Shafts of Friday evening sun spear us through the windscreen of my friend’s sportscar, stuck in the middle of the herd of metal beasts, crawling and jostling their way out of Madrid. She has invited me for the night to stay with her family in Galapagar, a little town in the mountains that circle the city. We stop on a motorway bridge, hemmed in by traffic, and as the engine thrums, I notice something.
‘Hey, isn’t that Franco’s old weekend house?’
It perches atop a hill to our right, a little crown on a perfectly round pate. I recognise it now, other friends had pointed it out to me a few weeks previously on the way to Torrelodones, to another family visit.
‘Is it?’ My friend strumms her fingers on the steering wheel and peers across me, squinting into the sun.
‘The one they tried to turn into a hotel, or sell, or something?’
‘- And they weren’t allowed to, because it’s Patrimonio Nacional.’ (A heritage site). ‘My mates told me they tried to go up there and visit it in their car a while back. Look at it, stuck right on top of the hill, you’d think it was easy enough to get to. But they said once you started driving up there it’s all overgrown with trees and stuff, all twisty and turny, lots of fake turnings and dead ends, like it’s designed to stop you getting to the house. Probably for privacy, or more like security. They never made it up there in the end, they said they gave up, going round and round in the woods. And they said it was really creepy. Then when they went back another time, it was all blocked off anyway and you couldn’t even drive anywhere near it.’
The car nudges forward no more than an inch, growling at the glittering bodies that surround us.
‘Then they stopped at a turning, this second time they were looking for it, and they asked some local for directions, yeah, I know, it sounds like the beginning to some really bad Horror story, and this local guy started talking to them about the house. Apparently, after Franco died there were squatters in there, in the eighties, and they built fires in the main hall, and ruined all the ceilings, smoke-damaged the lot. And there was an entire church organ, ‘stolen,’ and all the fittings from a church in Valencia, and brought up here and installed in his house. That was ripped out after he died and returned to the original church.’
The house broods on top of the hill, overseeing the wide open hills all around us.
‘It looks like the Adams Family house. Gives me the creeps. Nice scenery though…’
‘I prefer that scenery,’ observes my friend.
A young man strides past the car on the motorway bridge. He is dressed in tracksuit bottoms, a tight t-shirt, and his hair is messed up, as though he has been playing tennis, or swimming maybe. He cuts in front of the hilltop house, going who knows where, his arm curved powerfully to grip the sports bag slung over his shoulder. He is handsome, and slightly sweaty. This image stays in my mind for the rest of the drive to Galapagar. It sums up so perfectly what Modern Madrid can be: the hot yellow of the late sun, the glitter and choke of traffic, the ghost of the toppled dictator hovering in the background like some Hammer House joke, personified by this sinister-looking, isolated mansion reduced to a shell, its insides gutted, rotten and laid low by squatter-hippies, and here in the foreground- beautiful, bristling, masculine bravado in a tracksuit, a glimpse of fading machismo, passing quickly, just out of reach.