By Chris Ciolli
Even after more than a decade living in Barcelona, Basque country’s biggest city is still one of my favorite places to visit in Spain. Sure, it doesn’t hurt that I have a dear friend who lives there, but there’s something infinitely intoxicating about its particular combination of industrial grit, world-renowned art, and a compact casco viejo crammed with quirky shops and pintxo bars. And I’m probably in the minority here, but I love the cool temps and cloudy, rainy weather—it’s a welcome break from the pervasive sun and heat in Barcelona.
I’m very interested in Basque history, so it wasn’t long before I realized Guernica is only a short jaunt from my favorite Basque city (30-40 minutes via car, and about an hour in public transportation). Guernica, a town made famous by tragedy. Bombed by the Germans and immortalized in the Picasso painting of the same name, Guernica the town is not even a blip on most travelers’ radars. It lacks the stunning scenery and Belle Époque architecture of San Sebastian, and thriving art scene and lively nightlife of Bilbao. But it’s worth a day, or at minimum, an afternoon of your time in Basque country to get a better sense of the traditions and history behind modern-day Basque culture, and politics.
What to Do in Guernica
2) Head to the Guernica Tree and Biscayan Assembly House to learn about the origins Basque’s long-standing political independence. From the Middle Ages on (around the 14th century to be more exact), the Basques gathered underneath the branches of the Guernica oak for important political meetings and assemblies. It was under this sacred tree that the Kings of Castile finally swore to uphold Basque laws for governance in Basque country, and it’s here where today, the Basque country’s political leader, the lehendakari is sworn-in after election. The father tree, planted in the 14th century, lived 450 years, but it’s the trunk of its successor on display in the small circular gazebo in the garden next to the assembly house. Inside the Assembly House, don’t miss the Stained Glass Room with its stained glass ceiling depicting the Guernica Tree and the Assembly House history.
3) Stroll the Park of the Peoples of Europe in search of Eduardo Chiliad’s House of Our Father sculpture dedicated to peace and commissioned by the local government to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the Guernica bombing. Walk all the way around it, from one side it creates a viewing window framing the Guernica Tree in the distance. There’s also Henry Moore’s sculpture, Large Figure in a Shelter, from his World War II series War Helmets.
4) Seek out Guernica’s ceramic tile tribute to Picasso’s masterpiece on Called Allende Salazar before making a stop at Santa Maria Church further down the same street. The mostly Gothic-style church building was constructed over three-centuries and survived the city’s 1937 bombing mostly intact despite the resulting fire that destroyed its archives.
5) Tour the Museu de la Paz, Spain’s first museum dedicated to peace. Through exhibitions and displays explaining the tragic events in Guernica, the museum makes its argument for a culture of peace and why it’s needed today more than ever.
Want to learn more about Guernica and Basque history? I can’t recommend the book The Basque History of the World: The Story of a Nation by Mark Kurlansky enough.
How to Get There:
From Bilbao, Guernica’s a 30-minute drive, depending on traffic just off BI-635 en route to Bermeo. If you want to park for free try the Zearreta lot just behind the Park of the People’s of Europe or the one next to the Basque Police Building (Ertzaintza) on the north side of the city.
If you’re in the UK you may want to bring your car with you to Bilbao and then explore the region and Guernica. There are many ferries to Spain with Brittany Ferries which offers routes from four ports in the UK to two ports in northern Spain (Santander and Bilbao). The ferries have a small cafe and bar plus basic public seating. Rates vary depending on the day and season, but start around 200 euros for a one-way ticket. More here.
In Public Transportation-
Take the Euskotren BIO SS train line from Atxuri towards Bermeo and get off at
Geltoki Plaza, or take the Bizkaibus bus (lines A3513, A3514, A3515 or A3523) from Zabalburu to Guernica’s Geltokia (station). Train and bus services run every thirty minutes weekdays, and hourly on the weekends.
Getting Around Guernica-
Guernica is pretty small and very walkable, but there’s a local bus service called Bidebusa that runs from 8:10 AM until 7:30PM.