Camino del Norte day 5: Gernika

October 5, 2015
Monastery de Zenarruza to Gernika: 10 miles
Message spray painted on the side of a building in Gernika, requesting that political prisoners be returned home. We saw similar illustrations throughout our walk through the Basque Country.


Feeling fully restored after an evening at the monastery, the hike to Gernika was beautiful and relaxing.



Really old (as in, Roman) rock bridge, covered in moss

Gernika is a small, quiet town with a significant past, and this is a good time to share a little of what we’ve learned about Spanish history.

I can tell you this much: it’s complicated.  The Spanish people have experienced numerous periods of immense suffering.  Here are a few examples:

  • the Jews were violently expelled from Spain in 1492
  • the terrors of the Spanish Inquisition lasted for over 300 years 
  • In the 1930’s, the country was torn apart by civil war and then suffered for over three decades under Francisco Franco’s brutal dictatorship.

And I’m leaving out lots of details from the centuries in between, of wars and cruel kings and convoluted politics and so on.

What makes things more complex is the fact that Spain is made up various regions that consist of diverse cultures and languages.  The Basque Country, which was an autonomous region for hundreds of years before being annexed by Spain and France, has its own language, which many locals speak in addition to Spanish.  We also saw this when visiting Barcelona, in the region of Catalonia, where the natives speak both Spanish and Catalan.

I should add that this two-language thing has been an interesting challenge for Dale and I.  Town names are sometimes given in Basque and sometimes in Castilian Spanish and sometimes in both languages.  It makes it extra confusing for us non-natives who are dependent upon maps and street signs as we move through this unfamiliar region.  In this post I’m showing respect for the locals that have been so good to us by using the Basque spelling for the town of Gernika, versus the more commonly used Spanish spelling, Guernica.  

But back to history.  The Basques fiercely opposed Franco’s rebel troops, and he finally became fed up with them and took extreme measures to punish the region.  He requested the assistance of his more powerful and well-equipped ally, Germany, and on April 26, 1937, the German air force continuously bombed Gernika for about three hours and then strafed the streets with gunfire to kill survivors attempting to flee the city.  It was an attack on a defenseless civilian population and killed hundreds of civilians, and the town was almost completely destroyed.

Germany initially denied involvement in the destruction but eventually acknowledged their participation, stating that their intent was merely to destroy bridges and prevent fleeing Republican troops from escaping.  In reality, no bridges (or factories or other strategic targets) were damaged in the bombings, and it became clear after the war ended that Gernika was an opportunity for the German air force to practice and perfect its techniques before unleashing them on the rest of Europe.  They knew that civilians would die; in fact, this was an integral part of the plan.  For Franco, it was an opportunity to destroy a town that held powerful cultural and historical significance for the Basque people, and Gernika’s destruction broke Basque resistance; soon after the bombing, the region fell into Franco’s hands.

This intentional targeting of a civilian population was considered by many to be an act of terrorism, and it caused a huge public outcry, bringing international attention to the Spanish Civil War.  It also inspired one of the most significant paintings of the 20th century, Picasso’s Guernica, which Dale and I were lucky enough to see at the Reina Sofia Museum with our friend Tamara when we were in Madrid.

Picasso's Guernica (source: Sofia Reina Museum website)
Picasso’s Guernica (source: Museo Reina Sofia)

The painting offers a powerful image of suffering and has become an iconic anti-war symbol.

Franco ultimately won the Spanish Civil War, and afterward he chose to persecute those regions with minority cultures, including the Basque Country and Catalonia, and throughout the country it was forbidden to speak any language other than Spanish.

When Franco died in 1975, the country transitioned back to a democracy, and cultural and language rights to the individual regions of Spain were restored.  Regardless, the Basque region continues to argue for its right to be an independent country.  There has been a strong liberation movement here for years that continues to this day.  It has at times erupted into violence.  The ETA, an organization originally founded in 1959 to promote Basque culture, gradually evolved into a paramilitary group that since 1968 has been held responsible for hundreds of killings and kidnappings.  Spain and other European countries considered it to be a terrorist organization.  It was disbanded through a ceasefire in 2012.  Multiple members of the group are still imprisoned in Spain, France, and other countries, and we saw posters all over the region calling for the release of what locals consider to be political prisoners.

A sign posted on the side of a building in the town of Munitibar, which we passed through on day 6. It’s written in four languages: Basque, English, French, and Spanish. It says, “Welcome. Munitibar is a town located in the south of the BASQUE COUNTRY. The Basque Country is an oppressed country which fights for its freedom. The symbol which represents Basque Country is the IKURRINA. The Spanish flag has been imposed by FORCE and it represents the oppression we suffer, so that is the reason WE DON’T WANT IT.”


The Basque Country isn’t the only other region pushing for independence; Catalonia is as well, and the Spanish government has been forced to give concessions to these regions.  The issue is incredibly complex.  There are lots of interesting articles online, so feel free to Google the subject of Basque and Catalan independence to learn more.

The day’s hike

We didn’t see any other peregrinos on the walk to Gernika, and our friends were either ahead of or behind us.  The hike wasn’t particularly difficult, and we reached town in the late afternoon.  As a result of the destruction, there isn’t a lot of the old city left, and what we found was a small, modern-looking town.

Two of the most important political symbols of the Basque Country, the Biscayan Assembly House and the Gernika Tree, survived the bombings and can still be seen.  Another site, the Peace Museum, demonstrates all that Gernika symbolizes.  It’s still an important city to the Basque region and also an enduring symbol of how devastating war can be, but even more, it’s now a symbol of peace.  The Peace Museum tells the history of Gernika and of the bombing that destroyed it, but the museum also has a broader purpose–to demonstrate why cultivating a culture of peace is so necessary in today’s world.

If you walk the Camino through the Basque Country, I hope that you’ll appreciate the region’s complicated history and also how important Gernika is to the Basque people!


We’ve written a lot about Camino del Norte!  Read more of our Camino blog posts here.