A dictator's retreat lies in ruins

Canto del Pico, in the northwest of Madrid, was once a home for nobility The weekend haunt of General Franco is now being allowed to fall into disrepair

The mansion of Canto del Pico, in Torrelodones.
The mansion of Canto del Pico, in Torrelodones.SANTI BURGOS / EL PAÍS

It was once a residence of the Conde de las Almenas, who built it in 1920, as well as a weekend retreat for ex-dictator General Franco and his family. But the mansion of Canto del Pico, classified as a monument of historic interest, now stands abandoned, with attempts to convert it into a luxury hotel having failed.

The house-cum-museum is visible from miles around, perched atop a rocky hill in the northwest of the Madrid region. But at the present rate of deterioration, with no maintenance work in the last 30 years, it may not be on view much longer. "People see no further than the fact it was used by Franco, and this was just one episode in a house and estate of great architectural value, which is being allowed to go to waste," says Isabel Pérez van Kapell, a landscaper and expert on Canto del Pico.

Stoyman Holding Ltd. (SHL) purchased the 83-hectare estate from Franco's heirs in 1988 for 1.8 million euros. The partners dreamed of building a luxury hotel on the hilltop, located in the Upper Manzanares Valley Regional Park, commanding a view of Madrid. They are still hopeful, they say, though obstacles have littered their path, such as license problems in the protected area. "Bureaucracy like you can only find in Spain," in one partner's opinion.

SHL obtained a municipal works permit in May 1991. It took nine months to begin work, and then the local authority withdrew the license on grounds of excessive delay. An inoperative crane sat on the site for months. The company tried again, claiming that the municipality's "administrative silence" had been negligent and abusive. A court ruled in the town's favor in 2011.

People see no further than the fact that Franco used it," says one expert

In spite of this setback, the firm believes there will be no problem if it decides to request another license to build the hotel, for which 20 rooms are planned, with another 30 in two adjacent structures, a covered swimming pool and parking for 100 vehicles.

In the company's favor they adduce that in 1990 the regional government modified the legislation applicable to protected parkland, allowing them to build. But while a solution is pending, the palatial house is falling apart.

A row of 10 Gothic arches from a 14th-century cloister in the monastery of Santa María de Valldigna in Catalonia once adorned the building. The Catalan regional government, having paid a million euros for them, dismantled and returned them to the monastery in 2007, promising to produce an exact copy and install it in Canto del Pico.

But this has not happened, says the company, and not through any fault of the Catalan authorities. "We can't put up the arches because there is only one security guard, in the daytime - it's all we can afford. Yet this does not prevent people from coming and damaging the building. Five years ago, they destroyed 10 Roman columns. We can't give them a copy to wreck," says one partner.

Such penury was hardly the order of the day when José María del Palacio y Abárzuza, the third Conde de las Almenas and a fervent collector, built the palace with architectural elements of diverse style purchased here and there in Spain. It was even classified as a historic monument in 1930, and later, in 1955, received tax exemption as a "state museum," according to documents from the Madrid College of Architects.

It has also suffered through tougher times, as when the regional government attempted to downgrade its national-monument status to a lower bracket in 2004, saying that it had lost much of its value over the years. But there have been ups as well as downs: in November 2005, then-mayor of Torrelodones, Carlos Galbeño, announced that he had reached an "historic agreement" for the house to become public property.

His intention was to exchange a piece of municipal land for the SHL property, and thus use both the palace and its surrounding land as a public park. This was a first step, to be confirmed in a definitive agreement six months later. The cost of repair work, not yet quantified, was to be co-financed with the regional government. But the next step was never taken, and no more has been heard of it.

Years go by, and the impasse continues. Ruin is taking hold in the mansion and its gardens, which are almost overgrown with wild plants. Last week the regional department of Employment, Tourism and Culture met in search of a way to conserve the Canto del Pico. But so far no solution has been reached.