Visit Madrid's civil war sites 70 years on

This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the start of the civil war. Jeremy Atiyah traces the tide of battle from Madrid's trenches to the spot where a poet was killed
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The Independent Travel

Modern Spain is an optimistic, exhilarating country. People come here to enjoy themselves. They come to dance, to eat grilled sardines, to drink sangria, to lie on beaches, to visit modern art galleries, to stay in beautiful historic cities and towns. It is almost as if the events of 70 years ago never happened. But sadly, they did - which is why I'm touring Spain now, in search of any visible scars.

Madrid, which was under fascist siege for most of the war, is my starting point; I've just read Laurie Lee's account of arriving here in 1937. He had already begun to sense for the first time the "gaseous squalor of a country at war ... an infection so deep it seemed to rot the earth, drain it of life, colour and sound". Today, Puerta del Sol in the centre of Madrid teems with shoppers and tourists. In the anomalous year of 1937, all Lee noted here was emptiness and silence, with the cafés closed, a few huddled women queuing in shuttered shops, and a "fusty aroma of horses, straw, broken drains, and fevered sickness".

Even poor Ernest Hemingway, in town at the same time, was subject to privations. The Hotel Florida, where he was staying, suffered regular shelling. It was only thanks to his excellent connections with the Spanish government and the Russian general staff that he managed to procure any benefits at all. (Every morning, it was reported, the other guests in the hotel woke up to the smell of eggs, bacon, and coffee being prepared for Hemingway, courtesy of the Communist International.)

As for Civil War relics in Madrid, there is one obvious one, hanging in the Reina Sofia Museum: Guernica, Picasso's remarkable representation of the destruction of a small Basque town by aerial bombardment. The war has left other less obvious traces, too. In the Casa de Campo, the city's equivalent of Hampstead Heath, Republican trenches can still be seen, though they are generally unnoticed among the joggers and picnickers. Hemingway's Hotel Florida may have vanished, but if you want to see where the great meat-eater used to enjoy dinner, try El Botin at Calle de Cuchilleros 17, where the old oak beams and suckling pork are as they were.

And there is no need to stop with Madrid. The war was as pitiless elsewhere. In Toledo to the south, you can explore the mighty Alcazar, celebrated by Nationalists for the memory of Colonel Moscado, who barricaded himself inside here at the start of the war. You can still see the cellars where his people sheltered, as well as his own office, which has been left untouched since the siege, bullet holes and all. One of the most famous incidents of the entire war occurred here. A regretful telephone call came through to Moscado to inform him that his 24-year-old son Luis was being held prisoner, and would be shot within 10 minutes if the Alcazar were not surrendered to the Republicans immediately.

Moscado's brisk response was to shout to his son over the telephone: "Commend your soul to God, shout Viva España! and die like a hero! Goodbye my son, a last kiss!"

"Goodbye father," answered Luis. "A very big kiss."

Nobody in the war had a monopoly on atrocities. Down in moody Granada, Spain's most famous living poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, was at work on Bernarda Alba in the summer of 1936 when war broke out. He was a mere writer, but on 16 August, he was arrested in Granada by Nationalist forces who detested him for a hundred reasons. On the night of 18 or 19 August, he was driven to a remote point near the village of Viznar, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada, and shot dead. Apart from the volumes of sublime poetry, all that remains of Lorca today is a simple monument erected at the presumed site of his murder.

Meanwhile, it was to the north of Madrid that the worst battles of the war were being fought. The Guadarrama range, between Madrid and Segovia, was a bloody border area between the Nationalist and Republican lines; its hills and passes provide the location of For Whom the Bell Tolls. Hemingway is known to have carried out his research for the book by travelling the mountains by foot, horseback and car.

It is still a lovely area. The routes from Madrid and El Escorial to Segovia take you through it. And despite its increasing popularity as a weekend playground for Madrileños, who come skiing in winter and hiking in summer, it still remains largely the wilderness that Hemingway describes, dotted with remote villages. Not far from here is the "attraction" that most Madrileños shun: the Valley of the Fallen, Franco's Brutalist memorial to the civil war, a concrete cross nearly 150m high, built on a monstrous crypt hewn from solid granite. Franco himself was buried here in 1975.

Moving north into Aragon, you enter a landscape that is far harsher. This is a good region if you are in search of the unspoilt, but a very bleak region for fighting a war (as George Orwell found out). Its most disturbing monument is the small town of Belchite, 20 miles south of Zaragoza. Before the war it had been a busy little town of 4,000 souls; today it is ghost town, left as it was after its destruction nearly 70 years ago.

And finally to the east, to the sunny shores of the Mediterranean; these were the last Republican areas to fall to Franco. Orwell got his first sight of Barcelona in December 1936. "Every building of any size had been seized by the workers and was draped with red flags or with the red and black flag of the anarchists," he marvelled. "Every wall was scrawled with the hammer and sickle and with the initials of revolutionary parties; almost every church had been gutted and its images burnt ..."

To his delight, he saw only poor people in the town. Nobody was saying "Señor" or "Usted". On the Ramblas, Orwell described crowds of people who "streamed constantly to and fro" while loudspeakers "were bellowing revolutionary songs all day and far into the night". It wouldn't stay like that. When Orwell returned after four months at the front he found that everything had reverted. Suddenly, it was full of sleek men in suits smoking cigars and with fashionable girls on their arms again; all the revolutionary fervour had gone. Orwell had a shock in store. Suddenly, a battle broke out between the Anarchists and the Republican authorities. The Anarchists seized the telephone exchange. The Ramblas became the front line. Up at the Plaza de Catalonia every building became an armed fort. The Hotel Colon had a machine gun post right inside the first "O" of Colon, enabling it (according to Orwell) to "spray the square to good effect".

In today's Barcelona, amid the buskers and newspaper kiosks and old men feeding the pigeons, it all seems highly implausible. But if you raise your eyes above the heads of the sleek men and their fashionable girls you can still spot bullet holes in the walls of the old telephone exchange.

The last three days of March 1938 were effectively the last three days of the war. Valencia was among the very last towns to fall. As Nationalists entered the city, frightened women came forward to kiss their hands, while roses, mimosa and laurels were flung from the balconies of the middle classes. At the quays, there were scenes of mass panic, as thousands of Republicans attempted to flee the country by ship. The door was closing on Spain. It would not be a happy place to visit for another 40 years.

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