I had never expected to visit the town of Guernica (Gernika in Basque), it wasn’t a place I could easily get to, nor knew much about, and therefore not on my radar. I had only heard of Guernica because of Picasso’s infamous anti-war painting of the same name (the town of Guernica was devastated; bombed for 4 hours killing 1600 people, during the Spanish Civil War).
When I visited my daughter Lauren in 2013 she lived in Vitoria-Gasteiz without a car so we visited Basque cities by bus. But when I visited her again in 2016 she had a Basque novio (Koldo) with a car who generously offered to drive us to quaint and interesting towns in Basque Country during his days off.
Koldo was born and raised in Vitoria-Gasteiz and speaks Basque, Spanish and English. Driving to Guernica with my daughter and her native Basque guy felt special and authentic, an unexpected adventure that had me feeling exceptionally enthusiastic about exploring Basque Country.
Driving north from Vitoria we passed by rustic mountains and lush narrow valleys dotted with sheep. I had just arrived in Spain the night before but any jet-lag symptoms were overshadowed by the thrill of the adventure and a cup of Koldo’s fuerte coffee before we left.
We arrived in Guernica just in time for a short visit to the Gernika Peace Museum (Museo de la Paz) as it closes at 2pm on Sundays.
The museum approaches the subject of peace from different points of view and is also a guide to the history of Guernica.
One of the most memorable installations is a re-enactment of the bombings; we entered a small room decorated to resemble the inside of a home in Guernica as it must have looked in 1937 moments before the bombings. The doors automatically closed behind us and a recording of a women’s voice spoke about what she was feeling and experiencing during the attack. It was emotional and memorable and I left with a better understanding of the tragedy, and a with a deeper empathy for the people who had suffered through it.
The museum was closing before we were able to see all of the exhibits but if I find myself in Guernica again I will return to the museum.
We were hungry after taking in so much at the museum so we headed over to the plaza where families were enjoying drinks and pinxtos at the outdoor tables.
Of course we had to check out a couple of bars for the best varieties of pinxtos. After lunch we took a walk up the hill
passing by the the main plaza again
and Santa Maria Church
arriving to our final stop to visit the Bizcayan Assembly House and the Tree of Guernica both of which are the living symbols of the Basque people’s history. “As the seat of the historical parliament of Bizkcaia, this building and the oak tree became a meeting point of all the territories of the Basque Country, bringing together cultural and ethnographic traditions” (from the brochure provided at the Assembly House).
The original oak tree was planted in 1700. It was was replaced in 1860 with a new tree which was then replaced with the existing tree in 2015. The General Assembly of Bizkaia was originally held around the tree.
The stained glass window in the ceiling was created by hand by a company in Bilbao. It depicts the oak tree as a meeting point and the economic activities of the territory.
I left Guernica with a better understanding of, and respect for, the Basque culture and its history. It was an amazing first day in Basque Country.