30 miles outside of Madrid. And just a few miles from the Escorial is the youngest royal monastery in Spain, finished only half a century ago. What makes the monastery of the Holy Cross of the Valley of the Fallen more than just an anachronistic curiosity is the fact that it is part of a complex built by the dictator Francisco Franco to memorialize those killed in the Spanish civil war. Franco himself lies buried in the basilica, near some 40,000 of those who died in battle.

When I learned that the Valley accepts guests, in both the monastery and external lodgings, the idea of staying with the monks immediately intrigued me. Not only could I satisfy my desire for a retreat; I might also learn something about the relationship between religion and temporal power. How, I wondered, did the monks carry on under the burden of their institution’s origins? And could a stay inside Franco’s monastery help me to understand the mind-set of a man who styled himself “Caudillo of Spain by the grace of God”?

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.

FRANCO'S TOMB, in the Valley's underground basilica

I did manage to get out long enough to visit the Escorial. The building tends to inspire strong, even violent, reactions, and it’s not hard to see why: its austerity and symmetry can seem cold, even inhumane. Nor does it help that its founder played a leading role in the “black legend” of Spanish Catholic fanaticism. (Philip, who ordered the Armada to sail against England, was at the Escorial when he learned of its defeat.) The British historian Hugh Trevor-Roper called the building, with its collection of 7,000 saints’ relics, an expression of Philip’s “cannibal egotism.” Franco, who considered himself Philip’s heir as defender of Spanish Catholicism, clearly took Juan de Herrera’s design for the Escorial (readily identifiable by its peaked slate roofs and paucity of ornament) as inspiration for his own monastery-mausoleum. Back at the Valley, with the Escorial fresh in my mind, I found this influence both striking and illuminating.

Each morning, at 20 minutes before 11, I followed the monks down a 300-foot-long passageway, up which a frigid draft blew constantly. The tunnel, cut straight into the mountain, was lit by candelabra fitted with dim energy-saving light bulbs, and evoked the set of an old Christopher Lee horror movie. At the far end was an elevator that took us more than 150 feet down to the basilica, also known as the crypt—the heart of the complex.

Carved out of the mountain, and in the shape of a cross, the sanctuary is 850 feet long; the main altar sits under a dome more than 120 feet tall at its peak. The barrel-vaulted nave made me think of a Washington, D.C., subway station, only with tapestries depicting the Apocalypse hanging from the walls. There is practically no natural light, and at the moment of consecration during the Mass, the entire space goes dark except for a pair of spotlights trained on the altar. The place feels just like what it is—a gigantic tomb.

In fact, darkness is one of several features that starkly distinguish the Valley from the Escorial, which, in spite of its coldness, is a vast receptacle of light, with hundreds of windows and more than a dozen courtyards. The two constructions are also hugely separated by standards of quality. From the granite-and-marble statues of Old Testament kings above the main courtyard, to the blue azulejo tiles in the royal apartments (to say nothing of the Titians, El Grecos, and Riberas), the Escorial has borne up splendidly over four centuries. The Valley is already going to seed. Water stains that look like streaks of guano from enormous pigeons mar the basilica’s walls. The colossal statue of Saint John the Evangelist, at the base of the mountaintop cross, is missing a chunk of his left foot. Above all, the Escorial’s harmonious proportions put the oppressive gargantuanism of the Valley to shame.

As the Escorial is a monument to Philip’s Hapsburg dynasty, the Valley is unabashedly a monument to Franco, who lies buried behind the main altar, his gravestone always covered with fresh flowers. The Caudillo’s coat of arms is carved three times into every one of the basilica’s pews and also above the door to the choir in the apse. Yet for the work of a 20th-century tyrant, the Valley is in a way remarkably modest. Franco’s name is present only on his gravestone, and his image is nowhere to be found. Where Stalin or Saddam would have crowned the edifice with a self- aggrandizing statue, Franco put a cross.

It was an astute choice. Three decades after the advent of Spanish democracy, the cross is still there; a statue surely would not be. The Valley is thus a fitting symbol of Franco’s regime, which owed its longevity largely to its symbiosis with the most-traditional elements in Spanish society and culture, and with none more closely than the Church.

Padre Isidoro referred to Franco often during my visit, and always with respect, but never in a political context, only as founder of the Valley. Politics is something the monks obviously wish they could forget all about. He also showed me a book by one of the monks, for sale in the guesthouse foyer (though not in the basilica gift shop, where most visitors go). The book, whose cover bears a photograph of its subject kneeling in prayer, is titled Francisco Franco: Exemplary Christian. Just the way he wished to be remembered.