Radio Liberty: Spanish Costa Brava tourist hotspot has a secret Cold War past

Radio Liberty: Spanish Costa Brava tourist hotspot has a secret Cold War past

(CNN) – This is on March 23, 1959. The radio waves burst and the broadcast begins: “Radio Svoboda speaks” (Radio Svoboda speaks – “This is what Radio Svoboda speaks …”)

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, radio broadcasts of US-funded Radio Liberty reached deep into the Soviet Union. This was the starting line, intended to enter the folklore of the Cold War.

What most of the secret settings can’t imagine is the unlikely place the shows come from.

This quiet beach resort Platha de Pals, Spain, nestled between the Mediterranean Sea and the greenery of pine groves and rice fish, is unlikely to create the front line of the Cold War, but this is exactly the role it has played for nearly half a century.

At this point, about 150 km north of Barcelona, ​​the rough Costa Brava of Catalonia opens into a large bay lined with a long sandy beach, the perfect place for what was to be one of the most powerful radio stations in the world.

Strategic location

In the mid-1950s, and after nearly two decades of international isolation from Francisco Franco’s Spanish dictatorship, the growing tensions of the Cold War provided the basis for rapprochement between Spain and the United States.

In this new context of the Cold War, Washington is interested in Spain’s strategic location. General Franco, himself a staunch anti-communist, was happy to commit. In a remarkable deal, the United States was provided with a string of Spanish land, while Franco’s dictatorship would restore relations with the West.

The tuning of Radio Liberty’s Pals radio station was a side effect of this new geostrategic reality.

From 1959 to 2006, this beach was home to 13 massive antennas (the largest of which is 168 meters high, or more than half the size of the Eiffel Tower). This location was preferred not only because of the space – the antennas were located a mile parallel to the shore, but also because it provides direct, unobstructed access to the sea. A physical phenomenon called tropospheric propagation allows radio waves to travel farther above water.

Radio Svoboda has no antennas, but the transmitter remains.

Mikel Ross

Broadcast on the beach

The Pals station was part of the larger Radio Liberty network, based in Munich. The content was also produced in West Germany, translated into the various languages ​​of the Soviet Union and then sent to Pals for broadcast.

At its peak, about 120 people worked on the site, some Americans, but also quite a few locals. However, the radio station, physically detached from its surroundings, was a mysterious world beyond borders. And yet, at the same time, the towering antennas of Radio Liberty, which were brightly lit at night, have always been a disgusting presence for the many holidaymakers who return to the nearby beaches every summer.

For decades, Radio Svoboda’s broadcasts were one of the few ways in which Soviet citizens had to receive uncensored news from abroad. Even Mikhail Gorbachev, the then president of the Soviet Union, stated that it was Radio Svoboda that informed him from what happened during the coup attempt in August 1991, when he was briefly detained at his summer residence in Crimea.

Out of the air

However, this historical moment Gorbachev hinted that it was the swan song of Radio Svoboda. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Pals facility lost its foundation. Military action in the 90s to finally close in 2001.

This opened a public debate about what should be done with the site.

Some suggested that it be turned into a museum and that at least one of the antennas be preserved as a memorial; others wanted to get rid of him completely.

The latter group finally prevailed – but only in terms of antennas.

On March 22, 2006, five years after the final broadcast, 13 antennas, totaling about 700 tons, were removed during simultaneous controlled demolition.

With the disappearance of the antennas, the area where they once stood has been turned into a nature reserve.

Decades of use

Today, most buildings on the perimeter of the radio station remain in place. Unexplored and exposed to the elements, especially the northern bays, which overwinter this coast in winter, they crumble after almost two decades of use.

The place has acquired the ruined aspect that is so familiar to those who have visited other abandoned sites of the Cold War: the feeling of entering a time capsule.

This atmosphere inspired the Catalan artist Marina Capdevila, who is known for her large-scale murals.

In the summer of 2018, she worked on the roof of the main building of Radio Liberty for a period of 12 days. The result is an eye-catching color mural that covers about 2,000 square feet.

“When I discovered this place, I was quickly amazed by its potential, by the opportunity to turn these abandoned, crumbling buildings into something beautiful. My partner, who is from the area, brought a small drone with him and that gave us the idea to do something. which can only be seen from a bird’s eye view, “explains Capdevila. “It was hard work in the middle of summer; we had to carry a lot of paint to the roof. Luckily I had other people helping me.”

A year later, the picture is still there, mostly for the birds to enjoy. Last homage to this forgotten Cold War hotspot.

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