The Basque Country that Won’t Let Go

St Jean Pied-de-Port, France: A popular restaurant overlooks the River Nive. (Graham Simmons photo)
St Jean Pied-de-Port, France: A popular restaurant overlooks the River Nive. (Graham Simmons photo)

The Basque Way

A culture persists in Southwestern France and Spain

By Graham Simmons

I came to the Basque country, straddling the border of France and Spain, with a brilliant idea. In short, I’d go to the roughest bar in Bilbao, find some ETA terrorists, and get a great story.

But somehow, it didn’t quite work out that way. So captivating are the charms of Euskadi (the Basque name for this region) that I found myself seeking out some subtler takes on the unique peoples and magnificent landscapes of these parts.

Maybe it is not just by chance that Spanish Basque territory (constituting Spain’s wealthiest provinces), together with the Basque provinces of SW France, also have some of Europe’s finest scenery.

But why this fascination with the Basques? Commonly believed to be the oldest ethnic group in Europe, with a language unrelated to any other, these people have long remained a total mystery. However, scientists at Oxford University have for the first time conclusively established a genetic link between the Basques, the Welsh and the Irish.

So, as it transpired, I wasn’t just on the trail of a group of ethnic misfits. I was looking for a part of my very own self. Listening to choral music by the Basque group Oldarra, it is hard not to be totally convinced of the connection between the Basques and the Welsh. The same celestial sounds seem to have arisen from the same lush green valleys; the same intricate harmonies from the very source of sound itself. Basque Spoken Here

Our trip began in St Jean de Luz (SW France), near Europe’s surfing capital Biarritz. Finding genuine Basque culture in this laidback port city is not so easy, as the Basque ethnic base has long been overwhelmed by French cultural implants. In St Jean de Luz, the trappings of Basque identity are little more than images on a postcard, or menu items in a restaurant.

basque cider hiuse pouring San Sebastian Spain
A basque cider house in San Sebastian, Spain. Paul Shoul photo.

However, even here the Basque language proudly proclaims itself. In shop windows, notices read Euskara badikigu – “Basque spoken here”. Basque signage shrieks from the façade of the municipal market, while pro-independence EH (Euskal Herritarok) stickers defiantly adorn many of the town’s cars.

I take a walk out along the Nivelle River, which separates the two parts of town – St Jean de Luz proper and its newer “suburb”, Ciboure (former home of the composer Ravel). I’ve heard that a concert of Basque music is to take place at the Sports Stadium, on the riverfront past the golf course. In the light of a benign autumn twilight, a five km stroll along the Nivelle (thronged as it is with fishing- and pleasure-boats) is a sheer delight.

At the Sports Stadium, Basque identity isn’t exactly having its day. “The concert is cancelled”, says someone at the gate. No one seems to know why. Maybe there are better things to do in St Jean de Luz on a Saturday night. On the Spanish side of the border, I venture into real Basque territory, in Guipuzcoa province. This is Basque heartland, where the notion of connection with the soil has been always meant a tie to true Basque soil, rather than merely a pale Spanish imitation.

Donostia is the Basque name for the ancient city of San Sebastian. In Donostia, thing are done a little differently than they are in France. Signs are in Basque first and Spanish second, as if a mere afterthought. There is even a Basque newspaper, Egunkaria, which I find about as legible as if it were in Martian. The cool set of town are hanging out on Zurriola Beach, in the precinct of Gros.

Following an ambitious reclamation project in the late 90’s, this is now THE hangout for surfers and beach freaks, as well as having the city’s leading performance space (the Kubo) and the finest Basque restaurants in all of Zipuzkoa – such as Bar Kepa, or Bar-Asador Aitzgorri, or Jatetxea La Zurri (La Zurri Restaurant), where a four course lunch with wine and coffee will cost all of $6.

Lantabat Valley, France: Guide Bob Rogers points out the village of St. Martin. (Graham Simmons photo)
Lantabat Valley, France: Guide Bob Rogers points out the village of St. Martin.

La Concha Beach

Naturally, I also have to visit some of the better-known parts of town, including La Concha beach and the Parte Viejo, the Old Quarter. Here, people speak Tourist rather than Basque, in narrow streets where locals rub not even shoulders with backpackers from across the globe.

The Old Quarter does have its charms, though, with the sumptuous Church of Santa Maria keeping watch over the bars and souvenir shops that dot the crowded alleyways. But I was still in search of some real, living manifestations of Basque identity.

The feeling arose that the best place to find genuine Basques would be in the inland, in the mountains, where people still look to the soul of the soil that has nourished their very being. So I jump on the train from San Sebastian, heading along the fertile valley of the Oria River. The train passes through villages with names that purl like the babbling of the River – names like Unieta, Bilabona-Zizurki, Ikaztegieta. Finally, the attractive town of Tolosa looks worthy of extensive exploration.

Real Basque No doubt about it, Tolosa is REAL Basque territory. In the narrow Arostiegeta Kala (a lane in the old quarter), I overhear a group of young people speaking what is undeniably Basque. “Of course we speak our native language”, they say. “It’s the daily tongue of 80% of people around here.” Founded in 1256, Tolosa was the first capital of Guipuzcoa province, and one of the few towns to hold out against the invading Navarran troops led by the King of Pamplona.

Indeed, Tolosans have always had an independent spirit – despite their commitment to Basque nationalism, they marched in huge numbers along the Oria River on 29 July last year (2000), in protest against the assassination by ETA of the provincial prefect, Juan Maria Jauragui. “Nationalism Yes, ETA No” was the slogan of the marchers.

A windmill a typical Basque scene.
A windmill a typical Basque scene.

In Bar Txalupa, my host Peter Hesus is flat out serving the Sunday crowds that spill out onto the street. A fine range of bar snacks (Pintxos in Basque food-speak) accompanies the free-flowing wine – open sandwiches of tuna, blue cheese and grilled capsicum; mushrooms in tomato sauce; grilled anchovies and a dozen others. Tolosa is also home to the famed alubias red bean, said to grow perfectly in the local calcium-deficient soil.


Back in France, I head towards the French Basque heartland. From Bayonne, the rail line runs inland to the ancient town of St Jean-Pied-de-Port, gateway to the long-travelled pilgrimage trail to Santiago de Compostela.A similar scene waits in the little town of Ordizia, further along the Oria Valley. With the surreal-looking peak of Mt Txindoki towering overhead, a lady sings to her little daughter outside Bar Txindoki.

The words get lost in the ether, but “Pintxos, pintxos…” is an oft-repeated refrain. Meanwhile, as kids play ball in the town square, their elders are banished to dining tables in the Martinez Restaurant, for a gargantuan Sunday feast that will last all the afternoon. The tables groan with platters of lobster, beefsteak al pimiento and loaves of oven-fresh bread, with seemingly unlimited qualities of red wine on tap.

Through little hamlets like Itxassou (famous for its dark cherry jam) and Cambo-les-Bains (where the Dépardieu movie Cyrano de Bergerac was filmed), the line passes alongside the babbling River Nivelle, with black-faced sheep grazing high on the slopes above. Market Day

St Jean Pied-de-Port comes alive on market day (Monday), as dozens of Basque farmers bring their finest produce to sell in the town square. Monday is also the day for THE big game of the week – a fast ‘n furious Pelote match, played in the local Trinquet Garat (pelota court). This particular match is played bare-handed, with what looks like band-aids being the only (minimal) protection against injury.

But my destination lies 20 km to the north, in the beautiful Lantabat Valley, where the 18th Century farmhouse Etxexuria provides an excellent base for walks into the stunning surrounding countryside. Etxexuria, it has to be said, is a little Anglocentric island in a Francophone sea. While this enclosed ambiance can occasionally feel a little offputting, the house does provide a superb jumping-off point for exploring this little-known part of SW France.

The Lantabat Valley is no ordinary terrain. From the Col des Palombiers, where old towers used by pigeon-hunters dot the hills above the village of Suhescun, a mountain trail leads almost straight up to the summit of Mount Hoxahandia. I get to enjoy the expert guidance of Bob Rogers, our highly qualified outdoor guide. Despite being a Pom, Rogers has adapted like a French mountain goat to these heady climes. This territory is the domain of the pottok, a semi-wild Basque horse with striking mane and powerful legs that seem all muscle.

Here too can be found the brébi, a hairy sheep that is prized for its milk rather than its wool, and whose cheeses I’ve already encountered in the market at St Jean Pied-de-Port. And Basque cows – each with a classic cowbell playing sweet mood music. Each and every animal stares at us as though we are stark raving loonies, a conclusion that I find not entirely outrageous. Walking along a gentle uphill saddle is the reward for all our efforts.

At last we crest a rise, to a hilltop offering views that seem to be far more panoramic than a mere 360º. To one side towers the massif of the Midi-Pyrenees, with snow-covered peaks rising up to over 3,000 metres. To the other side, there is a view over the valleys towards Bayonne (capital of the Pays Basque) and Biarritz. At the foot of the mountain, the red roofs of the village of Iholdy are silhouetted against a sea of emerald fields.

Forced March

Then it’s a forced march straight up over a hilly goat track. Only a Pom or a German would take walkers up by this direct route – and only an Aussie would be silly enough to comply. But there are ample consolations, including a soft breeze wafting the scents of the first roses of summer.

The next day, I decide to exercise a different set of muscles. I take to the open road for a very easy 13 km cycle ride to Iholdy, the same village that the previous day had so enticingly drawn our gaze from atop Mount Hoxahandia.

In the café-bar of Ostatua, near Iholdy’s village church, Basque identity rules the roost. In the bar decorated with posters advertising a concert by local duo Alaitz and Maider, our gracious host Maria talks about modern Basque music. “It’s rock music that is keeping the Basque language alive among young people nowadays”, she says.

The quiet is soon broken, as the bar fills to capacity. “It’s drinking time”, say a group of workers who have stepped in for a LONG lunch break. Then they lapse into Basque, which still sounds to me like a dialect from another planet (except for Ongi Etorri – which, I’ve learned, means “G’day”). Then, it’s time to adjourn to the dining room for a light snack. At least, that’s what I am hoping for. “But we only have the menu of the day” says Maria, who brings out vegetable soup followed by a meal-size lasagne, then a meadow-sweet steak accompanied by a mountain of mashed potato.

The obligatory cheese-board follows – a selection of seven superb local sheep and cows’ cheeses, with Itxassou jam. Dessert (a rich chocolate mousse) and coffee round off the meal, as if I wasn’t rounded enough already. Fortunately, they don’t often breathalyse bike riders in France. As I wobble back to Etxexuria, I silently thank the French for their superb road bikes, which on steep uphills nearly seem to defy gravity. The road north from Etxexuria leads through the local hub of St Palais towards the Béarn region. The soft fields are covered in cloud-steam, slowly warmed by the rising sun. Gradually, Basque road signs start to disappear, and at the same time, the terrain becomes flatter, less untamed. But Basque pride lingers on.

The Pitchouajue family, who have run a bakery in the little town of Salies de Béarn for the last 22 years, turn out to be natives of a village just 4 km from Etxexuria. “We still think of ourselves as Basques”, says Mme Pitchoauajue. “Until I went to school at the age of seven, I couldn’t speak a word of French”.

Over the radio, the latest news confirms what had been expected – in the Basque Autonomous Region elections in Spain, the moderate nationalists have gained an overwhelming victory, crushing both EH (the loony-fringe associates of ETA) and the reactionary PP. As Basqueland gradually dissolves into the distance, I feel I’m leaving a hyper-country whose time has well and truly come.

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