Six black horses clattered slowly across the flagstone of the vast esplanade in front of the monastery, against a backdrop of the snow-covered sierra, and their breath formed clouds in the silence as they strained to heave the creaking gun carriage. Beside them, marking a solemn goosestep, marched the royal guard as together they took King Alfonso XIII of Spain back from exile to his final resting place in the Panteon Real, where Spanish monarchs have been buried for the past 400 years.
As a 21-gun salute thundered and echoed through the Guadarrama Mountains, 30 miles northwest of Madrid, Spain was able to face at last the realities of its trubulent past and bury the ghosts of its recent history.
Alfonso XIII is one of the few remaining skeletons in the Spanish historical cupboard that bear witness to the perennial intolerance of the Iberian people. He fled into exile in 1931 at the onset of the republic and died in exile, in Rome, in 1941, reportedly saying "Espana" in his last dying breath.
Today's ceremony was another reminder that, in a very real sense, the national reconcilation that followed Franco's death and the accession of Alfonso's grandson, King Juan Carols, has been marked by the return of bodies, grateful dead at the return of democracy.
The Socialists had their big moment two years ago when the body of Francisco Largo Caballero, the towering one-time plasterer who went on to become the "Spanish Lenin", head of the Socialists and of civil war governments, was brought back from its exile in the Parisian Pere Lachaise graveyard. A crowd of tens of thousands walked a good three miles with Largo Caballero's coffin to the civil cemetery of Madrid.
The Catalans had their occasion last fall, when the remains of cellist Pablo Casals came back from Puerto Rico to be laid to rest in his beloved Catalonia.
Alfonso's body had arrived early this morning aboard the Spanish naval frigate Asturias at the southeastern Mediterranean port of Cartagena, the frigate berthing at the same stop where the monarch boarded a cruiser bound for Marseilles 49 years ago.
The solemn simplicity of Alfonso's journey today, by Hercules transport from the Mediterranean to Madrid and aboard a Chinook helicopter to the pine-covered sierra, was pregnant with symbolism and a reminder of still remaining skeletons.
Such is the case of Manuel Azana, buried at Montaubam, France, who as president of the Spanish republic, at the height of the civil war with his dreams crashing down around him, urged "Peace, compassion and pardon" on succeeding generations of Spaniards.
And such is the case of the greatest of Spain's 20th century lyric poets, Antonio Machado, buried also in France, at Collioures, just across the Pyrenees, where he died, alone and broken-hearted shortly before Madrid fell to Franco and the civil war came to a close.
Years before, Machado had written the lines, "Little Spaniard coming into the world, may God protect you, one of the two Spains is sure to freeze your heart."
As historical retribution was done to Alfonso XIII under the icy skies of El Escorial, it was possible to believe that such lines could never be written again.
Alfonso's final journey had started last Thursday in the Spanish Church of Our Lady of Montserrat in Rome where Alfonso had been buried. Eyewitnesses reported that as the last bit of marble was chipped away from his resting place, Alfonso's son, Don Juan de Borbon, the father of King Juan Carlos, stared down in awe at the embalmed body of the white haired man with sunken eyes dressed in the tattered remains of the uniform of a captain general of the Spanish army.
It was Don Juan, count of Barcelona, who stopped before his son, King Juan Carlos, as the gun carriage drew up alongside the royal rostrum on the esplanade today. He saluted, inclined his head in reverence, and handed over the remains of his father. Don Juan, wearing the full dress uniform of a Spanish admiral, abdicated his rights to the throne when Franco died, thus preserving the legitimacy of the monarchy.
Alfonso left Spain, though he never renounced his rights, in order "to avoid bloodshed" as he said in his closing speech from the palace, when municipal elections on April 12, 1931 showed sweeping gains in major towns for republican candidates. On that election night, Spain went to bed a monarchy and awoke the next day a republic. Alfonso left Madrid as dawn was breaking.
Born king as the posthumous son of Alfonso XII, he had lived through the upheavals of Spain's tardy industrialization and hung onto his throne in the 1920's by handing over power to Gen. Primo do Rivera -- "my Mussolini," as he told Italy's King Umberto.
His reign saw colonial wars, the upsurge of the left, the growth of regionalism and the collapse of central power. [WORD ILLEGIBLE] Gasset, foremost among the intellectuals he alienated, used language echoing Cato's 2nd century B.C. call to the Romans for the destruction of Carthage when he wrote "delenda est monarchia (the monarchy must be destroyed), Spaniards are building a new state."
Today, the organ boomed out the royal anthem in the marble and fresco covered basilica of the Monastery of El Escarial as 20 young soldiers bore the full weight of the coffin up to the high alter. The church was packed with diplomats, senior officers, politicians and members of the nobility led by the Duchess of Alba decked in a long black mantilla and an anklelength mink coat.
The Escorial, austere, even gloomy, undoubtedly majestic, was built by Phillip II in the 16th century as a monastery and as a palace retreat. Beneath the main alter lies the marble, baroque vault where the kings are buried. Alfonso's niche had lain empty because of Franco's unwillingness to test monarchist fervor that might turn against him.
Now, with the republic long crushed and Francoism a fast-receding memory, King Juan Carlos has brought his grandfather's remains home and the restoration of the monarchy of Spain has come full circle.