Spanish Adventures in the Last Days of Franco

On the roof of the small motor-room of a fifteen-storey building, a soldier manned a nasty-looking black machine gun. Guardia Civil sentries had protected the adjacent motorway bridge continuously since searching it the previous day for bombs. Soldiers and police, each with a pistol and sub-machine gun, stopped all traffic, leaving an eerie silence as the noise of the cars faded. Five motorway lanes in each direction, ten in total, plus bridges and underpasses, all empty. The aged and ailing General Francisco Franco, Spanish dictator for 36 years, had arrived back in Madrid for the last time.

Madrid is now a modern European city complete with skyscrapers, traffic jams and chronic air pollution. Progress has been good in most ways even if policymakers do drop the ball sometimes. Puerta Del Sol is modern and pedestrianised with pale grey Euro-granite paving. But fencing-in exceptional statues like mini-museums removed much of the old charm. The god of tourism has much to answer for.

We arrived in Spain in July 1975 to spend a year in Madrid while my father took up a post there, stopping for a holiday in the mountains where we’d been before and knew well. High up in the Pyrenees was a favourite destination, especially in the lightly developed 1970’s when tourism was scarce. Few visitors and the isolation of the villages meant little restriction and few intrusions by tourists into established ways. Once a week we’d visit the town market scouting for something interesting to wear or take home, or for some unusual food only available in the area. This was the era before the internet and before global brands exploded across our planet. Unusual chocolate and ice-cream brands were exciting for us children, yet to enter our teenage years.

The school year just ended was a nightmare. First year secondary school in Scotland was a different world in those days, with grim winter snow and slush providing a chilly backdrop for our gothic school buildings. In compulsory PE, 11-year-olds in shorts ran round frozen fields yelled at by teachers in warm clothes. Endemic corporal punishment caused occasional broken bones. I entered that corner of the animal kingdom armed with the survival instinct of a curious moth and learned to endure.

Life is either a daring adventure or nothing at all.

Helen Keller, The Open Door


It’s hard to imagine the advance planning and logistics needed for the year abroad. We rented out our house, lined up an apartment in Madrid, organised bank accounts and a thousand other things invisible to young people, all without internet or email in an era of hugely expensive phone calls. But, like any big journey, there’s great excitement setting off as departure draws a line under all the preparations. From that point on it’s an adventure and any overlooked preparation or untoward event on the way is dealt with on a scale ranging from adaptability to ‘character building’. Ahead of us was 1,500 miles in our Ford Transit home-built motorhome. Overloaded and underpowered it may have been, but we were self-contained and delighted to be heading south into sunshine and the unknown.

Treasure and Gemstones

Jumping into life in Madrid as youngsters from Scotland gave us a novelty value to help break the ice. In the weekdays we did just enough schoolwork to not fall behind then explored the many museums and landmarks. Like many European cities, wealthy monarchies created an abundance of treasured works over millennia, readily accessible in museums, galleries or in the well-preserved architecture. I remember a museum with every firearm you could imagine, from gold-inlaid to functional and from common examples of an era to unsuccessful experimental designs. And a similarly fascinating gemstone museum.

The world of motorbikes left behind in Scotland included a deafening Norton Commando passing at 7am most mornings, a friend’s Triumph Tiger Cub and admiring some Ariel square fours spotted on the way home one day. Madrid introduced fascinating new makes. Abundant unused land favoured trail bikes such as Ossa, Bultaco and Montessa. Spanish road bikes included Derbi and Sanglas.

I am a freedom fighter, you are a criminal, he is a terrorist: heritage and culture condition us to think democracy is good and dictatorship is bad. It’s more accurate to consider a fair and well-run democracy as good and an authoritarian or violent government as bad. For example, Iraq was ruled ruthlessly by the Saddam Hussein Regime until he was ousted by the international coalition and a democracy installed in 2003. It would be a mistake to consider Spain of the 1970s in the homogeneous light of dictatorships even though there was nothing remotely democratic about its governance. By the 70s Franco was an old man, a legacy of WW2, and politically Spain seemed like it was waiting until he died before normalising their politics.

I am a freedom fighter, you are a criminal, he is a terrorist

Dictator or not, living in Madrid was safe, happy and civilised. Moving around was cheap and easy with the Metro costing 5 Pesetas to go anywhere, that’s around €0.40 in today’s money. Spain was prosperous. The UK we left behind had major coal miner strikes and 3-day weeks to save energy. Power cuts were frequent calling for candles, lots of candles. Spain on the other hand had tremendous sports facilities, easy travel and an abundance of world-class places to see.

Typical 1970’s Small Spanish Car – Seat 133 By Charles01 — Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0

Fresh vegetables were abundant, as was fresh bread from the many small bakeries. It was no surprise that imported chocolate was expensive although we didn’t expect pricey meat.

The strikes in the UK had a bad effect on the British Pound reducing its value. At the same time, Spain was prospering and politics was normalising which increased the value of the Peseta. My dad had a fixed salary so those two situations put the squeeze on our family income, restricting us a little, but overall not preventing us from travelling to many parts of Spain during our year there.

Swimming with Snakes

We stayed in the east next to a herd of young bulls bred for fighting and swam in a freshwater pond with water snakes. Another time we visited Matalascañas, north of Cádiz, which today is a thriving golf area with hotels and supermarkets. But, in 1976, it was a scattering of a houses, only the occasional shop and sand-blown roads built into nowhere, ready for development. It looked like a town in a Western movie but the plan was in place and now it has indeed become an upscale holiday destination.

My abiding memory of Matalascañas is walking along the miles of deserted white sandy beach and getting caught in a huge thunderstorm. Inky black clouds and frequent lightening accompanied by torrential rain. Warm heavy rain. As we jogged back two Giardia Civil hailed us from a hut we’d not seen before. Inviting us in, we spent an amicable half hour drying ourselves all the while sharing barbequed shellfish at a barrel full of glowing charcoal.

Renovated buildings in Benasque

As a youngster, of course, any political dissent went entirely over our heads but after Franco died I still remember the strange paranoia that descended. Some people celebrated but, nationalist supporters mourned, by hanging the Spanish flag adorned with a black ribbon from their balcony. Some feared Franco was not dead and, suspecting a trick, preferred to wait and see. But we could sense change in the air and, leaving no time for plotting, Spain crowned Juan Carlos as King a brief two days after Franco’s death. To their great credit, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia steered Spain back to democracy, membership of the EU and left armed struggle and authoritarianism behind.

Life in the late days of Franco varied from perfectly normal to excellent. The international community rails against non-democracies and I’m not here to extol the virtues of authoritarian governments. But, in those days, in Spain, life was good and many of the serious problems of today just didn’t exist. Rather, I aim to highlight how a little adventure will find abundant culture and rich diversity when you go places everyone else doesn’t.

In 1975 we stepped off the tourist trail, drove the small roads and stopped often. Taking time to soak up the sounds and smells, you see new places like an artist about to paint the view. Those uncrowded days in well-known places may be long gone but I realised there’s always a road to nowhere and it’s always worth exploring.

Live, travel, adventure, bless, and don’t be sorry.

Jack Kerouac

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Writer & Coffee Drinker. Authenticity is the new zeitgeist.