The Road to Santiago.

September 26, 2004

"". Photo of stained glass ceiling.
Stained glass ceiling depicting the reading of the fueros under the old oak tree


Gernika (also spelled Guernica) is familiar to many of us, by way of a giant mural painted by Pablo Picasso. It is an abstract representation of one of the most horrific events of the Spanish Civil War. The German Luftwaffe, allies of the Nationalists, tried out a new and unique tactic — carpet bombing. In the space of three hours, 80% of the town was destroyed and 3,000 lives were lost. But amazingly, the Casa de Juntas and the ancient oak — symbols of Basque history and culture — were left intact.

The Basque people are a separate race from the Spanish (or should I say, Iberian people, because there are so many dialects and cultures, — Catalan, Galician, Andalucian, Navarrian, and of course, Castilian —  which make up the Spanish population). The Basque are unique: there is no known connection between their language and any other. During the age of nationalism, at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries, many Basques sought independence. Unfortunately, el pais vasco (the Basque country) spans the Pyrenees and is therefore in two modern countries, Spain and France, neither of which wants to lose possession of such resource-rich lands.

The history of the Euskadi (Basque) goes way back. They had a system of fueros (laws) which respected property rights and other social conventions not common in medieval Europe. And, for centuries, the lords of Viscaya would gather under the ancient oak and swear to uphold the fueros.

Even Queen Isabela made a trip to Gernika to swear to uphold the fueros, to show Castilian respect for her Basque subjects. Each king since then respected the Basque rights. Well, almost each. Unfortunately, in the latter part of the 19th century, the Basques backed the losing side in the Carlist war of succession and the subsequent insurrection. They didn’t want a female queen, Isabel II, to rule. As a result, when the war was lost, they lost the right to the fueros.

During the Spanish Civil War, the Basques were against Franco and the Nationalists; hence, the cause of the brutal destruction of Gernika. During Franco’s dictatorship, the Basques were not allowed to use their native language or assemble in the Casa de Juntas, which is where the Basques would meet and vote.

With the restoration of a Constitutional Monarchy and the development of Autonomous Regions (similar to our states) and a federal relationship to Madrid, the fueros were re-established in 1979.

The symbol for all this was el roble viejo (the ancient oak tree). It was under this tree, during the Middle Ages, that Basque affairs were discussed and voted on. After breakfast, I went to look for it.

Photo of oak on a pedestal.
Mighty oak

Up on a hill, I entered the grounds of the Casa de Juntas. There, to one side, on a pedestal, I found it. But, it was just an eight-foot log!

It seems that grandpa oak, which lived for several centuries, died 150 years ago. They cut down the tree and preserved the trunk.  In its place, they planted a sapling which was raised from a cutting from the original tree. (You might say that he was a chip off the old block.) Apparently there are always several replacements growing in the sidelines, just in case. And this year was such a case. Sonny boy died prematurely from a blight, So it is left to the grandson to carry on the tradition.

Photo of sapling planted from a cutting of the original tree.
Strapping sapling
The original place where the oak stood had been fenced off and the soil had been dug out. It seems that a fungus had been the cause of the blight and they were removing and replacing all the soil to allow the next ancient oak to become a real, ancient one.

I went inside and visited the Casa de Juntas where the meetings have been held since 1979. In the adjacent reception room, there is a beautiful stained glass ceiling depicting the reading of the fueros under the old oak tree.

As I read about their history, I was indeed impressed. I can understand their pride — at least, and I sympathize with those that are not part of ETA.

Ever since I first came to Spain, I’ve had a problem with ETA. It’s a terrorist organiza­tion, like the IRA, Intafada, and al-Qaeda. I’m pleased to find that most Basques reject the philosophy of ETA. In the age of New Spain, each province is an Autonomous Region and those with dual languages are bilingual. Thirty years ago, when I first came to Spain, it was difficult to read road signs because ETA had painted over the printed ones in Euskara, the written language of the Euskadi. Now most signs are also printed in Euskara, so it is sometimes difficult to comprehend. But, this trip, I’m kind of getting used to it.

In the past I was annoyed by the independent displays of resistance to the Spanish government by the Basques, but since this trip to Gernika, I have a better understanding of them. To me: Euskadi, si. ¡Pero ETA, no! But those damn signs make me feel like I’m in a different country.