It seemed only fitting that my journey should come to a close in the Basque region, an unassuming area of Northern Spain forever touched by the horrors of the Spanish Civil War. The bombing of the town of Gernika thrust this province into the throes of the war and serves as the event that spurred international interest in what had previously seemed like a national problem.
Seeing the vast canvas full of distorted black and white images that compose Picasso’s Gernika mural is one of my earliest memories of Spain during my first visit over ten years ago. I now have the distinct feeling that the trip is coming full circle. We revisited Picasso’s masterpiece at the Reina Sofia in Madrid, we saw the pabellon in Barcelona built to house the mural and I would now have the opportunity to visit the site that inspired the powerful artwork.
My visit to the Basque enclave of Gernika, was perfectly previewed by my pre-trip reading of the book entitled Guernica, by American author Dave Boling. I had no idea how much this historical fiction book would impact me. I spent every minute I could spare on trains and planes reading this author’s first novel and managed to turn the final page in this epic as my bus climbed a mountain heading down into the valley near Gernika. The well developed characters in the book helped me to envision exactly how the town would appear and it was a delight to wander through the town square, the San Juan church, the casa de juntas and around the famous Gernika tree to truly experience history come alive.
The Basque people are fiercely proud of their language, their culture and their unique place in history. The Gernika oak tree has come to represent the importance that the Basque people place on justice and regional autonomy. My visit to Gernika came from the desire to step foot in the place that serves as a symbol for the atrocities that can be launched on innocent civilians in war times. General Franco, backed by the German Luftwaffe air power, launched systematic air raids on many civilian targets in the Basque region and then culminated this reign of terror through the obliteration of the village of Gernika on April 26th, 1937. The nationalist forces quickly seized what was left of the town and used the route through Gernika as a direct supply path to the coast.
Many international journalists and activist became motivated to take action as a result of the first hand accounts of the death and destruction that had befallen the Basque people. Picasso’s powerful response resulted in the masterpiece, Guernica, that has achieved worldwide prominence. Picasso said it best as he reflected on the purpose behind the mural, “by means of it I express my abhorrence of the race that has sunk Spain in an ocean of pain and death.”
“For he who lived it, the situation is unspeakable, for he who doesn’t know it, it is unimaginable”