Our next port of call, Bilbao, brought us to the Basque country. Bilbao is an attractive city, and a gateway to the Basque region. It is home to the Guggenheim Museum (in the shape of a ship, but also with titanium tiles like fish scales), and of some outstanding engineering in both its White Bridge and the Transporter Bridge. The city is fairly clean, and has less graffiti than I saw in some other regions of Spain. With the ferry, and cruise ports it is an excellent place to start any visit to the Basques. We, however, deferred checking out the city and headed inland.
Our first stop was Guernica (Gernika). This was a powerful and moving place to explore.
The horrors of war were brought home to Guernica on a Monday morning in April 1937. This small market town was purposely and symbolically attacked from the air by Franco’s Nazi/Fascist allies. This was a direct attack on democracy, and on a civilian population. It is not surprising then, that Guernica should be along with Hiroshima a living reminder for the need for peace.
The attack on Guernica so appalled the artist Pablo Picasso that he began a monumental mural to call the world’s attention to the atrocity. A tile reproduction of that famous work now stands near the Magistrates Court in the town.
The town also is the site of the Gernika Peace Museum. This museum and its fronting square serve as a reminder. Here the horror of war, and need for peace are focused on. There are several international photo displays on the outside as well, showing a kindred theme.
As I have noted, Guernica was purposely chosen as an example. This is because the town was the home of the Basque Parliament. One of, if not the oldest continuous democracies in the world.
This ancient democracy originally met in the shade of an oak tree. The stump of the old oak is preserved under pillars, and its offspring now officiates in front of an additional pillared structure.
Stained Glass Ceiling with Oak Motif
Painting Symbolizing the Struggle of the Basques
This said, there is now a “modern” assembly house for the Basque Parliament, the Casa de Juntas. This serves as a debating and law making chamber. The assembly room is full of paintings and the red chairs for the members of the assembly, but an outer room with a huge stained glass ceiling is used for informal discussions, and has loads of symbolism most notably of the oak.
Under the chamber there is a small cinema area in which a very informative presentation on the Basque democracy is presented and explained, and again the oak is featured.
The Basques are a proud people with a huge legacy. Our guide noted that their language is unique in that part of Europe, and that the people were notable for having never been conquered by the Romans or the Moors, as was the rest of Spain.
Casa de Juntas is a great place to learn about the Basque people, their democracy, and history more generally. It is highly recommended.
After Guernica we went to the fishing village/town of Bermeo. There is a vistors’ centre, a really lovely park with a sculpture trail and a carousel, and several nice tapas bars. We went to the one called Akatz. We had some really nice coffee and tea from an iron teapot. We also had some really high quality tapas, in the regional style of everything served with toothpicks or skewers. The prawns were is a wonderfully spiced seafood sauce, and served with a soft baguette.
Port and old whaling vessel
Ballenero Aita Guria is an old whaling vessel and is along the port area of Bermeo near the tourist information and the waterfront park. It is an interesting dark wood ship, and while it has no masts, still gives the feel of the bygone era.
After a brief stay we were once again on our way. This time to San Juan de Gaztelugatxe. This is in a fascinating bit of the Basque coastline with the surfer bays, rugged islands, and outstanding scenery. It is now famous as well for being one of the filming locations for Game of Thrones. There is some lay-by parking available to look down on the area from above for those for whom the walled walks and rugged paths are beyond their abilities.
After taking in the scenery, we made our way back to Bilbao, and to the Vizcaya Bridge,
the world’s oldest transporter bridge, This is an incredible feat of engineering. Built in the late 19th Century by one of the students/colleagues of Eiffel, this bridge bears all the hallmarks of that relationship. The bridge ironwork looks much like Eiffel’s tower, and the mechanism of moving the platform across the river in ingenious. While it only carries a few vehicles at a time, the crossing only takes 8 minutes, and foot passengers are carried across on the sides as well. The high beam allows river traffic to move, and the platform is quickly cleared away as well. This too is a “must see.”
Our day coming to an end, we returned to Aurora to begin our journey towards France.