In January of 1937, the Republican government, then mired in the Spanish Civil War against the Nationalists led by General Francisco Franco, commissioned renowned Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, to paint a large mural to be displayed at the 1937 World’s Fair in Paris. Picasso, who had left Spain in 1934 and not returned, had toiled with different ideas for the mural, and abandoned his initial project when he heard of a significant Spanish and World history changing-event.
The 26th of April, 1937 was a market day in the Basque town of Guernica (Gernika in Basque and officially Gernika-Lumo) but this day would be like no other in its long history. At 16:30, air forces led by the Condor Legion of the German Luftwaffe with support from Mussolini’s Italian air legion, began an assault that would last three hours, and destroy or severely damage almost every building in Guernica. Although the number of dead has been debated for years, it is now accepted to be between 200 and 300 with many more being injured.
Why did the bombing of Guernica happen? From the perspective of Franco’s Spanish Nationalist government, it intended to demoralized and break the Basque people and the Republicans. It may be arguable, but Hitler and the military of Nazi Germany were not only looking to complete a favour for their ally, General Francisco Franco, but were looking for somewhere to “practice.” Hitler and the Nazis wanted to test and hone their new method of carpet bombing that would later be used in Russia and throughout Europe in World War II.
The Bombing of Guernica greatly benefited Franco and his regime. Aided by Hitler, the Nationalists won the Spanish Civil War in 1939, and Franco began a 36 year tenure as Spain’s leader until he passed away in 1975. There was uproar around the World after the bombing of Guernica. The Nazis tried to downplay the bombing by saying they had just intended to take out a bridge. Of course, that was not the case, and highly unlikely since Hitler had sent his best pilots and bombers. In later years, Guernica would be known for a town of peace and today, is home to a peace museum. The events not only influenced and inspired Picasso, but writers, musicians, and other artists such as sculptor René Iché.
When I talked to other pilgrims on the Camino del Norte, many had no idea of the history of Guernica. I’d recommend reading and having at least some understanding of the events that took place in the Basque town before you arrive. Now, let’s get back to my Camino. I left my last post, On the Camino Del Norte in Spain, Berriondo to Guernica, on the outskirts of Guernica in the very small town of Ajánguiz. It was once part of Guernica but annexed in 1991.
The Iglesia de la Ascensión in Ajánguiz is a simple, but striking church built in the neoclassical style.
Overlooking Guernica. Just a few kilometers to the town center.
The walk is downhill and easy, but dangerous along this road with no shoulders. If you have only walked the Camino Francés, this may be a bit of a shock to you. Be careful, fellow pilgrims!
Welcome to Guernica! We’ll head toward the downtown area.
I only include this to remind myself of the temperature late in the day — 26.5 degrees Celsius with some cloud cover. This day was one of the worst for my nausea. I had been run down after walking so much in the heat. Not eating or going to the bathroom sufficiently didn’t help either.
The Mundaka River has been important to Guernica and one of the main reasons why the town is situated here.
A modern look and feel through the downtown.
I have no idea what this building is but liked the view through the trees.
The Cultural Center, Udal Kultur Etxea, is besides the main plaza, Plaza de Foru or Fueros Square.
In the center of Plaza de Foru, this is the monument for Count Don Tello who founded Guernica in 1366. The sword in his right hand represents a sign of strength and his left hand holds a scroll for the laws of the town.
The Peace Museum. I never had a chance to visit but understand it is well-worth it if you have time. It is the first peace museum of Spain, and exhibits photos of the bombing and aftermath with testimonies from survivors.
A block away, make sure you visit the beautiful Ferial Gardens, Jardines del Ferial, and the surrounding buildings. Besides the flowers, this clock is an interesting highlight.
On the left is the public school, one of the few buildings that survived the bombing.
If you are visiting Guernica, please don’t miss the Assembly Hall or Biscayan Assembly House, designed by architect Antonio de Etxebarria and completed in 1833. If you’re walking the Camino del Norte, you really can’t miss it as it passes through these grounds.
An important monument to the people of Guernica is to the right of Biscayan Assembly House. This is the Oak of Guernica which is a landmark full of symbolism for the Basque people. It represents freedom and renewal in the sense that the trees are always replanted with their own acorns. The monument is important because since the 14th century, the Biscayan Assembly had met under an oak tree prior to the House being built. The Oak of Guernica was planted in the 1740s and lived until the 19th century. In 2015, a new oak tree was planted in front of another landmark, the Oath Tribune. Let’s take a closer look at the Oak of Guernica…
The interior of the Biscayan Assembly House is filled with art and is well-known for its beautiful stained glass. This is one of the amazing pieces, with an oak tree and the people of Guernica prominently featured.
Another look at the Biscayan Assembly House. I visited the House twice with a lunch break in between.
The gate leading to the Biscayan Assembly House.
Nearby is the mural depicting Guernica, the famous painting by Pablo Picasso. Let’s take a closer look…
The piece depicts the aftermath of the bombing — the damage to the buildings and the suffering of not only the people, but the animals. The horror of the bombing! The actual mural by Picasso is displayed at Museo Reina Sofia in Madrid. It is large at 349 by 776 cm or 137.4 × 305.5 inches
Another beautiful building that could be a palace.
Just above Plaza de Foru, the Iglesia de Santa Maria was not destroyed during the bombing but severely damaged. A subsequent fire claimed many relics including the parochial archive. Thankfully, the church’s organ survived and although doors were locked when I stopped by, I understand it is the main attraction of the interior.
The rebuilt archivolt and main entrance of the Church of Santa Maria.
I hope you enjoyed this post, as I thought it was important to covey some of the history of the Basque town. I’ll stop at the church but our visit to Guernica is not over yet. On my next post, On the Camino del Norte, Guernica to Pepiena, Spain, we will visit Park of the Peoples of Europe, before a steep climb in the hills to the west. Please join me.
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