When people think of the cultures of Europe, most probably think of cultures like the French, the Italian, the Spanish. Many likely haven’t even heard of the Basque, and that’s a real shame. The Basque people have a unique and ancient culture that they are immensely proud of, one that they are eager to share with the world.
One that we’re going to share with you today.
The Basque Country is the home of the Basque (pronounced “bask”) people, and is a region located near the border between Spain and France, on the Bay of Biscay at the western end of the Pyrenees Mountain Range. They are an autonomous community within Spain, made up of three provinces in northern Spain, another three in south-west France, and one in northern Navarra. Together, the Basque people are around three million strong.
Not to mention there are a significant number of people living in America who lay claim to their Basque origin, celebrating year after year with festivals open to the public.
So, what makes Basque culture so interesting?
The Basque Country is one of Europe’s oldest cultures. Some theories suggest Basques are a remnant of the Paleolithic inhabitants of Western Europe, some 35,000 years ago. Caeser even made reference to their customs back in Roman times. Puts our timeline into a little perspective, doesn’t it?
Basque history is filled with much oppression and struggle. When the Romans invaded their region around 196 B.C., they managed to maintain most of their traditions and laws.
Then around A.D. 824, Basque became a part of the Kingdom of Navarre, enjoying a period of relative independence. That was until around 1515 when much of the region was annexed by what eventually became modern-day Spain. The Basques were no longer allowed to be a self-governed nation; the Spanish government abolishing their independence in 1839.
But that didn’t deter the Basques. They continued to fight for their independence. Even throughout the Spanish Civil War, when the Basque people lost many of their rights, including the use of their own language, they kept fighting.
It wasn’t until relatively recently that Spain granted the Basque Country the autonomy they both desired and deserved.
As mentioned earlier, the Basques have been around for quite a while. During the Paleolithic period in Europe, the Basque region was extensive and ancient cave paintings have been found that suggest the Basque language is a descendant from a language spoken some 40,000 years ago.
Euskera, as it’s known, is one of the oldest European languages still spoken today. It’s a unique and linguistically isolated language, with many different dialects spoken across the territory. Euskara Batua, a ‘common tongue’ dialect, was created as a link between the variations of Basque people, one that can be used and understood by many today.
The official languages of the Basque people are Euskera, or Basque; French; and Spanish. Euskera is unlike other languages and is supposedly difficult to learn. There’s even a Basque myth that states the Devil himself tried to learn Basque for seven years and gave up.
If you're lucky enough to visit Basque country when there’s a festival on, you’ll likely be treated to the wonders of the bertsolaris. These traditional poets get up on stage, are given a set of rules and topics, and from there are expected to compose, sing, and improvise verses to a set rhythm. It’s sometimes compared to rap, as the verses are often to a similar cadence.
This composition is called a bertso, and is comprised of the spontaneous verse and the melody to which it’s sung. These spur-of-the-moment performances are of course done in Euskera, and we can’t imagine what a treat it would be to witness this in person.
Basque cuisine is an enormous part of their culture. Anywhere that takes great pride in their food is fine with us, especially when they have something called pintxos. Much like the enjoyable and delicious tradition of eating tapas when visiting Spain, you can enjoy pintxos in Basque.
Grab a group of your friends and tour different bars, drinking wine and partaking in the fresh and scrumptious local cuisine. They even have a word for this type of event. Txikiteo are groups of friends who partake in this delicious-sounding pastime. Where can we sign up?
There are many stories of giants from across the world. Often, they are portrayed as diabolical creatures causing trouble, usually being destroyed in the end by a heroic human (hello, Jack). The Basques are a little different because they were supposedly friends with their giants.
In their legends, the Jentillak were a race of Basque giants living in the Pyrenees. The story states that they lived alongside their human counterparts until the arrival of Christianity, after which they fled.
They even have their own version of Santa Claus. Supposedly, one of the giants known as Olentzero decided to remain behind with the humans and embrace Christianity. Today, Olentzero is a character in Basque Christmas traditions. According to the traditions, Olentzero comes to town late at night on Christmas Eve to drop off presents for the children. We imagine he wouldn’t be able to fit down the chimneys like Santa, given that he’s a giant and all.
Today, Olentzero can be spotted all around the country in the form of dolls and straw figurines.
So, now that you know a little more about Basque culture, where should you go if you want to experience it? You’ve got a wide and beautiful region to choose from. Basque has a varied landscape, from charming ancient villages to gorgeous coastline. The main cities on the Spanish side are Bilbao, San Sebastian, and Vitoria-Gasteiz.
We have our 6-day Basque Country, Rioja, the Pyrenees & Northern Spain tour which explores San Sebastian, the top beach town in the Basque region, known as both a surfer's paradise and a foodie heaven.
The Basque are a proud and strong culture, one that we hope endures the ages. By sticking together and staying true to their roots, we can see this ancient culture continuing to survive. After all, their motto is “Zazpiak Bat”, meaning “The Seven are One”.