I had told my Taiwanese friend Jon I’d take him for a nice mountain walk in the Madrid sierra, but that Sunday in October turned out unusually cold and windy, so we avoided ridge walks and settled, instead, for a relaxed walk starting starting from beautiful La Jarosa reservoir, close to Guadarrama village.
As we chatted about food, travel and life in general, we slowly made it up the intricate system of local dirt roads and trails leading to a pass offering sights on the huge cross.
“This is Valle de los Caídos”, I announced.
“Beautiful”, he replied.
“Well…It’s controversial. Franco had the losers of the Spanish Civil War build it as a homage to the winning side. You know who Franco was, right?”
Jon had the blankest look on his face.
I started telling him the story, but cut it short and simple. I realized then that, somehow, I had assumed that anybody settling in Spain for any period longer than a quick holiday would receive an orientation package featuring basic Spanish culture and history. And how the hell can you understand Spain without knowing about Franco? How on earth can you take in the sight of Valle de los Caídos as if you were enjoying a secluded meadow or a waterfall? I mean – the connotations of the place!
I was right, in a sense. Jon had received an orientation package, but the topics were chocolate con churros, football rivalries and popular nightlife venues rather than dictatorship and regional diversity.
And so we kept walking, until we bumped into one of the longest staircases I have ever seen.
“Seems like stairway to heaven” I joked, not sure whether ACDC was big in Taiwan too.
We made it all the way up, and there was more stone. Chapels, more staircases, stations of a Gargantuan Way of the Cross. Back home, I read up about it. Almost 5 kilometres of an unfinished Via Crucis, intended to be the biggest in the world, and boasting over 2700 granite steps.
There was also a lookout affording view of more familiar peaks and where a strong wind made it hard to linger. As Jon sought refuge behind the walls of the main chapel, Altar Mayor, I dwelt in the view. The trees, the peaks in the distance. It was all there before us and, hopefully it will remain when we leave. And, sooner than that, when people can walk around these stones and just enjoy the quirky combination of nature and ignominy, without asking further questions.