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Guernica or Gernika: What’s in a Name?

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Everything, it seems.

Guernica is the Spanish name of a small Basque village leveled by the Nazis in 1937. And Gernika is how the Basques themselves spell it. The two reflect radically different realities and how you spell the town says a lot about how you view its history.

Today the Basques of northern Spain and the central authority in Madrid cohabit, albeit uneasily. A few generations ago, they were at war.

Guernica or Gernica train station

The peaceful trains station of Gernika-Lumo, as it’s officially called, belies the town’s tragic past

It was a sunny Monday during the Spanish Civil War, 26 April 1937 to be exact. It would have been market day in Gernika, the town’s population swollen by shoppers and farmers from other villages, the atmosphere tense from the sound of distant aircraft and the taste of fear, palpable after the recent bombing of a nearby village.

The battlefront was inching closer.

At midday the church bells sounded an alarm, a sound so common few people heeded the warning. By mid-afternoon, Nazi bombers were strafing the streets and by evening, the thriving little riverside town had been transformed from this…


…into this.

Guernica after bombing

In just a few hours, the carpet bombing of Guernica – or Gernika – killed hundreds of people, possibly as many as 1600. It wounded and maimed many more.

But why was Gernika bombed?

The bombing can be traced to the historical tensions between the Basques and the rest of Spain over Basque loss of autonomy and decision-making.

By the time of the Great Depression of the 1930s, Spain was in turmoil, with left-wing Republicans, representing the workers, clashing violently with right-wing Nationalists, led by General Franco. The situation degenerated into civil war, a particularly brutal war which would pit family members against one another for three long years.

As soon as the war began, Adolf Hitler proclaimed his support for the Nationalist cause and sent General Franco tanks and planes: the Condor Legion. Gernika would be the Nazi stepping stone to World War II, a practice session, a prelude.

So when Franco asked Germany’s Luftwaffe, or air force, to bomb Gernika, they obliged. The bombs and bombers were German, but the order came from Spain, a fact some Basques never forgot.

No one really knows what the bombing was designed to achieve: the destruction of a strategic bridge (unlikely, since the bridge stayed standing), the repulsion of advancing Republicans, the testing by Germany of new carpet bombing tactics, or the simple desire to spread terror.

Whatever the reasons, the destruction of Gernika eventually reached the ears of Picasso, then living in Paris. Outraged, the usually apolitical Spanish artist put his brushes to work.

The result was one of the world’s most famous paintings: Guernica, a cry of anguish about war.

Facsimile of part of Picasso's famous mural, from the Peace Museum in Gernika

Facsimile of part of Picasso’s famous mural, from the Peace Museum in Gernika; the original is in the Reina Sofia museum in Madrid

The Spanish Civil War ended in 1939 with a victory for Franco and although pro-Nazi, Spain would not officially fight in World War II; it was busy nursing its own wounds.

Franco’s government would last until his death in 1975 and his rule would be marked by a cycle of Basque aggression, repression and oppression. Under him, the Basque language was banned, Basque intellectuals and politicians detained and tortured. A nascent Basque terrorist group, ETA, sowed fear into Spanish hearts and killed hundreds of people, many of them police and army officials, before renouncing violence in 2011.

Anti-ETA demonstration

Contrary to what some people thought there was tremendous opposition to ETA-led violence within the Basque country itself, as this anti-ETA demonstration in Bilbao shows.
Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

ETA left a deep mark on Spain’s psyche and for decades the entire Basque population would be thought of as closet terrorists not only by Spaniards but by people outside the country too.

As a Basque friend told me, “I had to make excuses whenever I traveled and told people I was Basque. They looked at me with alarm and I actually had to explain to them I wasn’t a terrorist.” Today, the future is bright for the region: it has regained a measure of autonomy, and is one of the richest regions in an otherwise financially battered country.

During my youth in Spain, the only time Basques were ever mentioned was when there was a terrorist attack. As children we were kept dreadfully ignorant and the ‘Basque province’ was a no-go zone so it was with some trepidation that I finally visited Bilbao for the first time just a few months ago.

Now, in a second visit, I decided to visit Gernika to better understand Picasso’s painting and through it learn more of the region’s history.

Guernica today

Today, Gernika, rebuilt, bears few visible traces of the war

All aboard for Gernika!

The early train from Bilbao pulled itself through intense fog before breaking out into Gernika’s cold, bright sunshine, perhaps the same kind of sky citizens had looked up to on that fateful 26 April.

At first I saw little trace of that history. The town has long since been rebuilt, its 17,000 inhabitants going about their business as most in Spain do, working or studying, their day cut in half by a lengthy lunch during which a few pintxos, the Basque equivalent of tapas, are nibbled in local cafés.

Basque pintxos in Gernika

Throughout the Basque country, pintxos cover bar counters, tempting morsels before a meal or, sometimes, instead of a meal

While history may be a bit discreet these days, it is anything but forgotten.

The Museum of Peace, at the left of the handsome central square, tells the story of war by reconstructing sights and sounds of that April night.

As I sat in a darkened room, I heard the church bells, the sounds of bombing and the warning sirens. I tried to imagine what it might have been like to gather my children or elderly parents in fear and rush into a shelter, not knowing if I would ever leave it, the buildings all around me crashing to the ground.

No, I couldn’t even begin to imagine that, even though my heart beat faster.

And that may be what the museum is trying to do – remind us that some horrors are unimaginable and that peace is always a better alternative than war.

Museo de la Paz, Gernika

Displays of the Museum of Peace trace the history of Gernika’s bombing but also provide lessons on the meaning of peace far beyond the borders of the Basque country

One symbol that survived the bombing is the Tree of Gernika, possibly the most important Basque symbol of freedom. This is where Basque leaders traditionally gathered to make important decisions and pass the laws of Biscay province.

The tree itself isn’t the original but a descendant, the member of a dynasty. The original tree lasted 450 years and the withered trunk of the second, which survived through the 19th century, is showcased in a stone gazebo on the grounds of the Assembly Hall, headquarters of the Biscay parliament.

Today’s tree, the fourth, is a sapling, its slim, pliant branches waving as much towards the future as towards the past.

Assembly Hall and Tree of Guernica

Left, the preserved 19th century tree trunk; center, the young oak as it is today; right, extraordinary stained glass ceiling in the Assembly Hall symbolizes Tree of Gernika

In Gernika, the past is never far from the collective consciousness. Here, Picasso is revered, a main street named after him.


His painting, Guernica, is at the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.

However that’s not to everyone’s liking.

“That is indeed where the painting is,” said a local lady with whom I chatted over a coffee. “But that’s not where it should be. We want it here.”

Guernica, or Gernika, for so long a reminder of war, has now become an emblem of peace.

Things every Woman on the Road should know

  • Gernika is an easy day trip from Bilbao. An hourly train to Bermeo leaves every hour or so from Atxuri Euskotren station in the old town. Get off at Gernika-Lumo.
  • The night before, I stayed in a small and inexpensive (€40) room in Bilbao’s Old Town, the Basque Boutique; my room (102) was decorated like Picasso’s painting.
  • The Gernika Peace Museum Foundation explores the nature of peace, in Gernika and beyond. Well worth the visit, as is the Assembly House and the Tree of Gernika.
  • Two extraordinary books will help prepare your visit to this region. The first is Mark Kurlansky’s Basque History of the World, which is exactly what it says, an overview, so well-written it rushes you along. The second, Guernica by Dave Boling, is a fictionalized account of a Basque family from the early 20th century through the civil war and beyond – it is gripping and gives you an intimate understanding of the region. Both will enlighten you about the Basques – at least they did me.

Historical photographs are the copyright of Centro de Documentacion sobre el Bombardeo de Gernika. Fundacion Museo de la Paz de Gernika. Please do not download or share.


  1. Henry | @fotoeins on December 9, 2013 at 2:07 am

    Thanks for this post, Leyla. Seeing Picasso’s “Guernica” in Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía in Madrid was very much a moving experience: there’s a lot of energy emanating from his work, crying out in despair, in pain, but also I feel interestingly desperately crying for hope.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 9, 2013 at 2:16 am

      Thanks Henry! There’s a wonderful display at the Peace Museum that deconstructs the painting into various parts – war, peace, hope… it confirms your own feelings about the work.

  2. Suroor on December 9, 2013 at 1:32 pm

    Thanks for this, Leyla. Am adding to my list when we visit the Basque Country. I also saw Guernica in Madrid–it was breathtaking.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on December 9, 2013 at 2:38 pm

      I was really taken by this region – and I still haven’t seen most of it. I’m planning on going back…

  3. Shelley on April 26, 2015 at 1:42 am

    Very interesting post. I knew of the tragedy of Gernika but not the history behind it. I love Spain in general but Barcelona is as far as I’ve been into Basque Country. I would love to explore the region, and Gernika will be on my must see list.

    • Leyla Giray Alyanak on April 26, 2015 at 8:57 am

      It absolutely should be – it’s a hop and a skip from Bilbao, which has some extraordinary food and is itself worth the visit. I don’t know where you live but these days there are incredibly cheap flights to Bilbao from major European cities on low-cost airlines.

  4. tracy on January 14, 2018 at 4:30 am

    Thank you Leyla. I really enjoyed reading article and learning about the background of Picasso’s painting. Bilbao and Gernika are definitely on my list for my next visit to Spain. And I really appreciate your Women on the Road website. Just what I need to plan for my travels!

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