A plinth honoring General Francisco Franco greets the visitor. Bottles of wine with the face of the Caudillo on their labels, cured hams bearing the pre-Constitutional Spanish flag, berets, key rings, and other paraphernalia related to Spain’s four decades of military rule are to be found in every corner of Casa Pepe. Painted in the yellow and red of the Spanish flag, the restaurant is easily spotted from the A-4 highway, on the edge of the Despeñaperros national park, in Almuradiel, roughly halfway between Madrid and Andalusia’s Mediterranean coastline, and has been a popular stopping off point for holidaymakers and travelers for the last 90 years.
Foreign visitors in particular are often shocked when they walk into this shrine to Franco, which survives almost 40 years after his death, although the commission that oversaw the 2007 Historical Memory Law, which aimed to rehabilitate the victims of the dictatorship and to eradicate its public symbols, decided that it had no jurisdiction over Casa Pepe.
Originally a grocery store, Casa Pepe was set up in 1923 by José Navarro Valero, who in the 1970s handed it on to his son Juan, “a Francoist from birth,” who made the restaurant into what it is today. “Spain needed a man like Franco to lead this country, to make it united, great and free, but who is now seen as the scum of the earth,” Navarro said in a television documentary last year, shortly before he died at the age of 67.
His sons, Manuel and Juan José, aged 39 and 41 respectively, have inherited their father’s respect for Franco: Juan was fined for displaying a pre-Constitutional flag – featuring the imperial, two-headed eagle – at last year’s festivities in the nearby village of Almuradiel.
We welcome everybody: Franco wasn’t a racist, and neither are we”
“We honor the memory of Franco, but we also respect everybody who comes in here,” says Manuel. “My father started out as a collector; former soldiers from the Blue Division [Spaniards who fought in the German invasion of Russia between 1941 and 1944] and members of the Spanish Foreign Legion would come here and bring badges and flags.” Juan José sees nothing controversial in paying tribute to the man who overthrew a democratically elected government, plunging Spain into a conflict that killed around half a million people between 1936 and 1939. “It’s just a way of remembering a dictatorship that was more paternal than any other,” he argues. On one wall hangs a photograph of Antonio Tejero, the Civil Guard who led the assault on Congress in the botched 1981 military coup. “This isn’t an apologia for radical views,” says Juan José.
Asked if he’d like to return to the days of dictatorship, he suggests, “a middle way, with more justice, less corruption, more unity.” In the last general elections he says he voted for the Popular Party – “the closest” – but says that he’s not sure whom he’ll vote for next time.
On a typical Sunday lunchtime, the bar is overflowing with lorry drivers, locals and drivers passing through, like Javier, who is on a business trip. “I heard about the place from my father-in-law,” he says while taking photos of the flags and books about Franco tucked away in every corner. “I don’t see it as an ideological issue, more like a curiosity: a little piece of the history of Spain.”
The place is also popular with the local branch of the Falange, the nationalist political movement founded by José Antonio Primo de Rivera that was later co-opted by Franco after Primo de Rivera was killed in the early days of the Civil War. But it’s not just Spain’s far right who pop in for something to eat and to gawk at the curios from Spain’s recent militaristic past: Julio Anguita, the former head of the Communist Party, was a visitor, as was Baltasar Garzón, the judge who unsuccessfully tried to investigate war crimes committed by Franco and his supporters. “We get all sorts in here: soccer players, bullfighters, television personalities, but I’m not going to give any names. We welcome everybody, it doesn’t matter what color your skin is: Franco wasn’t a racist, and neither are we,” says Manuel.
In Germany or Italy Casa Pepe would not be allowed”
Almuradiel’s Mayor, Braulio Egido, of the Popular Party, says Casa Pepe is an important part of the community of just under 1,000 people. “The family is very popular; this is a business that has been around for longer than anybody can remember. The important thing is respect for other people’s views,” he says, adding that Casa Pepe also sponsors the local soccer team and village festivities.
But not everybody in the village agrees: “It is a reflection of a certain mentality; Franco died, but Francoism lives on,” says 51-year-old Jesús, who describes himself as an anarchist.
Jesús de Andrés, a lecturer in political science at the UNED distance-learning university, and an expert in the legacy of dictatorships, says only Spain and Russia allow the preservation of symbols of their dictatorships. “In Germany or Italy Casa Pepe would not be allowed. The fact that it exists in Spain is the fault of politicians and society: people seem to think that this is part of our history and should be protected in some way, when in reality nobody has taught us just what these symbols actually meant just a few years ago.”