Moving through the darkened holds of a replica of Christopher Columbus’s ship, visitors on a recent afternoon marveled at the tangle of compasses, cords and barrels. They stumbled as the ship rocked and creaked with the swell of the sea. Finally, a voice shouted “Country!” and the white sands of America appeared.
“Our journey changed the world. Let it be for the greater glory of God,” Columbus was then heard to say to Queen Isabella I of Castile. Referring to the indigenous peoples of the United States, he added, “I apologize in advance if injustices or wrongs are done.”
And so ends one of the shows at Puy du Fou Spaina historic theme park that is popular today in Spain, with more than a million visitors expected this year.
The park’s popularity has come as a surprise in a country that has long been afraid to celebrate its history. Nationalist sentiments were largely taboo after the dictatorship of General Francisco Franco, who died in the 1970s.
The park is full of hallowed symbols like the cross and the flag, and most of the shows depict conquests and glorious battles to defend the country. The more questionable aspects of Spain’s past – from the bloody conquest of America that followed the voyage of Columbus to the repressive rule of Franco – do not appear in more than 10 productions.
“What we are trying to do is present a history that does not divide,” said Erwan de la Villéon, the head of the park, noting that historical taboos continued to permeate Spanish society.
But the approach has raised concerns about the history the park highlights instead – a spectacle that emphasizes Spain’s Catholic identity and its unity against foreign invaders – and how it can shape visitors’ views.
“This is selective history,” said Gutmaro Gómez Bravo, a historian at Madrid’s Complutense University who has visited the park twice. “You can’t or shouldn’t teach people that. History is not free – it carries significant political weight.”
The park was launched in 2019 after the founders of the original Puy du Fou in France, the country’s second most visited theme park after Disneyland Paris, decided to take their concept abroad.
Historians have long criticized the French park as promoting nationalist views. It similarly glosses over some of the most painful episodes in France’s past, such as its history of colonialism, and highlights the country’s Catholic identity.
The founder of the French park, Philippe de Villiers, whom Monsieur de la Villéon called a “mentor” and a “genius”, is a prominent far-right politician.
Mr. de la Villéon denied that the Spanish park promoted any political line. But he called supporters of Catalan independence his “enemies” and insulted former prime minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero, a socialist who passed a memorial law to honor victims of the Civil War and Franco’s oppressive rule.
Spain, Mr. de la Villéon said, proved an ideal location for a new park because of the country’s “great historical trajectory” of invasions and conquests. He chose to build it in Toledo, he said, because the ancient city south of Madrid once stood at the crossroads of the kingdoms of Europe.
There, some 200 million euros, about 220 million USD, were invested to create an impressive complex of castles, farms and medieval villages filled with terracotta vessels and whitewashed houses with exposed beams.
But it’s the historic stage productions, presented in large amphitheatres, that are the big draw.
“The Last Song” takes place in a revolving auditorium and follows El Cid, a knight and warlord who became Spain’s greatest medieval hero, as he fights enemies appearing in succession behind large panels that open onto the semicircular stage. In “Toledo’s Dream,” the flagship evening show tracing 15 centuries of Spanish history, Columbus’ life-size ship emerges from a lake on which characters danced moments before.
Both shows received the IAAPA Brass Ring award for “Best Theatrical Production”, considered one of the most prestigious awards of the international entertainment industry. On a recent afternoon, visitors were ecstatic about the experience.
“Great — it’s just great. I didn’t know history could be so captivating,” said Vicente Vidal, 65, as he emerged from a show featuring Visigoths fighting Romans. In the park children were seen playing sword fighting, shouting: “We will fight for our country!”
Mr de la Villéon, who is French, said the park’s success reflected a desire among Spaniards to reclaim their past. “People want to have roots, that’s the first need that the success of the park reveals,” he said. “You come here and you think, ‘Man, it’s cool to be Spanish.’
Modern Spain has an uneasy relationship with its history because of chapters like the Inquisition and the colonization of the Americas, said Jesús Carrobles, head of the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and Historical Sciences of Toledo, which was consulted on the park project.
“The park allows you to reclaim an idea of your past that you can be proud of,” Mr. Carrobles said. “A beautiful past, a past to remember.”
But it also proved to be a selective past.
The shows depict Isabella I as a visionary and merciful queen, making no mention of her order to expel Jews during the Inquisition. The Aztecs appear once in a dance scene, but their fatal fate at the hands of the conquistadors is omitted.
Perhaps most notable is the park’s treatment of the Spanish Civil War, whose legacy continues to divide the country. The conflict is only vaguely mentioned at the end of “Toledo’s Dream,” when a woman mourns her brothers who “killed each other.” The scene lasts one minute, out of a 75-minute performance, and the show ends without mentioning Franco’s subsequent four-decade dictatorship.
“Too early to talk about it,” said Mr. de la Villéon, noting that memories of Francoist Spain are still raw.
“It’s a very consensual show that went beyond the dubious aspects of Spanish history,” said Jean Canavaggio, a French specialist on Cervantes who reviewed the script for “The Dream of Toledo.” He added that the park could not have succeeded if it was a “critical look” at Spanish history, given how politically fraught this remains.
Mr. de la Villéon said he was looking for events illustrating the unity of Spain. In Puy du Fou España, they revolve around a central element: Catholicism.
Almost every show features clerics and soldiers dedicating their battles to God. In “The Mystery of Sorbaces”, a Visigothic king converts to Catholicism as his troops fall to their knees and a church rises from underground, to the sound of emotional music.
Monsieur de la Villéon – who does not hide his faith and had a small chapel erected in the park – argued that Catholicism was “the matrix” of Spanish history.
Mr. Gómez Bravo, the historian who specializes in the Civil War and Franco, said the park presented the Catholic reconquest of Muslim-ruled Spain as the foundation of Spanish unity. “This is a very politically charged idea because it was promoted above all by the Franco regime,” he said.
However, many in the Spanish park seemed to embrace the park’s mission.
“Spain is a great country!” said Conchita Tejero, a 60-year-old woman who sat with three friends at a large wooden table in a medieval tavern decorated with imperial flags. “This park is a way to reclaim our history.”
Her friend, Esteban Garces, a supporter of the far-right Vox party, said he saw the park as a counterpoint to the “other history” that portrayed Spain as needing to make up for its past.
Leaving the park after dark, Mr. Garces said he was happy about “The Dream of Toledo.”
“The real story,” he said.