Guernica (Gernika)

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A town in the Basque country in the north of Spain that is infamous for having been the target of one of the first systematic aerial bombing attacks on a civilian city centre in world history (in 1937, in the Spanish Civil War). The old town was largely destroyed but rebuilt after the war and now is home to a renowned Peace Museum.     
More background info: Guernica, or rather “Gernika” in the locally preferred Basque spelling of the name (I will use both interchangeably), is just a small provincial town. Together with its neighbour Lumo, the municipality of Gernika-Lumo has only ca. 16,000 inhabitants. But Gernika's place in history is huge.
The name Guernica/Gernika is etched deeply into history and public consciousness for having been the target of one of the earliest examples of systematic aerial carpet bombing, namely on 26 April 1937. This was during the Spanish Civil War, and was perpetrated by the German "Legion Condor" (with some assistance by the Italian air force too), which had been sent in by Hitler (and Mussolini) to support fellow fascist leader Franco.
For more details of the attack itself and its historical context see under Museo de la Paz
Though the exact number of casualties is contested, and may not have been as high as early reports claimed, Guernica nonetheless stands for a new type of war crime – an "experiment" of sorts, one that was later to be taken to much more extreme levels during WWII (the bombings of Coventry, London, Southampton, etc. by the Nazis, and the increasingly catastrophic bombings of Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden, Tokyo, etc., etc. by the Allies).
The shock with which the world reacted to the tragedy of Guernica is most prominently depicted in Pablo Picasso's famous monumental painting "Guernica", which is today on display in the Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid.
In Guernica itself, there are plenty of references to that painting, including a full-size reproduction in the form of a mural made from ceramic tiles. I even saw it on a restaurant menu, and souvenir stalls sell postcards and T-shirts with prints of it. It's clearly the agreed symbol of the town. 
However, apart from its place in the history of war, Gernika has also long been an important place in Basque culture and history. It's long been the seat of the General Assembly of the Bizkaia (Biscay) region of the Basque country, and its oak tree (under which meetings traditionally used to take place in the olden days) is still revered as an almost holy relic. (See under non-dark combinations.)
In a way this oak-tree-worship is also part of the Basque struggle for recognition as a separate culture – if not for the Basque struggle for independence. You can find other signs of this all over the town, in the language, the flags, the graffiti. It is a reminder that the nationalistic Basque separatist (and terrorist) organization ETA used to have its home ground around here.      
What there is to see:  The main place of commemoration of the Gernika bombing is the Peace Museum:
Beyond this, there are various other sights in the city relating to this darkest time in Gernika's history.  
Just a couple of hundred yards south of the train station (by a large car park), an old air-raid shelter from the war years has been restored. It is the only concrete (in both senses of the word) relic directly related to the aerial bombing history of Gernika. You can even go inside to get a vague impression of the menacing atmosphere such structures tend to have.
More symbolic allusions to Gernika's bombing include two huge sculptures in Europa Park. One is a giant 20-tonne bronze piece by Henry Moore entitled “large figure in a shelter”. Just a bit east of this a grey concrete object by the Basque sculptor Eduardo Chillida appears to be even bigger. It was commissioned for the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the town and unveiled on 27 April 1988.
Images and reproductions of Picasso's painting “Guernica” can also be found all over the town, most prominently the large one made from tiles at the top of San Juan street (at its western end).     
Location: Near the Atlantic coast in northern Spain's Basque country some 200 miles (320 km) north of Madrid and some 20 miles (30 km) east of the regional capital Bilbao.
Co-ordinates and Google maps locators:
Main square:
43°18'50.4"N 2°40'40.8"W
Old air-raid shelter:
43°18'43.6"N 2°40'34.7"W
Henry Moore sculpture:
43°18'52.6"N 2°40'52.3"W
“Guernica” reproduction in tiles:
43°18'55.8"N 2°40'48.1"W
Casa de Juntas (Assembly):
43°18'47.2"N 2°40'47.3"W
Train station:
43°18'51.1"N 2°40'34.0"W
Access and costs: Quite a bit off the usual tourist trails, but fairly easy to reach by car or train/bus; not too expensive. 
Details: To get to Guernica/Gernika you can take a regional train or bus from Bilbao – the ride takes about an hour to an hour and a half and fairs are reasonable. 
When driving (by hire car) from Bilbao, the fastest route is to first take the AP8/E70 eastbound (towards San Sebastian), take exit 18 onto the Bl-635 northbound. This leads straight into Guernica another seven miles or so onwards. Alternatively you can take the much more scenic route along the coast via Bermeo, or, if coming from the east, via Lekeitio.
The town is so small that getting around is easiest on foot. In the very town centre, parking is limited, but there are several parking lots around the edges of the inner core. 
If you want to stay overnight, there aren't many accommodation options but they include a couple of decent choices, from youth hostel to moderately priced hotels/pensions. 
As for food & drink, the Basque country is famous for its cuisine, though Gernika is  perhaps not the very best place to sample its wide potential. There are a few decent places around, though, especially around the main square, along Pablo Picasso Kalea and to the south on the pedestrianized Industria Kalea. 
Compared to some other more remote areas of Spain, prices may seem a little higher, but they are still fairly moderate.
Time required: Guernica can be done as a day return trip from Bilbao, but if you want to have a bit more time you could also stay overnight and explore the town beyond just the museum and the town centre core at a more leisurely pace.
Combinations with other dark destinations: in general see under Spain
The only other dark site listed on this website that is within fairly easy reach ( by car) from Gernika (or Bilbao) is the unfinished/ruined Lemoniz nuclear power station
Combinations with non-dark destinations: When I went to Gernika I was expecting a really drab provincial town consisting of only cheap and unimaginative modern buildings that had replaced the bombed old town – that's probably because I know so many examples within Germany where this is indeed the case, when hurried post-WWII reconstruction gave many a formerly pretty place a totally disastrous “facelift” in aesthetic terms. Even cities like Cologne are, beyond the cathedral and few other exceptional sights, dominated by such cheap housing architecture. 
So I was quite positively surprised that Gernika actually had quite a pleasant little centre with interesting architecture in typical Basque style. Of course, out of the centre and on the fringes of the centre (and the industrial parts to the east), there is also plenty of mid-20th century drabness – and Gernika will never be able to compete with those picturesque well-preserved medieval towns of which Spain has so many. But it is still noticeable that a real effort had been made in the reconstruction of Gernika, more so that I had anticipated. 
Just a few steps up west from the central square on which the Peace Museum is located, you can see an 18th century church that is a rare survivor of the bombing. Round the corner to the south of the church is the Museo Euskal Herria, the local Basque culture museum, housed in a pretty traditional building.   
Just a bit further south from that is the grand Assembly House, the Casa de Juntas. You can even walk right into the assembly hall itself (when there are no meetings taking place). Next to it is one of the greatest gems of little Gernika: a large stained-glass ceiling over a former courtyard (completed in 1985). It is full of regional symbolism and even includes the depiction of fishermen clad in yellow and green overcoats and sou'westers! The central piece in the image, however, is an oak tree – the symbol of Biskaya Basque culture.
The current real living oak tree is just behind the building. And the dead stump of a predecessor (new ones are always grown from saplings of the older trees) stands under a columned rotunda as if it were a classical statue. 
Steps leading past an amphitheatre of sorts take you back down to the town's commercial centre and the main square where most of the shops of interest to tourists can be found. Further south and east beyond the station begins industrial Gernika and more residential areas of little attractiveness. 
Further north, however, you can find some rather appealing villas and a green recreational area. En route you pass a strange, forbidding looking red concrete edifice. This is Gernika's indoor stadium for the local sport of Jai alai – a fast-paced ball game involving a strange shovel-like implement from which the ball is hurled. You can spot a depiction of this in sculpture form on the wall of the sports centre.   
Further afield, Bilbao is the commercial and cultural hub of this part of the Basque country and its official capital. It's a long-stretched-out harbour city with a few attractions of its own. Of these the extravagantly ultra-modern, silver-shiny Guggenheim art museum is the most notable. 
Finally, the Basque Atlantic coast (on the Bay of Biscay) is well worth exploring too. There are pretty little coastal towns and villages, sheer cliffs and a curious kind of hermit's rest (and chapel) on a sea stack dramatically connected to the cost by a causeway and narrow bridge (called Gaztelugatxe). 
See also under Spain (including the photo gallery!)
  • Gernika 01 - the Picasso theme is everywhereGernika 01 - the Picasso theme is everywhere
  • Gernika 02 - Foru Plaza and town hallGernika 02 - Foru Plaza and town hall
  • Gernika 03 - old church that survived the bombingGernika 03 - old church that survived the bombing
  • Gernika 04 - a light of hopeGernika 04 - a light of hope
  • Gernika 04 - singing circleGernika 04 - singing circle
  • Gernika 05 - pretty reconstructed buildingGernika 05 - pretty reconstructed building
  • Gernika 06 - less pretty modern functional architectureGernika 06 - less pretty modern functional architecture
  • Gernika 07 - by nightGernika 07 - by night
  • Gernika 08 - clock towerGernika 08 - clock tower
  • Gernika 09 - old oak worshipGernika 09 - old oak worship
  • Gernika 10 - Casa de JuntasGernika 10 - Casa de Juntas
  • Gernika 11 - glass ceiling with oak and fishermenGernika 11 - glass ceiling with oak and fishermen
  • Gernika 12 - assembly roomGernika 12 - assembly room
  • Gernika 13 - large Henry Moore sculptureGernika 13 - large Henry Moore sculpture
  • Gernika 14 - even larger concrete sculptureGernika 14 - even larger concrete sculpture
  • Gernika 15 - stairs and amphitheatreGernika 15 - stairs and amphitheatre
  • Gernika 16 - air-raid shelterGernika 16 - air-raid shelter
  • Gernika 17 - you can go insideGernika 17 - you can go inside
  • Gernika 18 - inside the air-raid shelterGernika 18 - inside the air-raid shelter
  • Gernika 19 - train stationGernika 19 - train station
  • Gernika 20 - Basque with guitar sculptureGernika 20 - Basque with guitar sculpture
  • Gernika 21 - the Basque conflict is not quite overGernika 21 - the Basque conflict is not quite over
  • Gernika 22 - valley locationGernika 22 - valley location


©, Peter Hohenhaus 2010-2019

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