The oak tree grows big and strong, many live for centuries and witness history passing beneath their boughs. So it is easy to see how an oak tree became such an important symbol to Basque people and there is one in particular that I am visiting today. It is the Tree of Gernika.
At first I struggle to find it, after all there are many oak trees outside the Assembly House in Gernika. However, only one is surrounded by stone columns, though it is only an old gnarled trunk, the remains of a 300 year-old oak which once stood in pride of place before the stone platform where assemblies used to be held. They are now held in the much grander Assembly Chamber and a younger descendant of the great oak has been planted outside. The Assembly chamber itself is a very formal oval room where the elected members of the Biscay Parliament sit on red velvet chairs to discuss important political matters. It also has the feel of a church with an altar and holy water fonts by the entrance. More beautiful is the Stained-Glass Window Room, formally an open courtyard, now enclosed by a huge stained-glass roof depicting the Gernika Tree and the economic activities of the people of Biscay – fishing, farming and mining.
The town of Gernika is uninspiring, having been rebuilt after it was heavily bombed during the Civil War in 1937 by German forces in support of General Franco. Some people believe it was used as a bombing test run by the Germans prior to WWII. Eye witness accounts of survivors can be heard in the Peace Museum where the event is remembered. Gernika has also been immortalised by Pablo Picasso whose painting ‘Guernica’ has been reproduced in ceramic on a wall in the town.