Drawbridge to Franco's castle raised by dictator's daughter

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The Independent Online

More than 30 years after the death of the dictator General Francisco Franco, his family appear to believe they are still above the law.

The descendants of El Caudillo (The Leader) have refused to allow the general public to see inside his former summer castle in Galicia, north-west Spain.

The sumptuous, turreted Pazo de Meiras castle, built in 1893, was given as a gift to the dictator by his own regime in 1939 at the end of the Civil War. Now the property of his daughter, Carmen Franco Polo, 80, it was declared part of Galicia's cultural heritage in 1991.

The authorities want to give the Spanish public the chance to see where the man who ruled over them with a rod of iron for 36 years, until his death in 1975, spent his summers in luxury. This week they sent an archaeologist, an architect and an art historian to assess the value of the castle and its six hectares (15 acres) of land.

The experts also planned to see if the property needed restoration before the public could be allowed limited access. But Ms Franco, who has repeatedly refused attempts by the authorities to get access to the property, took last-minute legal action to stop them entering the family seat.

The dictator's daughter, who commemorates the anniversary of her late father's death every November flanked by fascist extremists, launched an appeal in the Galician Supreme Court in an attempt to stop the public traipsing round the family's private property.

The experts were met at the doors of the castle by a lawyer, who informed them they could not enter as they would be breaking legal rights to private property. The response from the Galician Xunta, or regional government, was swift – the authorities countered with legal proceedings against Ms Franco.

Franco's family, who were once feared in Spain, could now face fines of ¿60,000 (£41,000) if they refuse to yield. The authorities argue the castle is part of Spain's cultural heritage and effectively public property.

The Pazo de Meiras, near La Coruña, was built by the writer Emilia Pardo Bazan, whose best known work, Los Pazos de Ulloa, is about a decadent aristocratic family. The castle was supposed to serve as a literary sanctuary where she could find peace to write.

The property was later bought by a group of local businessmen who supported General Franco. They levied a "popular subscription" in the region to finance the purchase of the castle for the country's cultural heritage.

Though the subscription was supposed to be voluntary, many public employees and workers in linked companies were obliged to give up a day's pay to pay for General Franco's summer retreat in his native Galicia. The castle was formally handed over in a pompous ceremony to Franco in 1939 by obsequious followers. It was later expanded to include six hectares of land when Franco expropriated local farms or homes.

The castle and its contents were damaged by a fire in 1978. But despite being classed as part of the region's cultural heritage of the country, it is not clear what art treasures the building contains.

The row comes as the Socialist government of the Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, is currently trying to pass a law to rehabilitate the memory of Franco's republican victims. The plan, which was criticised as divisive by the political right and as too timid by the left, appeared to be on the point of collapse. Legislators only have one more week to agree a deal or Mr Zapatero's flagship Law of Historical Memory may run out of parliamentary time.

About 300,000 people were killed in the Spanish Civil War between 1936 and 1939, after which tens of thousands of republicans died in reprisals, prisons and labour camps.