Returning to the Spanish mainland for the first time in over 20 years brought back a tide of old associations. The last time I was in Madrid I was working with John Nicholson, now an SNP MP, then a Newsnight reporter, on a story about devolution Spanish style. But on my first visit, many years before, I’d been in the Plaza Mayor waiting to hear the venerable Communist leader Santiago Carrillo when the rally was suddenly cancelled. No reason was given and the stewards asked us to leave the square quickly and quietly, I could feel the tension in the air. The very next day, Civil Guard Colonel Antonio Tejero and 200 armed police took over the Cortes Parliament building. Many Spaniards feared at that moment in February 1981, known as F-23, that history was turning backwards to the era of the Spanish Civil War and Franco’s long dictatorship. But it did not, thanks to King Juan Carlos I’s denunciation of the coup attempt on national television.
These memories all flooded back when I joined a Civil War tour around the city led by historian Almudena Cros, on what I realised was the 80th anniversary of the Battle for Madrid. For her, it was not history. It was the necessary remembering of events buried in the “pact of forgetting” agreed by all parties in Spain’s transition from dictatorship to democracy. Almudena’s grandparents had lived through and, she’d discovered, been active participants in the defence of Madrid in 1936. It was not just a Spanish conflict: German planes bombed civilians in the streets and the International Brigade soldiers arrived from all over the world to fight for the Republican Government. Almudena showed us the bullet and shell holes in the Gran Via and out at the University City which became the front line for the three years of the war. She and others are working to help recover memories of the war before those who knew it die and leave their stories untold. My husband asked why relive what happened 80 years ago? Many Spaniards have asked the same question, preferring to forget. Spain may look modern now, but Almudena argued, the wounds will not heal unless they are acknowledged, not buried.
I took these thoughts with me south and west to join friends in the Extremadura countryside near Trujillo for a nature writing course. Birds, landscape, beauty would be my focus. But my mind kept turning back to the stories from the Civil War. Badajoz further south had been the scene of a terrible massacre by the rebel forces, they’d killed more than 1000 men in the city’s bullring and boasted of shooting 4000. The big landowners who dominated the province’s economy made sure Republican mayors and labourers who’d been pushing for land reform were targeted. Our host Martin said the atrocities were worse in the south because after Badajoz the Nationalist troops were hurrying to relieve the siege of the Alcazar at Toledo. But he’d been told there were deaths at Madrigalejo, where we watched the cranes and lapwings in the rice fields. And he’d met a man who as a boy in the 1950s remembered Republican guerillas coming down from their hideouts in the Monfrague hills asking for food.
There were no signs, no memorials to be seen, even the old Badajoz bullring has been torn down. But I kept getting a sense of two different Spains. As I walked round the medieval city of Caceres on a Saturday morning, I saw a crowd of well dressed people coming out of the Santa Maria Cathedral. The men were in suits, not uniforms, the women wore high heels, not mantillas, but they had an air of owning the place, of entitlement, that recalled the Pathe newsreels of Franco and his coterie coming out of a cathedral in Madrid or Avila. Before entering the square, I’d passed a middle aged man sitting selling tiny trees made of twisted copper wire, with a sign saying, “I’m an electrician, I am looking for work.”
The Extremadura landscape doesn’t offer its population much work. The “dura” in the region’s name refers to the Duero river, not the Spanish word for hard, but hard it is. The land is still held by few as it has been since the days of the Reconquista. The plains that run from Trujillo south to Merida and north to Jarandilla la Vera are “dehesa” or wood pasture, planted with holm oaks and cork oaks, grazed by pigs, cows and sheep. The oaks need pruning, but there’s little market for cork. And EU funds enable the landowners to fence their lands so the animals need next to no herders.
But some things in Spain have changed. In Merida we discovered the bars and restaurant of Nico Jimenez. He’s won Guinness Book of Records mentions for cutting the longest single piece of jamon Iberico and for making the only jamon beer. Nico embraces the twenty-first century motto, “A name, A brand”, with large TVs in each of his establishments displaying his selfies with every Spanish celebrity you can think of.
And celebrity is a big deal in Spain, one that’s rewriting history in the style of Hola magazine (itself an extremely successful Spanish export). On the TV was a new and lavish mini-series “What their eyes hid” produced by Telecinco and featuring as unlikely hero Franco’s brother in law Ramon Serrano Suner. But not as the hard line politician who was Franco’s enforcer and right hand man, instead played by Cuban actor Ruben Cortado as the smouldering lover of Madrid socialite the Marquesa de Llanzol. There are plot lines about how he fended off the Germans’ insistence Spain join the war in Europe, but its focus is on the adulterous affair and the heroine’s Balenciaga frocks.
A old scandal from the Franco days is proving more of an audience puller than news about the current divided state of Spanish politics, let alone reminders of the horrors of 80 years ago. But as I travelled the length of Extremadura, I recognised that I was following roads built by Romans, on which Arab invaders rode north and Christian knights south; roads on which conquistadors from Trujillo and Caceres set out to the ships that took them to the New World, and that carried the silver and gold treasure they sent back. Spain’s history is so vast and deep, the Civil War one dark chapter in it.
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