cantabria to gernika and bilbao, part 1

I almost forgot to mention, we had some interesting news from home. Everything is fine now, but Essie had her hands full for a while!

I warned Essie about the danger of skunks in our backyard after dark: absolutely never, ever let the dogs run out into the backyard after dark!! I've lost track of how many times our dogs have been skunked, and I'm determined to make sure it never happens again.

But there's no accounting for early-morning skunks!

Maybe this skunk was an early riser or maybe he was staggering home from an all-nighter, but either way, a skunk and our dogs greeted each other at around 7:00 in the morning. I won't go into details, but Essie handled it heroically. Luckily I caught up with her by text and phone before she went to too much unnecessary effort.

Then Essie took the dogs to the dogpark. When she went to leave, our car wouldn't start! Some nice people at the park had booster cables and helped her out. That has never happened to us, ever.

Apparently canines and cars have been normal since then. But wow!

* * * *

We left Santillana del Mar early in the morning and headed west, towards the region of Basque Country, Euskadi in Basque, Pais Vasco in Spanish. It was a pretty drive through the country, and when we got towards the Basque region, the road was more mountainous and close to the sea.

I had a bit of concern going there without being able to speak a word of Euskara. Many Basques do not like to speak Spanish, as they seek to be independent of Spain. But their own language is barely spoken outside of their province: it is a language with no known family. So Spanish would be the language of tourism and general currency. But still, I don't want to be rude or offensive.

We drove first to Gernika, to see the Gernika Peace Museum. Gernika is the Basque name for Guernica, the town that on April 26, 1937, Hitler and Franco tried to bomb into submission, the atrocity commemorated in Picasso's famous painting. The bombing of Gernika marked the first time a civilian population was intentionally targetted by aerial weaponry as a method of breaking the people and their movement. Gernika was specifically chosen because the Basque people were strongly represented in the Spanish Republican (anti-fascist) movement.

We drove into the town and parked, then asked a passerby for direction, then later on another, naturally speaking Spanish. They were both so friendly and helpful that I immediately had a good feeling about being there.

The museum is divided into three main parts: reflections on the meaning of peace, what happened to Gernika in the absence of peace, and what about peace in the world today? (If you are interested, this link has some of the many subcategories of each part.)

I found the reflections on the meaning of peace very significant. Peace is more than the absence of war. An oppressive government can enforce an absence of armed conflict. A grossly unequal society may appear to be at peace. But if people are forced into submission, can peace be said to exist? There is also personal peace, peace of mind and of heart. But even that can be the illusion of peace, of living in a personal bubble of denial. By inviting you to contemplate these ideas, the museum prepares you for what happens in the absence of peace. You move from the general (peace) to the specific (Gernika) and back to the general (truth and reconciliation, human rights).

One multimedia section puts you in a typical Gernika home, listening to a survivor speak (translated), then you hear the bombing, and the scene changes; you see destruction all around you. Another video looks at reconciliation efforts: Ireland, Guatemala, South Africa, Australia.
On May 12, 1999, the New York Times reported that, after sixty-one years, in a declaration adopted on April 24, 1999, the German Parliament formally apologized to the citizens of Guernica for the role the Condor Legion played in bombing the town. The German government also agreed to change the names of some German military barracks named after members of the Condor Legion. By contrast, no formal apology to the city has ever been offered by the Spanish government for whatever role it may have played in the bombing.
The final section of the museum reflects on universal human rights. Without them, there can be no real peace.

In all, the Gernika Peace Museum is a very special place. If you ever go to this part of Spain, perhaps to visit the Bilbao Guggenheim, I highly recommend spending a few hours in this wonderful museum. The signage is in Euskara and Spanish, but on admission, you receive printed information - an entire book that walks you through every exhibit - in the language of your choice.

There is a copy of Picasso's painting in the museum, and a ceramic tile version on a wall in town. The museum itself occupies pride of place in the centre of town. I would be so proud to live in a town that, despite its suffering, places a peace museum in the heart of its community.

* * * *

We drove from Gernika to Bilbao with no problem, but the moment we left the highway, we were lost. What else is new. Once in town, off the highway, our directions from Google Maps rarely correspond to reality on the ground.

Rather than waste any time driving around blindly, I asked Allan to park, then we asked for directions at a newsstand. The newsstand person put on her glasses, took out a map, looked in the index for the street name, and gave us general directions in slow, clear Spanish, even telling me a couple of key words in Euskara to help me navigate.

Because of one-way streets and general confusion, we had to stop again, this time near a lively pedestrian area where people were eating and drinking with their families. (It was Sunday.) A bunch of people were looking at a map of the city, and I kind of crept up until they noticed me. I said in Spanish, "We are lost..." and they all gave us the map and discussed our directions. And this is the biggest city in the Basque Country province. So by now my fears about language were put to rest.

From there, we had a general idea where to go, but nothing too specific. We drove over a bridge with the Guggenheim right next to us! Then around to another bridge going in the opposite direction. I saw a parking lot and implored Allan to go right in.

I thought we were in walking distance from the museum, so I thought, rather than drive around looking for the hotel, let's park, see the museum, and we'll deal with the rest later. We have a reservation and I've asked the hotel to hold it til late. I can write down the name of the street where we're parked, call the hotel, and get directions from there. (If this seems too detailed, I'm recording this for a reason.)

With the car safely tucked away, we walked down a lovely pedestrian esplanade, with the river on one side and tram tracks on the other. People were out walking, many with dogs, children were playing, the sun was shining. It was lovely.

A large group of people walking Greyhound dogs appeared. It was a Greyhound parade! Many of the dogs wore sweaters saying "Adopta Un Galgo," sweaters perfectly tailored to the Greyhounds' svelte physique. The dogs were lovely. Seeing the dog rescue group, I remembered that earlier in the day, we had heard frantic barking but saw no dog. We saw a car pulling a trailer, a small, low trailer like you'd use to transport tools, and realized in horror that a dog must be inside. Believe me, this did not look like a humane way to transport a living creature. Now I realized that must have been a racing dog inside.

We took a flyer, and I've since learned that Spain has a huge dog-racing business. Galgo is the Spanish word for racing dogs. The Galgo rescue group meets on the last Sunday of every month at Puppy, better known as El Poop, the giant begonia-covered sculpture of a dog by Jeff Koons that stands in front of the Bilbao Guggenheim. (Begonias are a Basque symbol.) Check out the Galgo rescue group's lovely logo.

We walked a short while, and soon the Bilbao Guggenheim appeared. Like most art, it's even more impressive in person than in photos. We walked all around it taking pictures, crossing the pedestrian bridge to get the famous view you always see.

After this, we walked around to the front of the museum. (What you usually see is the back. The Puppy sculpture is the other side.) As we were coming around, I saw the giant "i" symbol for tourist information. I said to Allan, it's Sunday afternoon, what are the odds that it's open. But we saw someone inside, and went in.

I said, "We have a hotel reservation, but we cannot find the hotel." The info desk person asked for the name of the hotel. I said, "Hostal Begoña. We are parked at Pio Baroja." She took out a map and showed me Hostal Begoña... around the corner from Pio Baroja. We had parked around the corner from the hotel!

She gave us the map... and then locked the door behind us! We found them a few moments before they closed!

Photos of the Gernika Peace Museum and the Guernica reproduction are here.

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