“What does that mean?”, I asked, looking at the inscription below the tiled wall with a Guernica reproduction. “I think it’s Basque for Guernica (the painting) to Guernica (the town)”, replied Jules while grabbing a chubby but deceptively agile Gabriel before he could get his hands on an unsuspecting nearby pigeon.
Jules had become our official Basque translator after successfully navigating the intricate menus of a parking meter with a stuck language button. “Some Basques argue that Picasso’s anti-war masterpiece should be moved from Madrid to the Basque Country, since it depicts the bombing of Guernica during the Spanish Civil War”, added our translator, tour guide and protector of winged creatures.
We stood there, transfixed by the disarray of screaming women, dismembered soldiers, and gored animals. “I saw the original painting a few years ago, at the Reina Sofia Museum”, said Jules. “It’s as big as this tiled wall but looks as fragile as the beings it depicts. The museum argues that the more than 30 trips it has taken since being painted by Picasso in 1937 has rendered it too delicate for further travelling”.
The painting’s circuitous travel itinerary seemed like a suitable inspiration for our own trip. Rather than flying directly from Lisbon to Vigo, where we had some matters to attend, we instead went first to the Basque Country, turning our trip into a triangle fitting of Cubism.
Sticking to the theme, we followed suit with a hike to Gaztelugatxeko, a hermitage perched on an islet north of Guernica, only accessible through a tortuous set of stairs. Confirming an earlier sketchy theory, Gabriel complained profusely but refused any assistance up the stairs. You can just about seem him below, hand in hand with Jules and about to overtake a less whiny but slower group.
Once atop, we admired the panoramic view over the Bay of Biscay. “Some of the planes that bombed Guernica roared over this bay”, I muttered. I had been reading about the bombing that inspired Picasso and temporarily replaced Jules as the group’s historian, as she was busy attending to a proud but tired Gabriel.
“The bombing was carried out by Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy at the request of General Franco”, I continued. I had managed to capture Jules’s attention, but Gabriel was instead focused on the model airplane of a nearby kid. “After Franco’s victory, Picasso requested New York’s MoMA to safeguard the painting until Spain became a democracy”.
“When that finally happened, in 1978, the museum resisted giving away its prized possession, arguing that Picasso wished a republic and not a constitutional monarchy. After three years and considerable international pressure, MoMA stopped quibbling and shipped it to Spain. After more than 40 years and 30 trips, the painting finally settled down in Madrid, from where it will probably never leave again”.
Unimpeded by such travel restrictions, the three of us made our way down the winding staircase and continued our slow progress across Northern Spain.