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Hunting for Treasures from the Spanish Civil War

Ricardo Castellano has spent the past 15 years looking for bunkers and keeps around the country.

Ricardo Castellano

I always thought of wars as something people try to forget – particularly civil wars, like the Spanish one; three years of fighting that resulted in dictator Franco rulling the country for the next 36, from 1939 to 1975. Yet, in Spain, there are still those who are committed to keeping the memory of the conflict alive. Lawyer and military historian Ricardo Castellano has built a career on tracking and cataloguing remnants of war. As leader of the Colectivo Guadarrama collective, he has spent the past 15 years unearthing bunkers and keeps in Madrid and the surrounding area. Essentially a modern-day treasure hunter, he is such a fascinating character I thought I should get in touch to ask him about his work. VICE: How did you get into tracking keeps and bunkers?
Ricardo Castellano: I’ve had an interest in the Spanish Civil War since I was 16. Then in 1995, I had an accident and had to stop working for a while. I took the opportunity to catch up on some reading and since I had time until I returned to work, I began exploring battlefields out of curiosity. I realised there was no information. I found it hard to believe that no one had been interested enough to gather information – the only thing I found was a periodical published by the Community of Madrid in 1987.


In 1996, I started travelling around the country. In 1998, a friend told me what a GPS was, so I ordered one from the USA for 50.000 pesetas [the old Spanish currency, equivalent to €300]. With it, I began taking coordinates of the sites where I knew there were remains and investigating in archives. I also developed my own location technique.

What does that entail?
My interest isn't as much in the battles as when those fortifications were built, who built them and why. In order to make my excursions easier, I photocopied the microfilms I found interesting, I cut and pasted the photocopies, arranged the maps at home, scanned them and then – through a system of layers – I overlaid the maps from the times of war with the current ones. This way I managed to depict the battle fronts and the positions of each side, so I had quite a clear picture of the area when I was on site. Then I used other tools, such as Google Maps, which provides an aerial view of the terrain but does not tell you where you need to go. For example, it is not useful when you are dealing with a forest. It is a good tool for bunker hunters, but not as great for those looking for historical knowledge. What exactly is a "bunker hunter"?
Around 1998 I began to inventory everything I had found, and in 2005 we founded the association. In these years the Internet evolved, allowing people with common interests – such as looking for remnants of war – to communicate with each other. It began as something for connoisseurs and ended up extending to other social spheres. In the last six or eight years this has really progressed – some people even organise routes. Are there still fortifications left to discover?
Of course, although they will not be the most spectacular ones, since dozens of people have been walking the battlefields looking for them for about 15 years. The real treasures now lie within the underground buildings, because they’re not noticeable and they don’t appear on maps. I am talking about air-raid shelters, of which there is little documentation.


A bunker near Madrid, unearthed by Ricardo.

So, we might be standing above a hidden bunker right now, here in Madrid.
Indeed. There are plenty of them. A couple of months ago, I got in touch with this man, who had posted a blog about how he’d managed to enter an underground construction I knew but hadn’t been able to visit. It’s on Aristas Street and it was designed to shelter 5000 people. After its construction began, the proportions of the bunker had to be reduced to accommodate 2000 people instead. Eventually, they built four shelters for 500 people each. I found some photos of the place, uploaded by a civil servant who worked in the sewage systems. Is there any other place that you find intriguing?
Yes, I’ve been working to gain access to the Osram Shelter, next to the light bulb factory, near Atocha train station. The premises belong to the Community of Madrid and used to be surrounded by open country. That was the building site of one of the biggest shelters, all with reinforced concrete and spacious rooms. I don’t know if it still exists. How long did it take to build one of those shelters?
It should be noted that these were made in times of war. There were power cuts, and the workforce was scarce. In some of the buildings they used bricks from other constructions. With all means at their disposal, it could take them about a month or so to build a shelter for 100 people, and four months for the most complex – those with machinery involved.


The army's layout for another bunker from the 1930s.

Are there still people who go out on their own looking for "souvenirs" of the old battles?
This is a sensitive subject. There is a law dating from 1985 that regulates the use of metal detectors, but each government makes their own interpretation. The tendency is towards prohibition, as it usually happens in Spain. If you’re talking about material remnants from the Civil War, of course there are some. During the noughties, about 1400 shells were deactivated yearly. That’s an average of five shells per day. Some were injured and have even died because of this. Many a fool find something and, instead of calling the Spanish military police, they take it home, try to manipulate it and sometimes it explodes, killing them or blowing the house. And what would the solution be?
I always tell them that they should have a permit if they use a metal detector. In the past, they would take refuge in the fact that no one could dig out anything less than one hundred years old. But if what you find is near an archaeological site or in a Natural Park, the law says that you can’t touch it. The problem with “detectorists” is that they are not historical treasure hunters or looters. They are interested in grenades, ammunition, etc. So the risk is to them, rather than to the national heritage. How valuable are those pieces?
They have a market value, but not very high. I don’t know – a nice hand grenade might be worth 60 Euros. Well-preserved helmets are very highly priced, but they are not excessively expensive. Very few people make a living from this in Spain. It doesn’t yield a big margin.

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