The Hostal San Marcos in the northern Spanish city of León was originally a convent, built in the 16th century by King Ferdinand. Today, it is a parador, or luxury hotel, which has maintained the original building’s huge, Renaissance-style façade, large cloister and sweeping staircases that carry guests up to tapestry-lined rooms.
However, as one recent visitor was horrified to discover, this stunning building was also a concentration camp, during Spain's 1936-39 civil war, where thousands of opponents of the future dictator Francisco Franco were imprisoned and many of them killed.
Wilfried Stuckmann, from Germany, had no idea on booking the hotel that it had been a prison for leftist Republicans. He told Spanish newspaper El Diario that he and his wife had only realised the hotel's dark past when they wandered to the rear of the cloister, where they found some wall placards recounting the building's history.
“During the course of the Spanish civil war, cells, rooms, stables, cloisters, the church, choir, museum and every last corner of the building were transformed into impromptu dungeons or jailers’ offices,” reads one placard. About 20,000 Republican militia and political prisoners were held there, many dying in the dungeons at the hands of the right-wing rebels led by General Franco, the country’s dictator between 1939 and 1975.
"We didn't know anything about this and we were in shock," Stuckmann told El Diario. "We'd never planned on spending the night in a place like that. All I know about the Spanish civil war is that it was won by Franco with help from the German Nazis. Therefore, the civil war is part of German history and I always feel the obligation to keep history in mind."
Franco did receive help from Nazi Germany during the civil war, most notoriously when the Luftwaffe bombed the Basque town of Guernica in 1937.
One of the Republican prisoners in the building was Juan Rodríguez Lozano, grandfather of former prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, who was eventually executed by Franco’s forces.
Determined to share his concerns about the hotel's airbrushed past, Stuckmann left a comment to this effect on the parador's page of the website, Booking. com, where he had made the reservation. The page makes no mention of the building's former incarnation as a concentration camp, but details other periods of its history.
The comment was never published. After Stuckmann complained, Booking.com said it would not allow the comment to go on the website but would reimburse him the €396 he had spent on two nights at the hotel, apparently preferring to give him a free stay than admit the hotel’s Francoist connection.
Andre Manning, head of public affairs at Booking.com, told The Irish Times the firm did not check the history of the properties for which it offered reservations "and our philosophy is that we do not post reviews that link to 'war' in general".
“[Online] reviews with the war theme in it can start a discussion on its own and can easily become a political debate we don’t want to be involved in.”
Stuckmann donated the reimbursement to Spain's Association for the Recovery of Historical Memory, which represents relatives of those killed by Franco during the civil war and the ensuing repression. The association's president, Emilio Silva, says the case of the parador in León is symptomatic of a refusal by Spain and its governments, of all stripes, to face up to the trauma of the Franco years.
"The state should signpost these places and make it easy to know their history," he told The Irish Times. "There are people who could go to this parador to pay tribute to the prisoners there, but if it hides the history of the place it is wiping out the memory of them; it is denying the illegal detentions and tortures that they suffered."
Activists like Silva believe up to 150,000 victims of Franco lie in unmarked graves across the country. With Spanish authorities refusing to investigate crimes from this period, an Argentinian judge, María Servini de Cubría, has been taking testimonies from relatives of victims. In September 2013 she ordered the extradition to Argentina of two officials of the Franco regime to face charges of torture, but so far the Spanish government has not co-operated.