I first went to Spain when I was a kid back in the 1970s. It was still ruled by the dictator General Francisco Franco back then and, although tourists were only vaguely aware of it, there was widespread and ruthless suppression of dissent. Franco was a Fascist, a religious conservative and a man who ruled his country with an iron fist for almost four decades. After that first visit I have been back to Spain four times since the death of Franco and, on every occasion, I have been heartened by how enthusiastically and how totally the great majority of Spaniards have broken from the past. No-one gets dragged out of his or her bed at four in the morning to be tortured in some filthy cell any more and people can and do say what they like.
However the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s is still a sore point for many. Thousands died on both sides and many, including the Granadan poet, Federico Garcia Lorca, still lie in unmarked mass graves. For better or worse the Spanish government is currently excavating some of these sites and giving relatives of the missing the chance to have their DNA compared to that of recovered bodies from the mass graves. Similarly, Franco’s great monument to his Fascist army, the Valley of the Fallen, is under review. Some of the men buried there were basically war criminals and the modern Spanish state would like their remains to be removed to ordinary cemeteries. Only the giant cross that stands at the head of the valley will, eventually, remain. It is too hard to dismantle and besides it is a religious symbol which is apolitical and therefore benign.
But Spain will come to terms with its past because when it comes to events that go back hundreds of years, it has already acknowledged what happened and moved on. I had never been to Andalucia until this current trip. I had mainly roamed in the north of the country and so places like Granada were completely new to me. Of course it rained like a wet day in Manchester when we went to see the Alhambra, but then that was no surprise to one who saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time through a sheet of rain in mid-July. However on the day we went to the mountain town of Ronda the sun shone gloriously.
Ronda is an ancient and stunning white town high up in the mountains above the Costa del Sol. Cut in two by a deep, but narrow gorge called the Tajo, Ronda was once an Arab town ruled by the Granadan Caliphate. In spite of its very Christian appearance now, it still retains many exquisite buildings from its Islamic past. A town loved by Gustav Dore and Ernest Hemingway, Ronda is also the birthplace of bullfight with one of the oldest working Plaza de Toros in the country.
However much as all of this was very fascinating, my interest was caught by a museum called the Museo Lara. Housed in a cool and attractive palacio, the Museo Lara represents a lifetime of random collecting. There are exhibitions of clocks and watches, fans, bullfighting ephemera, carriages, film posters, porcelain, surgical instruments, I could go on and on and on. Museo Lara actually reminded me of a weird little museum of ‘everything’ I once went to in Ilfracombe, Devon – with some exceptions. Down in the basement of the Museo, well sign-posted and on recommendation from the curator, my family and I entered the ‘Inquisition’ exhibit. This was a collection of instruments of torture as used by the ‘Holy’ Inquisition. Blood curdling descriptions of what these things actually did were displayed alongside a life history of the Inquisition’s most famous member, Tomas Torquemada. As the great Monty Python once said, ‘Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!’ And indeed I hadn’t been expecting to find their ignoble trail while I was in Spain. But I was wrong. People were very open both about the existence of the Inquisition and about the horror of what it did. It is a nightmare that has been come to terms with and exorcised. That was then, this is now and we no longer kill people because of their beliefs.
The Civil War, however, is still within living memory and the scars that surround it are still sore. That said, Spain can and will eventually come to terms with what happened in the 1930s and exorcise it just as surely as it has exorcised the Inquisition. Everyone expects even that particular wound to heal up eventually.