Gernika. A moving tale.Some 90 miles along the northern coast of Spain, not far from Bilbao, lies the little town of Guernica, or Gernika as it is known in Basque. The area was originally settled 15,000 years ago in the Palaeolithic period, as cave paintings in the nearby Santimamine caves testify. The area was isolated and the unique Basque language was gradually created. The abundance of fish and seafood meant that during the Neolithic and early Iron Age periods fishing as well as farming became important. By the second century BC the Basques controlled all the important land and sea communications and built forts, one of which, Kosnoaga, is on the site of present day Gernika. When the Romans occupied Spain the Basque country was never really conquered, but Roman settlements were established, the remains of one of which, Forua, can still be seen just north of Gernika. Modern Gernika was founded by Count Don Tello on April 28 1366, as a separate village from its neighbour, Lomo. Over the centuries it grew and prospered, amalgamated with Lomo and by the 20thCentury it was a busy industrial town of 5,000 souls. It had become a centre of Basque culture and of law making. It was the site of the most important of the seven sacred oak trees under which the Basques met and formed their laws in democratic fashion.
In July 1936 Spain erupted in civil war. The Fascist troops quickly over-ran the south of Spain, but the Basque country and Catalonia showed strong resistance. Bilbao seemed untouchable. So on
April 26 1936, 570 years after the founding of the town, German and Italian bombers, at the request of the fascist rebels, carried out 3 hours of continuous bombing, dropping 29,000 kilos of high explosive and incendiary bombs and completely wiping out 15,000
years of settlement. Those that survived tried to flee and were mown down by machine gun fire from above. It will never be known how many perished. The official figure is 1,654 dead and 889 injured. However as well as the population of 5,000 there
were at least 2,000 refugees from the front line 20 km away sheltering in the village. To show how calculated and callous the attack was, there were specific instructions to spare two things. First, the sacred oak tree, for destroying that would
have antagonised the Basques even more. Second, a large gun manufacturer, close to the centre, whose production line should keep running in order to arm the rebels. The attack was an ideal opportunity for the German and Italian air forces to practice
the use of a weapon which they would put to deadly effect three years later in WWII.
Back to our trip.
Apologies for the history lesson, but it is useful to have some background as to why we visited Gernika and why we opted to spend two more days in the rain before moving south. We had driven through Gernika a few years earlier, but did not have the chance to stop. Now we could spend the afternoon visiting the UNESCO award winning Peace Museum and also to see what remains of the “Original Oak” (not to be confused with the drinking palace in Headingly, of course).We arrived at our site, Portuondo, about five miles north of Gernika, in a brief moment of clear weather. The site is nicely situated by the shores of the Ria Mundaka, an inlet of the Bay of Biscay, with lovely beaches and steeply wooded hills either side. Of course the hills mean that the campsite is on a steep terrace, which made the approach to the pitch a bit tricky. This, added to the fact that we hit them during the last week of their season, meant that it was not all we had hoped it would be. The main toilet block, which looked very smart, was closed, leaving only two disabled wet rooms available for us. As we were the only ones on site it did not bother us much, and the weather was such that we never went over to the dishwashing arena either. My only complaint was that being aimed at “minusvalidas” the loos had raised seats which I did not find at all comfortable or convenient. Nevertheless in season I am sure it would be a great spot. Certainly the countryside and shoreline around here is very impressive.
After a very early lunch we went into town to visit the museum, which, being Sunday, was due to close at 2. We found it quite fascinating. Its main subject, of course, was the bombing of Gernika, but the whole thrust of the exhibition was about peace and reconciliation. It is interesting that a German delegation came to visit in the ‘70’s and made a formal apology for what had happened, while the Spanish Government has never even acknowledged that it took place. The official line at the time was that the town had been torched during riots started by the communists, and that has never changed. The museum has a number of other exhibits based on the theme of reconciliation, with topics such as South Africa, the Berlin Wall and Guatemala.
We came out into pouring rain, surprise surprise, but nevertheless had a wander round the town, looking for a likely place for a coffee and a bun. Being lunchtime most places were full, with crowds of smokers outside under umbrellas. It seems that the natives here have umbrellas glued to their person. We never saw anyone without one. Not surprising given the climate. We found a little old bar and café in the end and had an excellent coffee and shared a chocolate coated Palmetta. It killed an hour while we waited for the storm to pass.
Afterwards we walked up to the little park where the Oak tree is. Sadly it died of old age in the ‘70’s, but its remnants are protected in a little Greek temple and a replacement tree was planted. In an adjacent park is a huge Henry Moore sculpture, “Great Figure in a Shelter” and also a strange architectural sculpture by Chillada, a renowned Spanish sculptor, entitled “Gure Aitaren, Etxea”. (I wish I knew what that means, I’ll have to look it up next time I’m on Google. I am guessing Gure is war). (I have now discovered it means "Our Father's House", so nothing to do with war!) We enjoyed seeing a crowd of Japanese tourists taking several thousand photos of each other around the Chillada, chattering about how wonderful it was to see a Henry Moore! Two more unalike sculptors I cannot imagine.
We managed a brief walk on the beach on the way home, between showers, but by the time we got back to the caravan it was tipping it down and it stayed that way all night.
Next morning was still grey, dismal and damp, but it didn’t matter that much as we were off to Bilbao for the day to re-visit the Guggenheim. The drive there took us round the coast, which in any other weather would have been spectacular, but of course today visibility was somewhat restricted. We have been in this area in April, very wet; May, pretty wet; January, wet; December very very wet; June hot and sunny and wonderful. Take note if you intend to
come here. The local population all carry umbrellas as if welded to their arms. We in the UK will look at the weather and wonder whether we should take a brolly. Here in Northern Spain it is the opposite. Carry a brolly unless told otherwise. Yet they do a lot of walking and strolling. Between the villages are well paved and well lit footpaths and there were always couples strolling along, miles from anywhere, stretching their legs and getting soaked.
The Guggenheim was, as ever, impressive. The titanium sheets which cover part of the building started off as bright silver, but they are mellowing into a warm creamy yellow, matching the yellow limestone of the rest of the building. Bilbao even produced a few minutes of sunshine to show it off for us. This time they were putting on a special exhibition of famous works from the collections of all the Guggenheims, “The Art of Our Times”, and an impressive array it was. They had arranged them in a bit of a chronological order, from the dawn of the 20th Century and there were works by, Chagall, Picasso, Kandinsky, Miro, Rothko, Jackson Pollock, Warhol, you name it, they’ve got it. Also a lot of interesting sculptures and “installations”.
A visit to the Guggenheim is not complete without a visit to the restaurant. When we were here four years ago we had a taster menu cooked by Josean Martínez Alija who trained at “El Bulli”, for many years voted the best restaurant in the world. We were pleased to see that he is still here. He has opened a new restaurant downstairs, but still has time to supervise the Bistro where we ate. As we sat down we were given a bottle of mineral water and a bowl of olives to nibble on while we chose from the menu. That was easily done as we knew we wanted the taster menu. A basket of fresh baked bread arrived when or order was taken, followed shortly by a champagne and strawberry cocktail. First course was lettuce and mash, which sounds a ridiculous combination, but actually worked very well. The lettuce hearts had a lovely dressing, while the creamed potatoes had been mashed with egg and had shavings of olive on top. Turnip, spinach and chicken ravioli had us speculating. Would it be three ravioli, one stuffed with each? No, four tiny ravioli arrived resting in a delicate carbonara sauce. But they weren’t pasta at all. Each was a small round dollop of mixed chicken mince and spinach, with a lid made from a very thin slice of turnip. Most unusual and very delicately flavoured. Next came the fish course: a piece of Hake, cooked absolutely to perfection, resting on a “tuber” puree, which was sweet potato and more that we could not identify, with a sauce which had a very delicate mushroom tang to it. The meat course appeared looking like a slice of chocolate brownie. A large cube of roast lamb, browned on the outside, with a caramelised onion sauce and a swirl of some sort of paste flavoured with ras el hanout spices. Finally, the dessert was a bread and butter pudding with ice cream, served in the form of a delicate caramelised French Toast, and home made vanilla ice cream. All this was washed down with an excellent bottle of fine white Rueda. Just before coffee arrived a wooden pencil box was put on the table, which when opened revealed four each of orange flavoured Turkish delight, chocolate brownies and madeleines, tiny bite sized pieces to help our coffee down.
I won’t say how much we paid for all that; suffice to say it was much more than we would normally pay for a meal. However I would guarantee that if you had a meal of that quality cooked by a chef of that standing, anywhere near London you would be looking at three or four times what we paid. And the bonus for us is that we did not have to dress up or act posh to have it.Back to the caravan and strangely we did not bother with an evening meal, just a pot of Yorkshire tea and a digestive biscuit.Next day we hitched up and drove south over the hills to Burgos. Another journey which in fine weather would have been wonderful, but in the grey damp drizzle wecould not see the mountains, which I am sure were snow covered. We had visited Burgos a few years ago and wanted to see it again, but the weather did not please. The site, which had had good reviews, was very muddy and not very welcoming. The WiFi did not work (we did get our money back), and it was very cold. Not just cold cold, but that horrid damp cold we get in the UK that penetrates the bone and sets all the joints aching. So we decided that one night would suffice, we could come back to Burgos another time, and would set off for Salamanca in the morning.
Next episode, sunshine in Salamanca followed by rain in Caceres, to follow soon.