The Basque Country has had more than its fair share of stereotypes thrust upon it. The Basques have sometimes resisted this typecasting, but they have not been shy about making their own contributions, some as extravagant as any foreigner's, to stock images of their homeland.
Even before Victor Hugo described the Basques as "the people who sing and dance at the foot of the Pyrenees" - a cliche which makes many Basques apoplectic today-the region had become a magnet for professional and amateur seekers after exotic folklore and unique customs.
As "Europe's aboriginals", all things Basque were seized upon as ancient and original. Basque nationalism, a relatively recent invention, has avidly cultivated some of these stereotypes, stressing those aspects of culture which made the Basques distinct from the Spanish and the French.
However, archaeologists, anthropologists, folklorists and nationalists have not flourished here by accident. The Basque cultural landscape is fertile ground for their enterprises. The Basques are, indeed, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, European people. They have probably lived in their home place longer than other ethnic group on the continent.
Their language, Euskera, is not only non-Indo-European, but it has no clear family relationship with any other tongue. And Basques, on both sides of the Pyrenees, have kept alive a vibrant tradition of folk costumes, folk dances, folk sports and folk music which few other European peoples can match. But some things which appear old turn out to be relatively recent innovations, and some things which appear to be quintessentially Basque have their origins elsewhere.
What makes the Basque Country really fascinating is that a traditional culture persists in a heterogeneous society which today exudes a dynamic, if confusing and sometimes dangerous, post-modern energy. The reinvention of Bilbao-a project led by Basque nationalists-has become a cosmopolitan model for the twenty-first-century city of cultural services and information technologies. The "Guggenheim effect" has sent ripples into the remotest Basque villages.
In fact, the Basques have long been at the cutting edge of Iberian history, culture and commerce: Basque kings were prominent in the wars against (and in alliances with) the Islamic caliphates; the Basque Juan Sebastian de Elcano was the first captain to circumnavigate the globe; Basque iron mines kick-started the Spanish industrial revolution. Bilbao is not only the womb of Basque nationalism; it was also a midwife to Spanish socialism, and the mother of an industrial and financial oligarchy.
Several of the leading writers of Spain's literary "Generation of Ninety-Eight", including Pio Baroja and Miguel de Unamuno, were Basques. The Basques have made less impact on France, though Henry III of Navarre, in becoming Henry IV of France, bequeathed the mixed legacy of religious peace and the Bourbon dynasty to the French nation. Yet many Basques today feel no identity with either Spain or France, and want independence, or something close to it. Many other Basques are content to be French or Spanish citizens, and some of them feel deeply threatened by Basque nationalism.
The physical landscape offers similar contrasts: it ranges from moist green valleys to semi-desert badlands, from frozen sierras to warm sandy beaches and tortuous coastal cliffs, from harsh industrial landscapes to bucolic beech woods and alpine meadows. In this book I have sought to offer a variety of points of entry to this diverse and plural culture; to explore its enigmas and contradictions, and to suggest something of the rich and complex enchantment it can weave over half a life-time. There are many kinds of Basqueness, and I have made no attempt here to be comprehensive or chronological. Some big and delightful cities like San Sebastian, worthy of full-length studies in themselves, are only mentioned in passing. One small village, Asteasu, gets most of a chapter.
Some writers and artists are treated in detail, others are omitted. Rather than an overall survey, I have sought to offer a series of intimate portraits, ranging from cultural, political and historical analysis to personal anecdotes. I hope that this approach, inevitably more than a little idiosyncratic, will reflect some of the pleasure, and a little of the heartbreak, that any close encounter with the Basque Country engenders.
Basque paradoxes: Little Venice or the Pisspot of Heaven
In this edited extract from Chapter 5, I revisit three iconic villages in the Cinco Villas area of Navarre, and find sword dancers, a little sorcery, soft porn and BMWs
San Fermin in Lesaka: River Dancers rival Pamplona
Lesaka is a good place to be when the sky falls, as it often does, in Euskal Herria, the Land of the Basques. Mist tumbles silently down the precipitous hillsides that wall in this Navarran village, making a moist and cosy womb of the bed of the valley, nestled in the foothills of the Pyrenees.
This is a very good place to be when the bells announcing the fiesta of San Fermin roll through the dampness-the church as usual stands high above the village, well above cloud level in these conditions. The sound is at once muffled and amplified, booming in stately fashion from great stone house to great stone house, echoing in your bones as palpably as in your ear-drums. BAAH-BOING-G-G, BAAH-BOING-G-G, BAAHBOING-G-G, BAAH-BOING-G-G, repeating endlessly. Then they do stop and, after a moment's pause the sound of drums and the shrill txistu flute echoes along a distant street, fading. And then more drums, and braying dulzainas [a distant relative of the clarinet], on a nearby street, approaching. There is a sense that the whole small town is gathering, closing in on its oddly triangular plaza mayor.
I will stick my neck out here, and say that there is no fiesta in the Basque Country to match los sanfermines in Lesaka. The fame of its namesake in Pamplona has run around the world, propelled by Hemingway's prose, running bulls and countless photographs and video clips. But Lesaka has something very special and very rare, a series of elaborate formal rituals in an intimate, human-scale setting. They are performed with grace and elegance but without pretence, within a general atmosphere of well-mannered bacchanalia.
The fiesta starts, as many do, with rockets from the town hall balcony the day before the saint's day. As each one fizzles briefly over the plaza zaharra (old plaza) and then vanishes immediately into the mist, now at rooftop level, a woman sings a single heart-stopping stanza in a rasping tone. This is an unofficial contribution from the izquierda abertzale, the radical nationalist left, which tends to support ETA, the Basque terrorist group.
A banner is dropped from the town hall balcony, carrying the same message as the singer's verses. "The fiestas are for everyone. We are not all here. Bring the prisoners home." No-one applauds, nor is there any move by the authorities to remove it, a reflection perhaps of the weary stalemate before the ceasefire almost everyone wants in the summer of 2005, but which will not come for another nine months and ended, to general dismay, last June.
The mist turns into sirimiri [a drenching Basque drizzle], but the fiesta continues regardless. It is time for the tamborrada infantil, a drumfest involving dozens of little children. They brave the drizzle without complaint, filling the plaza with insistent rhythms. The fiesta uniform of white shirts, white pants and red berets are de rigueur. Well-prepared parents have draped transparent plastic capes over the lucky ones. Finally, there is a homage to the local accordion teacher, from all his pupils over many years. The alegria remains irrepressible, even though the squeeze boxes are sodden.
Next morning, the finest and fittest young men in the town are kitted out for the fiesta's main event, Lesaka's unique ezpata danza or sword dance, on the stone margins of the Onin. This is the largest of the three streams which repeatedly transect the town and give it a distinctive character. There are twenty old stone bridges, each only a few paces wide, and 22 fountains, giving Lesaka its sobriquet of "the Little Venice". The fact that it also has 22 bars, one for ever 100 inhabitants, has probably contributed, along with the insistent rain, to its less reverent nickname, "the Pisspot of Heaven".
The danzaris' basic San Fermin uniform is supplemented by green, red and blue sashes, by embroidered scapulars displayed on their chests which include an image of the saint, and by brightly coloured panels studded with tiny bells stitched onto the outside legs of their trousers. Linking their hands with slim red and white rods, they lead the municipal authorities, and most of the people of the town, to the parish church of San Martin de Tours. Outside the porch, they perform the Makil Gurutzea, a dance using the rods to make a kind of human snake which seamlessly eats its own tail. Then the whole congregation enters the church under their raised "swords".
From the inside, this towering Gothic building could easily be mistaken for a cathedral. The massive, golden-gleaming altarpiece was carved by a leading eighteenth-century Spanish sculptor, Luis Salvador y Carmona. How could an isolated rural town, whose population then did not reach 2,000 (and is not much bigger today) afford such grandeur? As so often in the Basque Country, the answer is down to the generosity of an Indiano, who had made a fortune in Guatemala.
This 11 o'clock Mass is the second of the day. The danzaris used to attend the 8 o'clock mass, which has the best music, and accompanied the parish priest to breakfast afterwards. Late nights and declining piety have put paid to that tradition, but the dance which follows this Mass is still taken very seriously.
In the centre of Lesaka, under the huge and blackened tower house from which the Zabaleta family once plundered the other towns in the Cinco Villas area, the Onin's flow is controlled by stone retaining walls, about three feet high and perhaps fifteen feet apart. They sprout a wild profusion of daisies. Limpid water flows just a few inches above a bed of shingles. Trout dart about fearlessly, protected within the town limits. One section of the banks on each side is left clear for the dancers, but every square inch elsewhere is jam-packed, with many of the windows and balconies of the surrounding houses also crammed.
The dancers enter from the plaza mayor, repeating the Makil Gurutzea. They then form up along the stone walls on either bank, and dance the Zubigainekoa, while their captain performs a spectacular solo on the bridge between them. Putting a foot wrong on these uneven surfaces would send a dancer into the river, and disgrace. But no-one ever falters, despite, or perhaps because of, an alcohol-enriched breakfast they have enjoyed earlier at the plaza's Casino restaurant. Finally a member of the town council "dances the flag" in a banner-waving ceremony on the bridge.
Most current written accounts of this riverside encounter will tell you that it celebrates and cements a fifteenth-century peace deal between the feuding neighbourhoods of Pikuzelaia and Legarrea which lie on either side of the Onin. But, as usual, there is someone who can contradict the received historical wisdom.
"This notion was cooked up for an after-dinner speech a few decades ago," says local historian Rafael Eneterreaga Irigoyen, "and it has been gaining currency ever since. They say the sword dance became a rod dance to signify an end to hostilities. But there is no evidence that there was any conflict between these two neighbourhoods at that time. I believe these dances have always been a matter of exuberant play, probably deriving from an older tradition of cristianos y moros [based on the 'reconquest' of Moslem Spain]".
Nonetheless, the town has seen a great deal of warfare. Lesaka was constantly loyal to the kings of Navarre, and was razed to the ground twice by its Basque neighbours, once from Guipuzcoa and once from Alava, in the fifteenth century. Both were acting on behalf of the kings of Castile. Basque unity has always been a fragile and elusive dream.
The town also suffered heavily in the more localized "wars of the bands" which ravaged the region in the late Middle Ages. Lesaka very sensibly eventually evicted its own warlords in the seventeenth century. The final straw came when the Zabeleta family extended its avarice to the unconscionable degree of claiming all the burial places inside the church.
Rafael knows every stone in his home place, and he knows how to make them speak. He can point out the little stone heads set almost invisibly in the walls of many of the houses to ward off witches, a practice continued right up to the end of the nineteenth century. (How the cultural values have inverted since then: a chic clothes shop in the plaza is called Sorgin-zulo, the witch's hiding place.)
But what about that singular turret, clinging to a corner of the massive palace of Bordienea, and perched oddly over one of the streams? "Partly a low-level watchtower, but mainly a well-placed latrine. It allowed the waste matter to drop straight into the water."
He can show you where the Duke of Wellington was very comfortably billeted for three months. This palace was owned by a Catholic bishop, grateful for his liberation from Napoleon's troops by the Protestant Irishman.
At least one of the three crosses which grace Lesaka's road junctions had a sinister purpose, though Rafael recounts its function rather gleefully. "This was the Pilirique, the pillory, a place of punishment or torture. The King of Navarre gave us the privilege of making our own laws. Some of them are beautifully written, listen: 'He who bears false witness, or blasphemes against God or the Virgin, will be nailed by his tongue to the cross.'
"The mayor had the power of life and death. The town council met under the church arches, and its decisions were read at Mass. If you were found not to know what these decisions were, by definition you had not attended Mass. Well, away to the Pilirique with you!"
With honest inconsistency, Rafael can also bring you to a spot which suggests that Lesaka's commitment to orthodoxy in religion was ambiguous. Almost hidden on the wall above a disused entrance to the church is a most unusual relief: two naked cherubs sitting back to back, tilting their arms backwards above their heads to support a winged head.
"This is a representation of the Trinity which was specifically condemned by the Council of Trent," says Rafael. "It's not clear why, but it may have been that the Church fathers found the image of two of the Divine Persons sitting arse to arse a little disrespectful." Nevertheless, generations of Lesaka's faithful have quietly defied the Conciliar Bull, and the relief remains in place.
Lesaka encapsulates many of the characteristics of a small Basque village, but it is also has a unique character. The nobility of its architecture, coupled with its happy arrangement of streets and streams and pedestrian walkways, give it the air of a tiny and exquisite city. The interpenetration of urban and rural features is very typical, however, with fields of maize among its mansions, and donkeys grazing in fields alongside its streets. There is a substantial laminated steel plant, employing 1,400 people, behind a row of medieval buildings. Even in the sixteenth century, what we might call "greater Lesaka"-the municipal boundary extends right down to Vera along the west bank of the Bidasoa-boasted 17 ironworks, using ore from local mines.
Iganzi, Arantza: Healing Waters, Baserriak for BMWs
Take the road south and west from Lesaka, and urban impressions quickly fall away. The slopes become steeper, the hairpin bends that lead you down into, and up out of, deep valleys more disorientating. The wet greens of the vegetation grow more and more intense. Near the pretty white village of Igantzi is a roadside shrine. Inside a small cave a spring rises which cures skin infections, especially if you bathe there on St. John's Eve. But the Christian patina wears thin if you pause here at full moon on your own.
It becomes still thinner as you approach the end of the road, the last of the Cinco Villas, Arantza. Walk here after sunset, and the words of Julio Caro Baroja, defending Basque polytheism against Spanish monotheism, may come to mind:
"The man who wanders towards home on a starry night, through a valley surrounded by mountains, where you hear the sounds of leaves, murmurs of water, light breezes, all in almost complete darkness, may find himself overcome... [He may] easily believe in old and humble presences in trees, in the streams, in the rocks, in beings which are partly human, partly demonic, partly natural... in spite of my basic rationalism... I would like to make little nocturnal sacrifices now and then... to carry out little private rituals."
On a fine day, the high meadows of Mendaur, the mountain that soars to 3,710 feet to the south, beckon for an exhilarating but undemanding walk. On a day of sirimiri, however, Arantza sinks into itself, its huge farmhouses-none of its older buildings looks truly urban-looming to twice their usual size in the mist.
On a night after just such a sodden day, in 1989, I went out alone in search of a drink and some company. A huge toad flopped out of the inky blackness, and planted itself in front of me, baleful eyes immobile, fixed on mine. "Zu sorgina zara... sorgina ona, oso ona..." I found myself muttering in my very rudimentary Euskera, quite concerned to communicate appropriately with this night creature. "You are a witch, a good witch, a very good witch." There was no obvious response. "Ni irlandan bizi naiz," I added inconsequentially, simply because I knew the phrase well, and my Basque vocabulary was running out, "I am from Ireland."
The little beast held my gaze contemptuously for a short eternity, and then it was gone. This encounter was probably a self-induced illusion, of course. For when I found a bar, I was back in a sad part of the twentieth century.
Four ageing single farmers sat in the cold, isolating glow of a French soft porn channel. They would not grasp the spoken words-even Spanish might be difficult for them-but the body language was universal. Men from these villages have died of Aids, contracted in super-brothels in Irun, less than an hour's drive away. My most cherished illusion, that I would spend the evening drinking wine with the locals and learning about their lives, was also shattered. As good a chance as communication with the changeling toad.
There was no accommodation to rent in Arantza in those days, but there was a splendid restaurant, the Aterpe, which attracted people from all corners of the Basque Country and beyond to risk these narrow twisting roads at night. I had arrived by bicycle, in the evening, and the owners would not see me go short of a bed. (They have since opened a large hostel.) Their son was a drummer in a Rastafarian band. His bedroom door was left open in the morning. Above his drum kit he had painted a mural in Bob Marley's greens, reds and golds, including an outline of Navarre. The words underneath were a parody of the Basque nationalist slogan Nafarroa Euskadi Da, 'Navarre is the Basque Country'. His adaptation read: Nafarroa Afrika Da.
When I cycled back to Lesaka the next day, I was repeatedly thrown off balance, and almost off the narrow road itself, by giant refrigerator trucks. They were bringing duck pate from the factory at Arantza to the tables of the best restaurants in Barcelona and Madrid.
Returning 15 years later, Arantza remains heart-achingly beautiful, an oasis of calm. But some of its streets are filled with luxury apartment blocks. Their slanted red roofs and white frontages with false black beams, their cast-iron balconies painted vivid blue and sporting red geraniums, all pay homage to the baserri [the traditional Basque farmhouse, an icon of nationalism]. But on the ground floor, where the animals used to be stabled in the traditional structure, there are garages with automatic doors, BMWs parked where cows used to lie.
Like all the Basque Country, even the remotest part of the Cinco Villas lives in several worlds at once. I will still speak Basque there at night, to any toads I meet, but I will watch out for oncoming headlamps in the rain.