Frontline drama in Spain

Alasdair Fotheringham follows the first heritage trail to focus on the Spanish Civil War

Should we really be surprised that Spain's first heritage trail on its Civil War – in the woodland sierras north of Madrid – is far from being a swanky, state-of-the-art affair?

Quite apart from the austerity measures wreaking havoc in the country's public funds, the 1936-39 conflict remains a delicate subject for Spain's older generations. It pitted the fragile elected government on the Republican side against the Nationalist rebels led by General Franco – who subsequently became Spain's fascist dictator for 36 years. It is believed that 140,000 Republicans killed by Nationalist death squads remain unidentified in mass graves on the country's quieter roadsides and mountain ravines

So perhaps it is appropriate that there are no explanatory signboards (although, apparently, these will be installed soon) to indicate where this trail starts, let alone a visitors' centre or car park. Instead, there is just a half-metre-high metal post with three words on it: Ruta Guerra Civil (Civil War Trail).

The trail was created by the Madrid regional government's cultural heritage department. Feeling distinctly un-bombarded by information, you follow the sign up a rutted moorland track to the edge of a wood.

Shimmering in the distance behind you is all the explanation you really need for why this segment of frontline between the Nationalist and Republican sides in the Civil War was so important. It was known as the Frente del Agua (The Water Frontline). Eighty years ago the reservoir of Puentes Viejas was Madrid's only water supply. Had the Republicans lost the reservoir, the odds are they would quickly have lost the Spanish capital and the Civil War.

Instead, after a ferocious battle which ended in stalemate, the Republicans held their position, the reservoir and Madrid. They maintained control right until the end of the conflict, on 1 April 1939, when the capital fell without a shot being fired. And as one of the most solid frontlines of the war, its comparative isolation has allowed the Frente del Agua to become one of Spain's best preserved battlegrounds.

Once inside the sizeable wood of tall firs and holm oaks, a rough forest track winds its way upwards to the main frontline that was once "home" to around 4,000 troops. From time to time, small wooden posts for the Guerra Civil trail indicate a dozen different locations of machine-gun posts, sniper positions, and what investigating archeologists say are "hundreds of kilometres of trenches", even a command post. This was, in the words of Republican general Vicente Rojo, central Spain's "most important series of fortifications."

The first signpost, on the right, is up to the Loma Quemada (Burnt Slope) defence system, a large series of sharply undulating Republican trench networks. Now smothered in a dense orange bed of pine needles, in the eerie silence it is hard to imagine their importance. Until, that is, you walk a little further and the trenches' commanding position over a heart-stopping descent into a valley below suddenly explains things.

A few hundred metres on, another tiny metal sign points towards one of three machine-gun posts. This one, a Republican strongpoint of reinforced concrete and brick 10m high, is sunk deep into the hillside. When you clamber down a narrow earth stairway, there is barely room to stand and just two giant but painfully narrow slits for visibility and ventilation. For a clammy, claustrophobic atmosphere, it seems difficult to match – until I cross the former frontline (indicated by two tiny posts on each side of the forest track) and find two more, even better preserved Nationalist mini-fortresses.

Like the first strongpoint, the Nationalist lines have withstood the test of time almost perfectly. Narrow slits point ominously at the frontline. The final construction, reached after about 3km of steady woodland walking, looks even more unchanged. It is a Nationalist command centre with two large rooms inside, plus a well-preserved fireplace. The date engraved on the doorway plinth, May 1938, tells you when it was built. The huge Fascist arrows-and-yoke symbol carved on the wall outside tells you which side it was built for. Look for Arriba España – the Nationalist salute, meaning "Onwards Spain" – engraved on the doorposts.

The delay in creating the first Civil War heritage trail is only partly explained by Spain's chronic inability to find closure for some of the conflict's legacies. As Inmaculada Rus, an archeologist with the cultural heritage department, explains, Spanish legislation for the establishment of historical sites that are less than 100 years old came into force only this year. But she says interest in such places is growing fast: "This one in particular remains in very good shape, because there has been very little urban development. The only real change since the war is that the trees have grown a lot higher."

As an archeologist, she believes "it's our obligation to bring this heritage out to the light. Then what you think of it is up to you. This is a way of normalising things." A heritage trail, then, that leads to more places than one.

Getting there

The easiest way is by car. Drive north on the A-1 from Madrid towards Burgos for around 60km and then take the exit at km67 towards M-135/Mangiron. After 10km, take the left-hand road towards Montejo de las Sierra and cross the head of the Puentes Viejas reservoir. After 200m, on the left, is a small sign marking the start of the trail. The trail takes roughtly three hours. Bring walking shoes and be prepared for a scramble.

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Bid / Tender Writing Executive

    £24000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: With offices in Manchester, Lon...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Executives / Marketing Communications Consultants

    Competitive (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a number of Marketi...

    Recruitment Genius: Marketing Executive

    £20000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established business ...

    Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester

    £25000 per annum + Benefits: Ashdown Group: Management Accountant - Manchester...

    Day In a Page

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...