Palacio del Infantado
Our arrival in Spain was rather different from Alice’s. In July 1937 she took the train down to Perpignan and in the company of other volunteers, crossed to Figueras, the meeting point for many of the international brigades. In September 2019 we crossed the bay of Biscay in a Brittany Ferry in the company of many seasoned second homers, some accompanied by their dogs. Plug-in food coolers were the accessory of choice and shorts and sweatshirts the prevailing fashion. Alice, however, arrived with virtually no possessions and had to rely on Dora for the gift of a coat.
After an initial night in Bilbao we proceeded to Guadalajara, which was Alice’s first assignment. In 1936 Guadalajara had been the scene of a fierce battle between the Republicans and the Nationalists, mostly represented by Italian troops sent across by Mussolini to help Franco. Most of the fighting took place in surrounding villages, which were reduced to mounds of rubble and the skeletons of buildings, but Guadalajara itself had seen some direct fighting and bombing, thus seriously damaging the old Renaissance style building of the Palacio del Infantado. By the time Alice arrived, the Nationalists had been repulsed and peace had once again descended on the town, although signs of the hard-fought battle were all around her.
Guadalajara is a small town, sixty kilometres to the east of Madrid. We approached it from the north and soon found ourselves driving down a cool and spacious tree-lined avenue, at the end of which stood our large modern hotel. Having settled in, we went to explore. A few steps on from the hotel, we were greeted by the majesty of the Palacio del Infantado, now lovingly restored, its golden stone bathed in late summer sun. Accounts of the bombing were on the plaque outside, although which side was responsible for the bombing was strangely absent.
Convento de San Jose
We were in search of the Carmelite convent where the international brigade hospital was situated and found it soon enough, still operating as a convent and promoting as a major historic event the torture and killing of three of its nuns during the civil war and their subsequent beatification. We were allowed to go in and visit the church, which involved talking to a nun (in Spanish) and asking to be allowed in. I understood that we needed to push a button next to a door further along the street. Having managed this successfully, we found ourselves in a dark interior, barely able to discern where the floor was after the brightness of the sunlight outside. The church was empty and silent apart from us and the door locked behind us with a click. A typical ornate and gilded altarpiece adorned the eastern wall and a huge painting of the three murdered nuns was on the right hand side. To the left of the altar, effigies of the same three nuns looked out through an iron grille, above a repository for their bones. At the back of the chapel a gallery covered by an iron grille allowed the nuns still living in the convent to take part in the services. Only dead nuns had the privilege of witnessing services from inside the church. I wondered what the chapel had been used for when it was a hospital, maybe as a ward for the injured. There was no mention anywhere of the interbrigadist hospital, only the fact that the convent buildings had survived the war and the nuns had then been able to return.
When we came to leave the chapel, my instructions in Spanish failed me and I had a moment of panic as we tried various ways of getting out of the chapel to no avail, until finally we found the right button for our release.
We decided to try and find some information about Guadalajara during the civil war as none was available in general tourist information. We went to the library and for a small town, actually for any town, the library was impressive. It was on three floors, well staffed, furnished with large airy study spaces and we were soon shown to the local history section where we were able to go through photograph books with pictures of the battle of Guadalajara. Here, the destruction of the surrounding villages was clear and there were some individual photographs of an ambulance, but nothing on the hospital. However, taking the short walk from the convent to Plaza Major and along the main street, I could imagine the town filled with soldiers and wounded, the hospital staff coming off shift and meeting in the little street bars. It was so compact, that every few yards you would meet someone you knew. The newer part of the town stretching below what would have been the ruins of the Palacio del Infantando would not have been there, instead the beginning of farms and fields.
The new town now tells a contradictory story. Because Guadalajara was seen as a “defeated city” (after Franco’s final victory), it was starved of funds and allowed to decay. It is only in recent years that there has been investment and an effort to promote the town as a dormitory for Madrid, as yet not very successfully. Despite the efficient new rail line into Madrid, many of the apartment blocks sit empty and in some cases, unfinished. So the hopeful rebirth of this town is still to come.
The next day, as we left the hilltop town, all the old streets felt familiar and well-known, how much more strongly must Alice have felt after her few weeks here in such an intimate and intense community. She left just as plans were being made to move the hospital to the coastal town of Benicasim and although she knew the removal was imminent, she was forced to leave early to visit Albacete where Otto Schling was suffering from typhus and needed to be repatriated to Czechoslovakia.
We too, therefore, were making the journey to Albacete. The journey took us on excellent and almost empty roads and was spectacular. The first part curved up and down the cultivated hilly slopes, stubble giving way to vines and then to olive trees. We wound round the curving mountain sides, encountering few cars and isolated villages. Every so often the vistas opened out and we could see for miles across the plain spreading out below us. Finally we reached the bottom and then, in the midday heat, we drove along through endless flatness with no respite from the blazing sun. I had read that Alice had walked this journey; this seemed impossible. I think what she meant was that she had not been able to take a train as they were all in use for troop movements. She meant that she had to travel under her own steam, hitching lifts in army trucks or farm carts and still the voyage must have lasted some days, through the baking heat and unrelenting glare of the plain, or climbing steep farm tracks.
For us, it was an easy four hour trip. Albacete, central distribution point for the international brigades, awaited us.