Introduction to Basque Culture
While the Basque Country's future as an independent nation-state has yet to be determined, the quirky, fascinating culture of the Basque people is not restricted by any borders. Experience it for yourself in the food, history, and sport.
Origins of Basque
Stretching across the Pyrénées from Bayonne in France to Bilbao in Spain, the New Hampshire–size Basque region retains a distinct culture, neither expressly French nor Spanish, fiercely guarded by its 3 million inhabitants. Fables stubbornly connect them with Adam and Eve, Noah's Ark, and the lost city of Atlantis, but a leading genealogical theory points to common bloodlines with the Celts. The most tenable theory is that the Basques are descended from aboriginal Iberian people who successfully defended their unique cultural identity from the influences of Roman and Moorish domination.
It was only in 1876 that Sabino Arana—a virulent anti-Spanish fanatic—proposed the ideal of a "pure" Basque independent state. That dream was crushed by Franco's dictatorial reign (1939–75), during which many Spanish Basques emigrated to France, and was immortalized in Pablo Picasso's Guernica. This famous painting, which depicts the catastrophic Nazi bombing of the Basque town of Gernika, stands not only as a searing indictment of all wars but as a reminder of history's brutal assault upon Basque identity.
An old saying has it that every soccer team needs a Basque goaltender and every restaurant a Basque chef. Traditional Basque cuisine combines the fresh fish of the Atlantic and upland vegetables, beef, and lamb with a love of sauces that is rare south of the Pyrénées. Today, the nueva cocina vasca (new Basque cooking) movement has made Basque food less rustic and much more nouvelle. And now that pintxos (the Basque equivalent of tapas) have become the rage from Barcelona to New York City, Basque cuisine is being championed by foodies everywhere. Even superchef Michel Guérard up in Eugénie-les-Bains has, though not himself a Basque, influenced and been influenced by the master cookery of the Pays Basque.
Popular Basque dishes include angulas, baby eels cooked in olive oil and garlic with a few slices of guindilla pepper; bacalao al pil-pil, cod cooked at a low temperature in an emulsion of olive oil and fish juices, making a unique pinging sound when it sizzles; besugo, or sea bream, a traditional Christmas dish enjoyed with sagardo, the signature Basque apple cider; marmitako, tuna stew with potatoes and pimientos; ttoro, peppery Basque bouillabaisse; and txuletas de buey, ox steaks marinated in parsley and garlic and cooked over coals.
Over the centuries, the rugged physical environment of the Basque hills and the rough Cantabrian sea traditionally made physical prowess and bravery valued attributes. Since Basque mythology often involved feats of strength, it's easy to see why today's Basques are such rabid sports fans.
A Basque village without a frontón (a pelota court) is as unimaginable as an American town without a baseball diamond. "The fastest game in the world," pelota is called jai-alai in Basque (and translated officially as "merry festival"). With rubber balls flung from hooked wicker gloves at speeds up to 150 mph—the impact of the ball is like a machine-gun bullet—jai-alai is mesmerizing. Whether singles or doubles, the object is to angle the ball along or off of the side wall so that it cannot be returned. Betting is very much part of the game, and courtside wagers are brokered by bet makers as play proceeds. While pelota is the word for "ball," it also refers to the game.
Herrikirolak (rural sports) are based on farming and seafaring. Stone lifters heft weights up to 700 pounds and aizkolari (axe men) chop wood in various contests while a gizon proba (man trial) pits three-man teams moving weighted sleds. Estropadak are whaleboat rowers who compete in spectacular regattas, culminating in the September competition off La Concha beach in San Sebastián, Spain. Sokatira is tug-of-war, and segalariak is a scything competition. Other events include oxcart lifting, milk-can carrying, and ram fights.
Although the Basque people speak French north of the border and Spanish south of the border, they consider Euskera their first language and identify themselves as the Euskaldunak (the "Basque speakers"). Euskera remains one of the great enigmas of linguistic scholarship. Theories connect it with everything from Sanskrit to Japanese to Finnish. What is certain is where Euskera did not come from, namely the Indo-European family of languages that includes the Germanic, Italic, and Hellenic language groups. Currently used by about a million people in northern Spain and southwestern France, Euskera sounds like a consonant-ridden version of Spanish, with its five pure vowels, rolled "r," and palatal "n" and "l." Basque has survived two millennia of cultural and political pressure and is the only remaining language that was spoken in southwestern Europe before the Roman conquest.