I went to visit my penfriend in the Basque Country last month. We’ve been writing to each other for 23 years, and in all that time we had only met once, when she came to visit London in the 90s. The Basque Country is incredible – the beaches and mountains are gorgeous, the sea is a lovely blue-green, and the architecture is beautiful. And the people are very laid back and friendly. We got to see many places – San Sebastian, Gexto, Bilbao – but one place that meant a lot to me was Gernika (Guernica in Spanish). I’d studied the Spanish Civil War as part of my dissertation on George Orwell, and had read about the destruction of the city in 1937 when it was ruthlessly bombed by Germany’s Condor Legion (the fascists in Germany and Italy were supporters of Franco).
The town was almost completely destroyed, but this oak tree, a meeting place for the local Basque community, survived. The remains are still preserved.
A new tree, formed from an acorn of the original oak, stands outside the meeting house.
Gernika is a beautiful place now. I’m glad I got to see it, so that my thoughts of the city are no longer limited to a catastrophic event that I read about in history books, but a combination of the tragic past and the enchanting present.