Guernica the town that became a symbol for peace
Eighty years since bombs devastated it – and as a new exhibition opens in Madrid displaying Picasso’s fabled artwork – the Basque town is a proud advocate of peace, as well as gateway to a region of lush hills and wild Atlantic coast
Past the handgun factory that has become an arts centre, behind the rebuilt station with its shiny statue of the first Basque president, there’s a long blackened tunnel with a padlocked door. Begoña unlocks it and we step inside. It smells of weeds. Eighty years ago this month it would have smelt of fear, as crowds of townsfolk sheltered from one of the most infamous air raids in history.
Before Hiroshima or Dresden, and long before Mosul or Aleppo, there was Guernica (the official and Basque name is Gernika). On 26 April 1937 this market town was obliterated in three hours of bombing by Nazi planes, allies of Generalísimo Francisco Franco’s fascists in the Spanish civil war.
It was the first total destruction of a civilian target from the air. International outrage included public demonstrations and the painting by Picasso, a copy of which still hangs outside the UN security council.
“We don’t know how many people hid in this shelter,” says Begoña, my guide. “But all of them survived.” She smiles and walks me back into the rebuilt town that has turned itself into a global symbol of peace. Today, it has a peace museum (museodelapaz.org) and a peace park, and survivors of the raid have linked with others from Dresden and Hiroshima to campaign against war in Iraq and Syria.
There are burly men in Basque berets walking its modern streets, and its bars are doing a brisk trade in pintxos, the local version of tapas.
On a hillside above is the historic symbol of Basque identity: the oak tree of Guernica (Gernikako Arbola), beneath which generations of Basque leaders and Spanish kings have sworn to respect this fiercely independent region.
Beside it is the neo-classical Assembly Hall, where regional leaders still meet to agree their annual budget. Neither was hit in 1937, leaving one tiny corner of continuity. Behind them is the peace park, where children play football beside a Henry Moore sculpture called Large Figure In A Shelter.
But there’s more to this area than Guernica. I’m in the heart of Vizcaya (Biscay in English) a lush region of soft hills and solid farmhouses, with a wild Atlantic shore. So I hop in my car and drive north, towards the Bay of Biscay, to explore.
First stop is Mundaka, a tiny seaside resort famous for its surf. At its centre is a pretty Victorian waterfront with a fishermen’s chapel at one end and a Romanesque church at the other. One wall of the church is used for playing pelota, the Basque racket game. Across the water is a fabulous beach where surfers come to catch a left-hand barrel wave.
A mile or two west is Bermeo, a working port crammed with fishing boats. Two historic ships are being repaired in dry dock, and a 17th-century whaler is moored near three tempting fish cafes. Once sailors from here hunted cod and whale as far as Newfoundland, and Christopher Columbus took pilots from Bermeo on his voyages. I wander the crumbling backstreets, past a tiny marina of blue and white yachts, up a hill of cobbled lanes where a ruined palace gapes across a baroque square. The mood is gritty, empty, real.
I climb back to the car and head east, towards the cliff-side village of Elantxobe. Parking is on the road above, where space is so tight that the bus has to turn around on a tiny electric revolve. From here, steep alleys spill down between whitewashed houses where cats prowl and washing flutters.
It could be the Amalfi coast, except there are no crowds. At the bottom is a tiny harbour where cafe Itxas Etxea – bare brick walls and wraparound glass windows – is serving txakoli, the local white wine.
My hotel for the night is in the rather grander seaside resort of Lekeitio, 25-minute drive east of Elantxobe. I’m staying at Palacio Oxangoiti (doubles from €132 B&B), a 17th-century merchant’s house in the medieval fishing quarter.
I tiptoe up the winding wooden staircase to my room, where the ceiling has carved beams and the windows look out on a Gothic church and a perfect sweep of beach. At dusk I visit the bars on the quayside for pintxos, then dine at a simple restaurant called Goitiko, on Arranegi Kalea. The owner offers football gossip on Basque favourites Athletic Bilbao, then brimming plates of octopus and clams, straight off the boats.
Next morning I have a special appointment back in Guernica. I am meeting one of the last survivors of 1937. Luis Iriondo Aurtenetxea is 94 and stands straight as a rake. He walks me to the old market place, whose stone arcades survived the bombing but whose gates are marked by bullet holes.
“On the day of the bombing, I was just 14. The town was full of people for market day – which the Germans knew.” He shows me another tunnel, at one end of the market place. “The church bells rang a warning and people pushed me deep inside this shelter. I could feel the hot air of the explosions; I could hear the blasts. I was terrified.
“The bombing lasted more than three hours. Finally, when I came out from behind the sandbags, I saw my whole town burning.”
Luis was lucky. His family survived and fled to France as refugees. But he cannot forget. And he’s proud that his son has helped today’s refugees in Greece.
“We survivors will disappear. We want people to carry on our message. We want every town hall to have a peace committee to talk to their governments.
“When the German ambassador came here to apologise in 1997, I was asked to speak for the town. I said to him: ‘A flag of peace should be raised from the ruins of what our town once was. This must never happen again.’”
Pablo Picasso’s painting of the bombing of Guernica is one of the 20th century’s most famous images. A vast canvas in sombre tones of grey and blue, it shows in searing detail the suffering of people and animals as bombs fell on their town.
He painted it for the Spanish pavilion at the 1937 International Exhibition in Paris and toured it around the world to publicise the massacre. Although a Spaniard by birth, Picasso swore that neither he nor this painting would ever visit Spain until democracy was restored. This did not happen until 1978, five years after his death. The picture was finally returned to Spain in 1981.
It can be seen at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid. This year the museum is holding an anniversary exhibition on how the picture was created: Pity and Terror, Picasso’s Path to Guernica runs from 5 April to 4 September.
There is a modern replica of the 1937 Spanish pavilion in Barcelona, where it is now a public library devoted to the Spanish civil war, Franco’s regime and Spain’s transition to democracy. The original was designed by modernist architects Josep Maria Sert and Luis Lacasa, with exhibits including a mural by Joan Miró and a film by Luis Buñuel. Picasso’s painting filled one wall of the courtyard, as a replica does today. Pavelló de la República CRAI Library.