The Basque Country (pronounced “Bask”) is an autonomous community in the western Pyrenees Mountains that straddles the border between France and Spain. It lies on the Atlantic coast in northern Spain. This area boasts a unique mix of cultural traditions, cuisine and language. If you are considering a holiday to the Basque Country or a self-guided walk, such as walk on one of the many Camino Santiago routes, the Camino del Norte stage one or Stage 2, here are some fascinating things to know about the region.
1. It’s thought that the Basques may be the oldest ethnic group in Europe. It’s believed they inhabited the south-western corner of Europe since before Indo-European peoples came to the area some 5,000 years ago. The people survived numerous invasions yet still retained a deep-seated sense of autonomy.
2. It was in 1516 that the Basques on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees agreed to Castilian rule. But they won the right to keep a degree of self-government.
3. Today, the Basque country comprises four regions on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees – Vizcaya, Guipúzcoa, Navarra and Alava – and three on the French side: Labourd, Basse-Navarre, and Soule). Collectively these territories are called Euskal-Herria (Land of the Basques) or Euskadi.
4. The ancient and unique language of the Basques is Euskera. It pre-dates the Romance languages of other countries in Europe, such as Spanish, Portuguese, French, Italian, and Catalan.
5. It’s said that the Basque language is complex and very difficult to learn. In addition, there are a number of different dialects. Regional folklore has it that the Devil tried to learn Basque for seven years and gave up.
6. Although the language suffered a decline during the mid-20th century, during suppression by the then Spanish ruler Franco, who did not like the idea of regional diversity, today it enjoys a strong revival. The Basque language is well promoted and you will see to official names for each province and town, a Spanish one and a Basque one on all road signs.
7. The Basque Country includes a wide variety of landscapes from coast, along the Bay of Biscay, to and steep narrow valleys to the foothills and ridges of the Pyrenees.
8. The main tourist cities of the Basque Country include Bilbao and San Sebastian. Bilbao is famed for its art and architecture, especially the Guggenheim, while San Sebastian is a gastronomic gem.
9. A heart-warming Basque proverb is: “Happiness is the only thing we can give without having.”
10. Folklore is much loved by the Basques and there are many great and historic stories. It’s said that in ancient times their land was peopled by a race of giants called jentillak. These giants lived side by side with human inhabitants until the coming of Christ before they disappeared, leaving behind only one of called “Olentzero”. Today, Olentzero is seen all over the country in the form of dolls and straw figures.
11. Another aspect of Basque folklore includes rituals and dances. The Katcha-Ranka is a dance performed in fishing villages where a person representing St Peter is carried in a coffin through the village and to the water-side. Dancers then symbolically beat him as a threat to ensure a good catch of fish.
12. Celebrations and holidays are greatly enjoyed by the Basques. Almost all Basques are Roman Catholic and holidays abased on the Christian calendar. Special religious observances include St Joseph the Workman’s Day in May and St John of Compostela Day in August. Villages celebrate their own entertaining festivals.
13. You may come across performances of traditional Basque plays known as pastorales. It’s thought these relate to medieval mystery plays.
14. A notorious annual “running of the bulls” celebrates San Fermín and takes place in the Basque town of Pamplona. Every day for a week, six bulls are let loose in the streets to run to the bullfighting stadium. Crowds of white-clad young men dare fate by running ahead of the bulls and use rolled-up newspapers for seemingly lightweight defence.
15. The Basques are famous for their wonderful cuisine, which makes the most of a great supply of seafood.
Toro: The Basque version of bouillabaisse (fish stew) includes mussels, crayfish, conger eels, the head of a codfish and three other kinds of fish. Other specialities include fresh tuna with tomatoes, garlic, and spices
Pintxos: Similar to tapas but a bit smaller, pintxos are small finger foods served at taverns, bars and restaurants throughout the Basque Country.
Txangurro: Deliciously cooked spider crab.
Kokotchas: Made with hake, garlic, and parsley.
Gateau Basque: A baked treat created with eggs, flour, sugar and rum.
Txakoli or txakolina: A fruity white wine, usually family produced in coastal areas.
You are sure to discover that the Basque Country is a fantastic destination for walkers.