Located just northeast of Bilbao, Guernica is the center of the Basque country and the Basque heart. Under the Tree of Guernica near the Meeting House, the councils of Viscaya met for the settling of defense policies and acceptance of royal charters. And under these branches Guernican fighters led the agitation for Basque independence in 1932. In 1937, the city was heavily bombed by, the Spanish government claimed, German planes; but the Basques have always believed it was the Spanish government that did it. At the heart of Guernica is rebellion and passion.
This incident inspired Pablo Picasso to paint “Guernica,” which you can view at Prado in Madrid. Many buildings were heavily damaged in the bombing, but you can visit the Council House, Tribunales, and the Church of Santa Maria la Antigua. Guernica today is modern and pleasant, but the memory of the bombing still lives heavily in the inhabitants’ memories, and they have never forgiven the Spanish government for its complicity or its failure to apologize (Germany apologized for its part in 1999).
Long before its identification with Nazi terrorism, though, Guernica was the homme of ancient humans; in the caverns of Santimamine you can visit 17,000-year-old cave paintings as fine as those of Altamira. In the Guernica river estuary, thousands of Roman artifacts have been found, and old Roman monuments like the Morga stella can still be seen, primarily on the left bank of the river.
What To Do
There are three free and one paid museum in town; only the Guernica Peace Museum charges a very low admission price. The Basque Country Museum, the Assembly House, and the Biosphere Reserve are all free.
The Peace Museum is centered around the bombing of Guernica, but addresses the achievement of peace throughout the world.
Besides the museums, you can visit the Parish Church of Santa Maria, a basically Gothic church that took almost three hundred years to complete. The Palacio de Alegria mansion house wsa rebuilt in the mid-18th century, and today houses the Basque Country Museum.
The Convent of Santa Clara, originally a Franciscan order, is attached to the Hospital of the Domain of Bizkaia. Both are historical buildings, but they were badly damaged in the bombing of Guernica. Most of what you see today was reconstructed from the original buildings.
To appreciate Basque culture fully, you must visit the Tree next to the Meeting House. Inside the meeting house is also the Church of Santa Maria.
Like most of Spain, Guernica has dozens of carnivals and festivals throughout the year. Except for March, April, and September, you’re sure to find one going on wheneve ryou visit.
Where To Stay
The one excellent hotel is the Hotel Guernica. It’s not extraordinary, but it’s comfortable and convenient. You can have breakfast downstairs, but no other meals are served here. It is, however, located near many excellent small restaurants. The Hotel Guernica offers babysitting and one room for people of limited mobility.
Where to Eat
If you’re hungry, try the Asador Zaldua, where your dinner comes from spits over a fiery grill you can see from where you’re sitting. Seafood, fish, and other cuisine are available here, cooked in traditional Basque manners. Like most Spanish restaurants, dinner is served very late indeed. During the summer, you’ll need reservations to get in.
If you prefer to be dipped in Basque culture, try the Baserri Maitea, built in a 300-year-old Basque farmhouse with exposed beams in a high ceiling draped with garlic and red peppers, for atmosphere and practical use. The Catch of the Day is always excellent.