Ever hear of a town to honor a tree?
The Basque town of Gernika certainly does. The town honored an oak-tree trunk by keeping it in a pillared memorial on the grounds of the Assembly House.
And why it this tree so important? It began centuries ago. It is reported that from the 14th century, Gernika was the meeting place for the people of Biscay. Each parish sent its representative to discuss common problems that arose within the territory.
The meetings were held under the ‘Tree of Gernika’ and were called the General Assemblies of Biscay.
But in 1876, the old laws which governed Biscay were abolished, and not until 1979, was the General Assembly recovered.
The tree, therefore, represents the living symbol of the history of the people living in the Basque Country, and its unification.
I saw the oak tree, and then went inside of the Assembly Chamber, where the Meetings of the General Assemblies of Biscay are held.
The building represents the tradition of a relationship between public life and religion and the space was designated to combine both functions. “We are, therefore, before a Church-Parliament, although the ecclesiastic aspect has currently been relegated by politics, both the altar and the holy water fonts are still maintained as witnesses of bygone days,” so states the information available to the public.
The walls are covered with paintings of the Lords of Biscay, and the interior seating is formal and covered in red, a chandelier hangs from the ceiling.
Another larger room is a history museum of Biscay. A stained-glass window serves as a ceiling. It was the 1985 work of the craftsmen from the Vidrieras de Arte and represents the symbolism of the tree as a meeting point.
While I took a few hours to get a feel for the town and its people, I asked a woman if she could recommend a restaurant, as up to that time, only taverns were alive with people, and I wanted food.
She pointed to where I should walk and I’d find a restaurant, and so that’s what I did, but the restaurant she pointed out was full of laughing, mostly men, taking a break and having a bite to drink. So I walked on and saw other establishments doing the same. One man told me I could find a restaurant at the end of the block so that’s where I headed until the woman who gave me directions, grabbed me by the arm.
“No, not there. That place is for bikers. Come to this place.” She took me inside where I thought the merriment was about drinking, but I noticed there were tables of diners, so guess I misunderstood the atmosphere. She told the women in the kitchen to take care of me, and that woman told her waitress something that I couldn’t hear.
The lunch at 3 p.m. was the last supper for me here in the Basque country, and it couldn’t have been tastier. The way it works, is there are several choices from a menu that isn’t written down. You choose a first and second course, a drink and then dessert. The busy waitress brought me fish soup – delicious, and then another fish dish. It was perfectly cooked and reminded me a bit of trout almondine.
Then dessert was a bowl of fresh fruit. The merriment continued inside the establishment while I sat on their outdoor court. The Spanish people take their two to three hours off from work very seriously-fun. Then some go back to work until later and then dinner begins as late as 9 p.m. but it is normal for dinner to be served as late as 10 or 10:30 p.m.
The typical merriment of the Basque people has some sad history that must have created a vast change in their lives, beginning with the Civil War that lasted from 1936 to 1939.
The war was created out of the left and right wing factions since the Second Spanish Republic was formed in 1931.
There were four periods of the Second Republic: provisional government, left-wing government of Azana, and the two-year period of conservative governments. The elections of 1936 led to the Popular Front winning, and becoming powerful, with difficult relations between left and right wings.
Sides were chosen and the coup d’etat took place against the government of the Popular Front headed up by General Franco. The National Front had the support of the German Air Force, which was organized by Major General Goering. Goering needed a testing field.
Fast forward the history to the air raids that were conducted on civilian targets. Between the Italian and the German Airforces, the town of Gernika was destroyed. It is believed that over two hundred people were killed, and many of the buildings were leveled.
Later, Gernika was adopted in 1939 and reconstruction began.
Enough of the sad history. When I arrived into the town, the usual Monday market was in full bloom, with stalls of fresh fruits, vegetables, flowers, honey, canned produce, nuts and more, and a flea market with the usual items on display. The colors of the produce matched the vibrations of the people and the loud music. This market has been bringing people together in this venue for centuries and is of great social importance.
The market and other fiesta’s and town events causes me to wish for more time there in Gernika, but tomorrow I move on, taking what I have learned about the heart of the Basque people with me in fond memories.
I want to thank the women in the hostel for making my stay in Bolueta successful, and for their help with directions and activity ideas.
Joana Revilla, the Hostel manager spent some time in Chicago, Maiteder Estevez, is Basque and that is where she got her first name and, of course, Yanira, who I have mentioned before.
They are hard-working young women who seem to take pleasure in making a nice atmosphere for travelers.