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Our Basque Village School in Ituren.

Sad to leave our Basque Village School!

Above Carlos’s bar in Ituren plaza is our Basque village school. This small primary school has currently some 63 children ranging from 3 – 11 years old and all subjects are taught in Basque. The children come from the villages of Ituren, (and its three satellite hamlets of Aurtitz, Latsaga and Ameztia), and from the neighbouring villages of Zubieta and Elgorriaga. However, due to age-old rivalries between Zubieta and Ituren – exemplified by the turbulent carnivals at the end of January – some parents in Zubieta choose to avoid ‘hostile territory’ and send their children to the larger school, further afield, in Santesteban/Donestebe.

The Joaldunak in the plaza outside our Basque village school in Ituren

The Joaldunak in the plaza outside our Basque village school in Ituren

Our Basque village school in Ituren has been officially baptised as the ‘Pulunpa’ School’, ‘Pulunpa Eskola’ – indeed a strange name even by Basque accounts. ‘Pulunpa’ is the Basque onomatopoeia for the sound made by the bells strapped to the backs of the Joaldunak, the famous pagan carnival protagonists that have made the village famous, and lie at the absolute core of Ituren’s identity. The name, in true Basque style, was chosen democratically by the pupils in a ‘naming-the-school’ competition a few years back. The school is the hub of village life and children’s and parents’ routines alike swing to the tune of the school timetable screeching into the plaza for the 9 o’clock morning bell and then returning in more leisurely fashion around 4 o’clock with Tupperwares of chorizo or chocolate sandwiches. Lazy afternoons are then spent in the plaza, catching up on local gossip while the kids run riot or practice Pelota (the national Basque sport a little like squash) against the green walls of the village fronton.

The style of life in the village changes dramatically between term-time and holiday-time and, where some Basque villages mark the beginning of summer by jumping bonfires during the summer solstice, our summer time starts with equal precision and drama with a big water flight in the village square.

Summer sports day at Ituren village school

Summer sports day at Ituren village school

The end of term party in June is a fun and joyous affair and kicks off with an informal sports day of traditional Basque rural sports in the village square. The teams are made up of children, teachers and parents alike. These sports days are organised by Maika, (who else), neighbour, fellow mother, friend, village mascot and Basque Country wood chopping champion, ‘aizkolari’!. There are wheelbarrow races, tugs of war, running races with heavy sacks and weights, ‘txingas,’ and, perhaps most worthy of mention, ‘maizorkas’: a ‘corn-husk’ relay race for which Maika unfailingly signs me up!

I remember one sports day a few years back which came after several days of rain and coincided with absolutely perfect hay-making weather. In farming communities like ours there is, understandably, one force greater than that of the school calendar, and it is that of the land: hay-making in June (and often again in August) and bracken-stack making in September. Everything is dropped (tugs of war and maizorkas included) and that particular summer Maika’s carefully organised sports teams were virtually parentless. Spying my English and Swedish guests hovering at the corner of the plaza, she ushered them boldly into the arena (one rarely says no to an axe-wielding, wood-chopping champion) and to this day we savour memories of John, David and Sonia dashing around the plaza in a wheelbarrow with the school kids cheering them on in broken English! It was another of those monumental moments which culturally-enriched us all!

John and David in the wheel barrow race at Ituren village school

John and David in the wheelbarrow race at Ituren village school

After the sports day, the parents and teachers enjoy a large communal lunch under the porticoes of Carlos’s bar, followed by music and dancing which inevitably deteriorate into water fights and a dunk in the river! (The parents avoiding the latter if possible!). A fun and joyous moment for everyone. Summertime has arrived.

And it stays for quite some time.

The summer holidays start around the third week of June and finish about the second week of September.

Apart from the end of term fiestas, other highlights of the Pulunpa school calendar are, naturally, the carnivals themselves. On the Friday before carnivals, the children dress up as witches and demons or miniature Joaldunak with their tiny whips, sheep skins and bells and run riot around the village. Proud parents laden with jumpers and anoraks, Smart phones and umbrellas scuttle after them before sweeping their prodigy back into the warmth for hot chocolate and cake. Everyone then makes their way home (via the bar) to prepare for by far the biggest and most monumental festival of the year, carnivals. (About to take rip next weekend).

Basque, Spanish and English songs at our Christmas party at our Ituren village school

Basque, Spanish and English songs at our Christmas party at our Ituren village school

However, Marion is now 11 and this is sadly our last year at the Pulunpa school. Without a doubt, it will be the Christmas party that I will miss most. (I am not sure about Marion, but the annual school climb of Mt Mendaur (1100m) since the age of 5 will definitely NOT be on her list!).  On the final day of term before the Christmas holidays the children stage a range of songs and dances in Basque, Spanish and English and the parents lay out the inevitable spread of txistora (local spicy sausage) tortilla, cider, wine and pintxo inglesak! As there are no corn husk relay races for me to run until the summer my annual role at the Christmas party is to provide a tray of my now famous ‘pintxo inglesak’ or English tapas (which – between you and me – actually aren’t English at all!).  I amuse myself in thinking that one day anthropologists, probing into the history of this traditional Basque mountain village, will stumble upon the existence of the ‘pintxo inglesak‘ – now, after their success at the Christmas party, made in various Ituren homes. If they do their research right they may discover to their bemusement that the English tapas were made of Italian pesto, French goats cheese and Spanish cherry tomatoes! (And were actually copied from a Hawaian friend in Copenhagen!).

This day is sacred and finishes off with laughter and drinks at Carlos’s bar with other mothers; myself, Maika, Izaskun and Lourdes being the hard core, while our daughters are abandoned for hours in the village square. (Or so we think! This year they actually got locked in the school and it was hours before we realised they had gone!).

Being mum, and having a daughter at the local village school has probably been the most important factor in my integration into village life. Not only has it allowed me a great insight into the local culture but also a feeling of identity and belonging too – and my eyes will also well with emotion and pride when the Ituren Joaldunak lead their solemn march, ‘pulunpa pulunpa’, through the streets during carnivals next week. I would also like to think that our presence – and that of my guests and friends – has done a little to enrich life in Ituren too!

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Bilingual Families, Ituren carnivals
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Basque Christmas Traditions: Olentzero

Olentzero – an inseparable part of Basque Christmas Traditions

As you would expect even Basque Christmas traditions dig deep into their pagan past.  Here, during the winter months, the flint-grey skies linger over the Baztan Valley while the ember-red autumn leaves burn out slowly and silently on the forest floor. Even the mighty autumn winds, which have hunters darting for their guns in October, have run out of breath and are too lazy to scatter the leaves in their wake. The mood is changing, winter is approaching, and its dark, steely, misty nights slowly throttle village after village in the Basque Pyrenees.

Basque tradition of Olentzero - a model in the village shop

Basque tradition of Olentzero – a model in the village shop

This is the time of dread, and the moment when Olentzero, the only survivor from the times of the giant Jentillak of Lesaka, comes down from the mountains. He is a man of strange appearance, his hair is wiry and straw-like, virtually fossilized under his Txapela (Basque beret). He has open, way-worn eyes and a straggly, unkempt beard. His face is haggard and tanned from its exposure to the charcoal he burns and his fingers are gnarled and knobbly. The Atorra (Basque shirt) he wears is musty and foul-smelling.

Olentzero gets down from his Pottoka (semi-wild horses that roam the Basque mountains) and his Abarkak (shoes) crunch through the crisp leaves detonating tiny displays of fire-crackers at each step. Something special is about to begin the forest is crisp and tense.

As the story goes, Read more ›

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition
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Spanish Courses in Spain in disguise!

Too often Spanish courses in Spain are associated with formal classes at established universities and Spanish language institutions. However, many adult students of Spanish work as well as study, and have limited holiday time to do both. This means that they often seek to combine a Spanish course in Spain with a holiday in the country as well, taking the opportunity to explore further afield, to sample the local gastronomy and soak in the local Spanish culture. (Reasons for which many people are learning Spanish in the first place!).

Spanish courses in Spain don't always have to be in the classroom

Spanish courses in Spain don’t always have to be in the classroom

Although adult Spanish students may find that a Spanish language ‘holiday’ as opposed to a Spanish language ‘course’ is more appealing, understandably, questions arise as to whether the fun ‘holiday’ element of sight-seeing, restaurant meals, walks and excursions etc. detract from the more academic focus of more traditional Spanish courses in Spain? It is a common question and, as we are brought up to believe that we can’t have our cake AND eat it, a very understandable one too. However, many language  theorists seem to support the fact that enjoying oneself, finding affinity with other people and an emotional investment in learning a foreign language are all beneficial to the learning process. Holidaying and ‘having fun’ may actually not be detrimental at all.  Far to the contrary.

Spanish courses in Spain with a difference

Spanish courses in Spain with a difference


Theories applied to our Spanish courses in Spain

Here are a few thoughts from some of the top theorists in Second language acquisition theory.

Many people have acquired a second language while they were focused on something else, while they were gaining interesting or needed information, or interacting with people they liked to be with.

An essential feature of learning is that it awakens a variety of internal development processes that are able to operate only when (the child) is in the action of interacting with people in his environment and in cooperation with his peers.  Therefore, in language learning, the authenticity of the environment and the affinity between its participants are essential elements to make the learner feel a part of this environment. 

Human beings also learn through the para-consciousness – or semi-awareness – so both the conscious and para-conscious need to be engaged to optimise language learning. This means tapping the strengths of both the left and right brains i.e. bringing sight, sound, touch, smell, mental imagery, positive emotion etc. into the learning process.  This can be done through the use of music, visual cues, sounds, body language, movement, role playing, rhythm and relaxation etc. Learning is quicker, easier, and less stressful in an environment filled with pleasant, positive emotions. It appears that enjoying oneself, socialising, moving, and stimulating a range of senses and emotions are considered to benefit the learning of a second language and that yes, one can have one’s cake (or Manchego cheese) and eat it and most probably wash it down with a glass of tinto too! The natural environment offers so many stimulating topics of conversation so that with the support of a Spanish language teacher and the skills of a group facilitator every experience can be turned into a language teaching moment.  There are moments when Spanish language holidays in Spain are no less than Spanish courses in Spain in disguise!

Mike joined us for a Spanish course in Spain . Can he have his Manchego cheese and eat it?

Mike joined us in Spain for a Spanish course . Can he have his Manchego cheese and eat it?


Posted in Exercise and Learning, Learning Spanish in Spain, Teaching Spanish
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The Witches of Zugarramurdi – the scene was set!

Who were the Witches of Zugarramurdi?

Zugarramurdi is a tiny bucolic Basque village nestling in the foothills of the western Pyrenees. Innocuously the name Zugarramurdi means ‘hill of elm trees’, although today it is far better known for its caves and witches than for its hills and elms.  However, this is the site of the most brutal witch hunt of the Spanish Inquisition.  In 1610, after incarceration and torture in the dungeons of Logrono, 53 people from the Zugarramurdi area were accused of witchcraft during the famous Auto de Fe.  This was the largest witch trial in history.

The witches caves of Zugarramurdi

The witches caves of Zugarramurdi

The series of events which led up to the witch trials of the Inquisition are well-cited (and explained below).  However, there is a more interesting question: ‘why’ did this fate fall upon Zugarramurdi: a seemingly peaceful,  Basque village of a few hundred people, tucked away in the misty borderlands of the Spanish/French Pyrenees?

As early as 1140, Aymeric Picaud wrote the Codex Calixtinus, the first ‘tourist’ guide to the Camino de Santiago, and this gave the Basques of Navarra a pretty bad press. In it Aymeric describes them as “fierce-faced men who terrorize people with their barbarian tongues”, going on to describe the Basque people as “full of evil, dark in complexion, of aberrant appearance, wicked, treacherous, disloyal and false”. (He even went on to say that the food was awful!). Please look at an article I wrote on the Basque Code of Honour for a more balanced view! 

Nevertheless it is easy to understand how pilgrims, crossing the Pyrenees for the first time from the southern French border in Labourd, would have been filled with fear. They would have found misty, heavily-wooded terrain, dotted with isolated villages full of strange, rugged, distinctive-looking people of an alien cultural background and speaking with an odd, harsh-sounding language. This sudden contrast would only serve to reinforce Picaud’s image of the Basque people.  However erroneous this may have been the image was one which would linger on throughout the centuries.

The 'witches' of Zugarramurdi

The ‘witches’ of Zugarramurdi

Other elements can be added to the scene.  Firstly, it was common practice among the locals to make remedies, creams and brews from the wide variety of plants and mushrooms found in these mountains. Secondly, in the 16th century, villages such as Zugarramurdi were predominantly female with many of the men away for months at a time working on the whaling boats along the Basque coast. Thirdly, and perhaps more tenuously, the Basques have a very high percentage of Rhesus Negative blood which caused many children to be stillborn. This would frequently lead them to being considered cursed! For some it was but a small step to imagine that the place was filled with witches and pagan worshippers. Read more ›

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Mythology
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The Comet Line

The COMET line, a famous resistance network which operated between 1941 and 1944 during the Second World War, helped grounded allied pilots and officers to safety over the Bidasoa river into Spain. It has been extensively documented: pieced together with the help of diaries written by the soldiers and the help of the families of the Basque smugglers (mugalari) who worked as guides over the Pyrenees. However, at times the COMET line used a lesser-known route, crossing the French border east of URDAX along a route which led the pilots southwards through the mountains into the BAZTAN VALLEY and ERRATZU. From ERRATZU they then made their way by bicycle to SAN SEBASTIAN.

Xan Milhura and his family escorted allied pilots over the border into the Baztan Valley

Xan Milhura and his family escorted allied pilots over the border into the Baztan Valley

Who ran the COMET Line?

The COMET network was the initiative of Andree de Jongh (known as Dédée)  – a 24 year-old Belgium woman, and nurse, who came into contact with wounded allies hiding in safe houses throughout Belgium. Together with the help of family and friends she started the network which escorted displaced allies through France into what was technically – and very superficially –  a ‘neutral’ Spain. Stopping at numerous ‘safe’ (and not so ‘safe’) houses en route run by local families.  the allied pilots (and soldiers) were slowly moved down through France towards SAINT JUAN DE LUZ in south west France from where they walked to one of three isolated farmsteads on the outskirts of URRUGNE. Here they spent their final night on the French side of the border. They were given a warm bowl of milk, chord-roped espadrilles, walking sticks and kitted out in blue workman’s clothing before being led by Basque mugalari  (such as Manuel Irurroiz, Florentino Goikoetxea, Tomas Anabitarte, Donato Errasti and others) on a tortuous route through the mountains to ENDARLATSA, over the BIDASOA river and into Spain. Once in Spain they now swapped one enemy for another. This time the enemy were now Franco’s Guardia Civil, who would either turn them over or imprison them, often taking them to a small concentration camp south of Pamplona in Miranda del Ebro.

British Intelligence M19

The final stretch of the COMET line would lead the pilots over the mountains towards the final ‘safe house’ on the outskirts of OIARTZUN before they were moved on to PASAIAS, SAN SEBASTIAN and BILBAO. From here British Intelligence M19 would send an official escort to take them to MADRID or GIBRALTAR and then back home. Over 800 allies escaped from occupied territory along the COMET line, many of them escorted all the way by the young waif of a women, Dédée, herself.

The COMET line and the BAZTAN VALLEY

Nevertheless – perhaps because the BIDASOA RIVER was well-known as a crossing point it was also well-guarded – COMET decided to escort some 80 allied pilots to San Sebastian via an alternative route – via the French village of ESPELETE and then over the border into the BAZTAN VALLEY.

(The map above gives the key points in the route taken to Erratzu however I do not yet know the exact paths taken between these key points).

About 500m south of the French border Xan Mihura had his farm, an isolated farmstead at the foot of the LIZARTU mountain to the east of URDAX. Xan would cross over the border to another farmhouse on the French side (possibly Patxikoenborda) from where he would escort a group of four or five pilots, already dressed in peasant clothing,  back over the border into Spain, giving them food and lodging at his own home, Jauriko Borda for the night. The next day they would walk 15km through steep stream gullies and over mountain passes (LAUSETA, LIZARTZU, ANTSETEIKO LEPOA, ITZULEGIKO LEPOA, INTZPIDEKO LEPOA, MEAKAKO LEPOA)  – towards the next ‘safe house’, Altxuko Borda, in the isolated valley of MORTALENEKO ERREKA east of ERRATZU. Little did they know that – in part – they were covering the same tracks as the Duke of Wellington over 200 hundred years before.

After the night in Altxuko Borda they would continue the few kilometres into the village of ERRATZU where they were given bicycles and cycled to SAN SEBASTIAN.

The Comet Line used Xan Mihura's farm Jauregiko Borda as the first stop over the border on the Baztan Route.

The Comet Line used Xan Mihura’s farm Jauregiko Borda as the first stop over the border on the Baztan Route.

In an interview in the Basque magazine Ttipi – ttapa (5/03/15) Xan Mihura’s sons, Ignacio and Justo, recall having people in the house when they were children: they remember them as frightened – (they had not only to escape the Nazi Regime but  Franco’s Guardia Civil as well) – but despite extremely courteous and respectful. For the Mihura family, who had worked all their lives smuggling goods and livestock over the border, harbouring a handful of allied pilots were all part of the trade!

The Basque Pyrenees – The Ideal Crossing Point

The reasons why Dédée chose the Basque Pyrenees as the best crossing point for the COMET line are manifold, not only did she have contacts in the area but geographically, with exception of the mountain passes in Catalonia, these mountains offer the lowest crossing points into Spain and far milder winters than the snowy peaks of the higher Pyrenees to the east. However, this is still very complex terrain to navigate – with an intricate network of steep ravines and stream gullies, dense woods and mountain mists and the help pf expert guides was essential.

This job was the natural domain of the Basque smugglers who had perfected the art of  moving goods, animals and people silently over these borders on dark moonless nights, avoiding border guards and Guardia Civil alike.  Their isolated farms and homesteads on the slopes of the Pyrenees made ideal ‘safe houses’ and resting points and on both side of the border they shared a common, indecipherable language and a deep mistrust of Fascist regimes.

Facts: Over 1200 people worked within the COMET Line which helped around 800 pilots and servicemen back to allied territories. About one third of this number, some 280 people, were killed because of their involvement.

NB. We are aiming to walk and document this route during the following year. Further Information.

Posted in Baztan Valley, Walking in the Pyrenees
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The Basque Language and its Origins

The Stone-age Roots of the Basque Language.

Many linguists agree that the Basque language is the oldest in Europe and that its origins clearly date back to the Neolithic period. However, certain sources seem to indicate that their roots go even further back in time. An example that seems to support this hypothesis is the interesting collection of Basque words used to describe prehistoric work tools.

The building blocks of the Basque Language

Stone  – ‘haitz’

In Basque, the word ‘haitz’ means stone and this word can be traced as the root of many words for work tools such as aizkora (axe), aizto (knife), aitzurra (hoe) and zulakaitz (chisel). Although the material to make these tools has changed over time, the names have not revealing, etymologically, a direct reference to their stone-age origins.

Water – ‘ura’

Another Basque word with ancient roots is the word ‘ura’. Today ‘ura’ means water but in the past it seems also to have meant ‘living matter’ as well.  From the word ‘ura’ we have lur (earth), elur (snow), zur (wood), egurra (fire wood), haur (child), hezur (bone) and euri (rain).

In the Basque Language 'iz' means light and 'izaki' means living being.

In the Basque Language ‘iz’ means light and ‘izaki’ means living being.

Energy or light – ‘iz’

From the Basque word ‘iz’, which denotes the concept of energy or light, we get the words izar (star), izan (to be), izadi (nature), izaki (living being), izaera (personality or way of being), izorra (pregnant) and izotz (ice or cold energy). The use of such Basque vocabulary as the building blocks for other objects or concepts has led scientists to believe that a form of Basque was spoken by the inhabitants of the caves in Altamira, Ekain or Lascaux about 15 000 years ago.  In the words of the famous Spanish Anthropologist, Julio Caro Baroja:

‘The origin of these people is that of their language which many believe goes back as far as Cro-Magnon man’. This idea is also supported by Professor Luigi Luca Cavalli Sforza of Stanford University.

The Origins of the word Iberia – is it also Basque?

If modern day Basque appears to date back to the pre-historic language spoken in south western France and the north of the Iberian Peninsula, a question that naturally follows, is where exactly does the name ‘Iberia’ derive from? Is it also of Basque origin?

Read more ›

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, The Basque Language
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Basajaun – Basque Mythology or History?

Basajaun, which literally means ‘Lord of the Forest’, is one of the main characters in Basque Mythology. He is depicted as a large, hairy human-like creature who makes his home in caves deep in the forests of the Pyrenees, the mountain range which runs across the northern Spanish/French border.


“Basajaun” by own – Norberak egina. Licensed under FAL via Wikimedia Commons

It appears that the myth of the Basajaun goes back thousands of years (if not more) with some comparing him to the ‘Yeti’ of the Himalayas.

Read more ›

Posted in Basque Mythology, Dolores Redondo, The Invisible Guardian
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Ituren Carnivals – and a Brummy in their midst

I know, I know, I have written about the Ituren carnivals many times before (see links below) but the reaction is so raw, so overwhelming  each single time we participate that I feel compelled to put it down. They are not my people, I am from a ‘middle-class’ Birmingham suburb with Accessorise and John Lewis down the end of road – but when the Joaldunak of Ituren ( Javier, Lazaro, Juan Mari, Imanol …) pass by in solemn, rhythmic file, this primordial dirge of the bells seems to thump at some collective sub-consciousness in us all.

Ituren carnival - Joalduank in Latsaga Monday 16th January 2015

Ituren carnival – Joalduank in Latsaga Monday 26th January 2015

Well, not quite. My young Joaldunak of a daughter (whose head had already bobbed away to the step of the Joaldunak on her father’s shoulder as he danced around the maternity ward with her ten years ago) seems to feel nothing at all! As I hold on to the puzzling emotions of a Brummy in Ituren,  Marion is dragging me hysterically over garden walls and flower beds, to escape the bear!

lazaro and the bear in the Ituren Carnivals 2015

Lazaro and the bear in the Ituren Carnivals 2015

However, Izaskun, another mother from the village school, remembers the feelings of awe and excitement she had as a young child when she would wake suddenly in the middle of the night to the sound of the bells and, rushing to the window, discern through lace curtains, the dark silhouettes of the Joaldunak in the street. In those days there were far fewer Joaldunak, the costumes and bells were costly and many would have to wear normal work clothes and Basque berets. However, the magic wrought by the Joaldunak is like a timeless elastic thread that when pulled, concertinas past into present and present into past.

The future generations of Joaldunak in Ituren - a source of pride for all

The future generations of Joaldunak in Ituren – a source of pride for all

By about five o’clock when all the moxorroak; demons and witches, have limped back to their lairs and the plaza is left covered in muck, flour, hay and possibly the odd entrails of some dead animal (I am still coming to terms with this year’s dead rabbit (as, I am sure, is a small girl in a checked clowns costume and green wig)), the villagers of Ituren have a huge feast in the ganbara of the town hall.  Yes, the atmosphere here is euphoric, elated and raucous, there are muscular Basque lumberjacks in miniskirts, women in their pyjamas, but the Ituren carnival has something unique – totally its own.

What?  In some ways the emotion over lunch is the antithesis of the solemn and visceral stirrings summoned by the bells – and yet in other ways it is similar. There is a huge sense of oneness, of equality, of acceptance – a collective sub-consciousness that draws from a time before we were man or woman, black or white, Joaldunak or Moxorroak, Iturengoa or Brummy and, as I wipe the muck from my jeans with typical British distain, I believe it is the only place I have ever felt that I really belong.

Me, Marion and Iñaki with out neighbours in Ituren

Me, Marion and Iñaki with out neighbours in Ituren

I have no doubt that my little Basque Marion, who dreams now of a life in England, of a life without bears and gore, of Laura Ashley sofas and white carpets, will return home one day to her Ituren carnivals and feel the same way too.

Other posts on the Ituren carnivals:

El dia del Joaldunak and when I got the dates wrong!

Description of carnivals and their significance

Preparation for carnivals and life in  Ameztia






Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Lifestyle, Ituren carnivals
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The People of the Baztan Valley

The origins of the Basque people has been a subject of great debate, and of great political interest. Here is a study on the people of the Baztan Valley, a traditional Basque valley in the northern Pyrenean valleys of Navarre which throws some light on the subject.

The People of the Baztan Valley

In 2010 a team of scientists from the University of the Basque Country headed by professor Marian Martínez de Pancorbo with over 30 years of experience in the field of population genetics carried out a study of the genetic lineage of the people of the Baztan Valley with interesting results. Their studies were based on the DNA taken from blood and saliva samples of a group of volunteers, and proved that the genetic lineage of the Baztan people – on both the maternal and paternal side – goes back some 15000 years to the Palaeolithic or stone age.

People of the Baztan Valley at their Midsummer's celebrations

People of the Baztan Valley at their Midsummer’s celebrations

These genes are commonly found among other western European groups but appear at a much higher density in the people of the Baztan Valley. One scientific explanation for this is that the Baztan people were part of the early migrations of people across Europe at the end of the last ice age, moving away from their stone age refuges in non-glaciated pockets of Europe and slowly repopulating western Europe as the glacier subsided.

These Basque Pyrenean valleys of Northern Navarra escaped glaciation and formed an ice-age refuge for the indigenous populations. In brief this theory supports the idea that the people of the Baztan Valley are some of the early ancestors of many Western Europeans. One arguement as to why these genetic strains remain so densely represented in the Baztan Valley to this day is due to the geography of the area. The Baztan Valley (as well as the other valleys along the tributaries of the Bidasoa river) are narrow and winding, surrounded by deceptively menacing and uninviting mountain peaks which over the centuries have kept invading armies at bay (e.g. the Romans and the Moors).

Approaching Elizondo in the Baztan Valley

Approaching Elizondo in the Baztan Valley

Nevertheless, the vicinity of these valleys to the Atlantic means that the climate is not that harsh and pockets of fertile land and small flood plains have allowed small populations to eke out a living. These little-transited and mysterious Baztan valleys still preserve their culture, tradition, language (and genealogy) with minimum interruption from the outside world.

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Baztan Valley, Spanish-English differences
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The origins of our Self-Guided Walks in the Pyrenees

The Telephone Call

Our self-guided walks in the Pyrenees were pitchforked into action after a phone call from a Houston lawyer around Christmas 2012. Steve was heading to the Basque Country with a group of lawyer friends and wanted me to design 6 days of self-guided walks in the Pyrenees to lead them over the highest peaks in Basque Navarre, each day including the best Basque fare these valleys could offer!

Stephen Massad and friends

Steve’s self-guided walking group 2013 (me in the middle).

I took up the challenge, (one does when one is self-employed). I put myself down for a GPS course and, with the help of another local expert we took to the hills. (I also took the precaution of buttering up my own lawyer partner, Iñaki, just in case his services were required!). I had nightmares about  confusing my ‘left turns’ with my  ‘right turns’  and waking up one morning to a TV report on how a group of US lawyers had been seriously injured after falling from the summit of Mendaur (a 1100 m mountain in Ituren) after erroneous instructions from a mysterious English woman.

Steve – take no offence – but I heaved a huge sigh of relief when Francisco, my taxi driver, bundled you off (intact) on the final day for a meal at Arzak in San Sebastian! Mission acomplished.

The Nature of our Self-Guided Walks in the Pyrenees

Our self-guided walks in the Pyrenees – more precisely in the Basque Pyrenees – have taken off and since then I have meticulously documented, mapped and GPSed around 200 kms of circular walks in the Baztan Valley area.  All of which  start and finish from our farmhouse door in the village of Ituren.

Circular self-guided walks from the house

Circular self-guided walks from the farm

This is SLOOOW TRAVEL at its best, with no need for a car all week. Juantxo (our builder) was sent out to clear the occasional path and Mike and John, guests on our walking holidays, have been out with orange markers to indicate some of the turns. Alistair, a geologist friend, deserves mention for his patience with the maps.

We are extremely lucky as this part of the Pyrenees escaped glaciation and its intricate lie of the land, folds and hidden stream valleys dotted with Basque villages and isolated homesteads gives each of our walks its own individual personality.  Views, fauna, flora and mediaeval Basque landscapes change at every bend.

Most of the walks pass through different villages (at least 7 are within walking distance) where local inns serve great Basque Menus del Dia, giving an important cultural and gastronomic focal point to many of the walks.

Walking in the Basque Pyrenees

Walking in the Basque Pyrenees

These virtually un-known borderlands of the Basque Pyrenees lend a Sound-of-Music enchantment to the walks. The area is covered by a maze of smuggling and shepherding paths which have witnessed a history of political refugees, witches, pilgrims and allied pilots fleeing over its borders, its patchwork of mountain barns and wooded groves offering them refuge.

However, one element that complicates our work (and can be an advantage) is the virtual lack of tourism in the area due to political tensions in Navarre.  Few walks are marked and we have had to painstakingly document each turn ourselves.

Unlike the familiar stiles of British countryside, gates here reflect the imagination of each individual farmer in his attempts to keep wild horses and other animals at bay. Nevertheless around 80% of the land is communal so there is virtually no concept of private land and you have full freedom to roam.

Trying out our Self-Guided Walks in the Pyrenees: Robert, Alison and Will

Trying out our Self-Guided Walks in the Pyrenees: Robert, Alison and Will

These are some of the most charming and unspoiled mediaeval landscapes in Western Europe and they are beautifully tended. The Basques, understandably, are very proud of their land and culture, and village life still preserves Basque traditions, carnivals and fiestas.

The locals are genuinely friendly and will be curious to know how you ever found your way to their hidden mountain hamlets! Just tell them it is that eccentric English woman from Ituren who has sent you off on her self-guided walks in the Pyrenees and they will smile, and (just in case I did get that left and right muddled up) help you on your way!

Posted in Visit the Pyrenees, Walking in the Pyrenees, Wildlife of the Pyrenees
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Beautiful Basque Country Farmhouse B & B – with a tortoise on the tap

Thirteen years ago our beautiful Basque Country farmhouse B & B in Ituren was nothing but a tiny mountain barn with a rustic outdoor toilet and a tiny brass tortoise on an outside tap!

The terrace of our Basque Country farmhouse B & B

The terrace of our Basque Country farmhouse B & B

Once a haunt of sheep and wild ferrets (and a couple of grotesque toads that centered themselves up maliciously each night on the terrace) – today it is a glorious – if not idiosyncratic – international guesthouse with 5 en-suite bedrooms and flowery, sun-drenched terraces.

If frogs turn into princes then these toads have metamorphosised into waves of delightful walkers from as far afield as Iceland, Australia, New Zealand, Canada and Japan who do NOT lay wait for me on dark nights when I make (or made) my way out to the loo!).

Mountain barn to beautiful Basque Country farmhouse B & B

Views from the terrace

Views from the terrace

Tiburcio, the Estate agent from Elizondo, passed me the spec: a tiny, semi-renovated 30 m2 barn or ‘borda’ (as they are called in the Basque Country) with 9700 m2 land and an orchard of 50 apple trees.

Next to the box on ‘vistas’ was written the word: ‘inmejorables (unbeatable). So they just had to be seen.

In 2001 we took the 10 hair-pin bends up from from Ituren, waving at inquisitive farmers on the way up, and crunched into the drive. The views from the terrace and the tortoise on the tap were all it took!

The history of mountain farms in the Basque Country

Living in the Basque Pyrenees, small ‘bordas’ are to be found everywhere satelliting the outskirts of the villages and mountain farmsteads. In the villages of the Baztan – Bidasoa valleys of the Basque Pyrenees local shepherds practised small-scale transhumance farming moving their herds of sheep to higher pastures during the months of May – November. Made of stone and originally with huge slate slabs as roof tiles, these one and two storey bordas provided basic shelter for the sheep, the hay and the odd Portuguese refugee! Fruit trees and ash trees (whose dried leaves and twigs provide good winter fodder) were often planted around the bordas – mine came with a magnificent driveway of cherry trees (or so I first thought!).

Our borda in 2001

Our borda in 2001

However, on many occasions the shepherds would need to stay in the hills to keep an eye on their flocks or to bring in the hay or the bracken stacks during the summer months and so one of the bordas would inevitably develop into a rudimentary ‘borda-vivienda’ (‘living borda’).  In these ‘borda viviendas’ part of the hay loft was partitioned off with wooden divides and given a rough lime plaster coating on the walls  (lime kilns are very common in these rural parts).

Here, the shepherd would find refuge by the side of an open fireplace, and would be lulled to sleep on his bracken and sacking mattress by the warmth and fussing of the animals below.

(Belene, my neighbour, fondly remembers siestering on them to this day!).

Our Basque Farmhouse B & B 2013

Our Basque Farmhouse B & B 2013

Another essential feature of the ‘borda vivienda’ is that of the sink .. a large hollowed-out sand stone with a  curled lip  that poked through the side of the borda wall and acted as a drain.  From the outside this jutting out stone is often the only external feature that distinguishes the ‘borda vivienda’ from simple ‘borda’.

Today, as far as building permissions are concerned, the classification of a barn as a ‘borda vivienda’ can make all the difference.

The development of my ‘borda´ into a large 7 bedroom Basque Country farmhouse B & B (with a crazy 8 INDOOR bathrooms!) depended on the fact that it was located within the grounds of an original ´borda vivienda´ which lay in ruins just metres from my door. (Please see photos)

Basque House Names

Far larger than the ‘borda vivendas’ are the numerous, cavernous ‘caserios’ or farmsteads that also dot the hillsides.

Although many of them often started off as ‘borda viviendas’, their balconies and windows and cluster of out-buildings are those of a more permanent abode and many of them are lived in all year round. However, their names belie their history. For example our neighbours large  homestead is known locally as Zubialdeako Borda (the ‘borda’ of the house by the bridge) and sure enough, the family town house of the same name ‘Zubialdea’  is to be found by the side of the bridge 4km away on the valley floor.

The Holy Trinity: The Pitfalls of Buying Basque Barns

The beauty of these stone mountain ‘bordas’ and ‘borda viviendas’ with their dry stone walls, verdant fields and mountain streams makes them a very attractive buy for people looking for a back-to-nature life-style change are often bought up by young Basques from the local metropolises of Pamplona, San Sebastian or Bilbao.

Borda in bucolic setting

Borda in bucolic setting

For all the beauty of the area – and many liken it to Wales both in landscape and farming culture – work for new-comers is scarce and building permission slow and restrictive. The Holy Trinity of water, access and electricity are not always that easy to come by. Manon-de-Source style, water is a hugely contentious issue amongst the Basque mountain farmers (and source of an on-going rift in my hamlet to this day).  Many farmers pool together communally to pump up water to their bordas and farms and the fact that a borda ‘appears’ to have water to the enamored buyer is no guarantee that it will continue to be supplied with water when it changes hands. Water is sacred and in-comers looking to build a holiday home, water diaphanous flower beds and placate their children with swimming pools are not always welcome. (Luckily – and unusually – our house has its own spring.)

Cherry Trees and Axe Women!

Electricity and access are both matters that depend heavily on land rights. Bringing in more electricity pylons is often a simple matter of finances but where to place them can be more complex. Even if your neighbours are happy for you to put the pilons on their land, the real dificulty is to ascertain exactly whose land it is. This I learned when I decided to open out the drive to my house just below the cherry trees, and having been assured many times that the cherry trees were mine I made the logical deduction that the land they were on was mine as well. Well – as I found out afterwards – it wasn’t!

Enjoying company at our Basque farmhouse

Enjoying company at our Basque farmhouse

Here the land falls into several different categories: there is privately-owned land and common land and, on both types of land, there is a possibility that another, third party, has rights to usage. Iñaki, my partner, is the village lawyer and has endless cases about land rights and usage which can be anything from the rights to graze your sheep, to collect the bracken (for animal bedding) or pick the apple trees to make apple pie!

Often and understandably, the true rights to the land have been lost – or forgotten – in time and this was exactly my case with the cherry trees. The trees were mine, but the land wasn’t. It belonged to Maika, the Basque female champion ‘aizkolari’ or axe-woman!

The slow expansion of my tiny ´borda´ into the very pretty Basque Country farmhouse B & B has been a steep learning curve and together with Iñaki´s legal background I think we have covered most eventualities. Anybody who would like advice on buying a rural property in the Spanish Basque Country  – or who would simply like to spend a few days at our guesthouse walking the many self-guided walks we have documented in the area – feel free to contact us through the website.

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Lifestyle
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The Invisible Guardian by Dolores Redondo

Review by Steve Cracknell

When I read Georgina’s article, I thought: this is a book I have to buy. I haven’t read any detective novels since George Simenon died but I have lived in the Baztan valley where the novel is set, and I can use it to improve my Spanish. So I wasn’t particularly looking for a good tale. Yet I finished the 436 pages in five days. I had a dictionary by my side but I didn’t look up all the unknown words: I didn’t want to stop reading.

The Invisible Gardian by Dolores Redondo

The Invisible Gardian by Dolores Redondo

The story. Following a rather peculiar murder, police inspector Amaia is put in charge of the enquiry because she was born in the valley. She and her American husband move back in with family but things are not straightforward. Old tensions resurface and as the enquiry progresses the skeletons in the family cupboard are brought to light at the same time as the bodies by the river.

The Invisible Guardian is great crime fiction, but more than that. It is also a picture of a little-known part of Spain. This is not the identikit Spain of sangria and flamenco. Nor is it the Spain of mass youth unemployment, evictions and botellón. This is the Basque Pyrenees: green rolling foothills, 400-year-old stone houses and a tight-knit farming community.


Is there an invisible guardian in the woods?

Is there an invisible guardian in the woods?

Living there in 2010, it seemed that little had changed for centuries but, despite the apparent stability, there were tensions; the kind of generational conflicts which surfaced elsewhere in the 1960s didn’t seem quite resolved.

Bridge over the River Baztan

Bridge over the River Baztan

I was last in the Baztan in 2012, arriving accidentally for the annual fiesta of Elizondo, the only town. The teenage girls were still whirling through the traditional dances, though preferring tea towels around the waist to skirts. The men’s mutildanzak was still going strong but the new female mayor scandalised traditionalists by participating. But tradition was not being eroded everywhere: the street-corner vending machines sell milk from local dairy farms instead of the ubiquitous Coca-Cola to be found in other towns.

Parish church in Elizondo

Parish church in Elizondo

The Baztan is beautiful but enigmatic and Dolores Redondo has made it central to the intrigue, which is why the book is more than just detective fiction and why it deserves a wider audience.

The English edition of Dolores Redondo’s The Invisible Guardian will be published by Blue Door on 24 April 2015.

Steve has a blog on walking in the Pyrenees and has written a book about the French Pyrenees and the GR10.

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Baztan Valley, Dolores Redondo, Elizondo
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Beyond the Michelin restaurants San Sebastian has to offer

Basque feast in the square

Basque feast in the square

Venturing further than the Michelin restaurants San Sebastian so proudly presents to the world, more intrepid travellers find that the white-washed mountain villages of the Basque Country have some wonderful culinary secrets of their own. Apart from the cider festivals and mushroom fiestas, sheep’s cheese competitions and roast lamb banquets in village squares … you also find Michelin restaurants San Sebastian foodies know nothing about! Well, I suppose this is not surprising.

Lorea´s and Haizea´s riverside restaurant at the bottom of our hill actually rejected its Michelin star (for reasons better asked them) and it seems to me that their sole existence is to bring pleasure to our lives offering us exquisite Michelin quality dishes at prices we can afford! We have beaten a direct path down the mountain straight to their door and their duck confit with wild berry compote, coconut gazpacho or goat´s cheese salad with honey and walnuts are among our jealously-guarded secrets!

Rick Stein and the Basque Country

Basque pagan fiestas in Ituren

Basque pagan fiestas in Ituren

Those who have followed Rick Stein´s campervan over hill and dale throughout Spain during his recent BBC documentary on Basque food will have some inkling of the bucolic mediaeval Basque landscapes that envelope the traveller within half an hour of leaving regal San Sebastian.

Here mountain streams creak with the sound of water mills grinding the corn and village squares ring with the sounds of pagan figures clad in sheep skins and lace petticoats, warding evil spirits away from the crops with a thrust of bells and a flick of a whip. Only here is Basque cuisine still umbilically linked to its culture and traditions and anyone seriously interested in Basque food should definitely mark this area on the map … that is if you can find it!

October mushroom fiesta

October mushroom fiesta

In our hamlet my neighbours still plant their tomatoes, chop their wood, sheer their sheep – and even cut their hair – by the phases of the moon. They pick sloe berries to make Patxarran, they make quince jellies and fig jams and  – as a history of witchcraft belies – have a tradition of making herbal healing ointments from wild plants. Some people still tickle trout and, if you ask Kokili, he will tell you which plants they used to threw into the streams to anaesthetise the trout and make them easier to catch. On misty autumn mornings the locals will scour the forests for mushrooms and Felipe can tell you with just one look at the shape and colour whether your Boletus Edulis had sprung to life beneath an chestnut, oak or beech tree!

One of the Michelin restaurants San Sebastian foodies know nothing about!

Lorea  at one of the Michelin restaurants San Sebastian foodies don't know about

Lorea at one of the Michelin restaurants San Sebastian foodies don’t know about

Here, the culture of the Basques is so deeply tied to the lands they have lived in since primordial times. And so if you do eventually track us down and join our Basque Gastronomy Walking Holidays you will find great Basque food at every turn. At Isidro´s farm you will find lentil and black bean stews bubbling on the stove over the winter months and at Sagrario´s farm next door, when the sheep stop lambing in the spring, you will find tangy, home-made sheep´s cheese and little clay pots of sheep´s milk junket with honey.

At Felipe´s watermill down the valley do try the local speciality of toasted corn talos with cheese and spicy sausage (made on the farms) – best downed with the dry local cider from Lekaroz. If the roast lamb on the spit at the local summer fiestas or the T-bone steaks and cod and pepper stews at the local cider house still don´t do it for you then it is back down the track to visit Lorea and Haizea at the bottom of our hill.

After a Michelin quality lunch on a hot summer´s day we inevitably find ourselves siestering in their garden, toes in the river and thoughts of the Michelin restaurants San Sebastian so boasts about, far from our minds.

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Food
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The Camino de Santiago via the Baztan Valley

Several stretches of the Camino de Santiago lead walkers over the passes of the Pyrenees into the old kingdom of Navarre. The most popular and commercialised crossing point is the Camino Francés which leads pilgrims from St. Jean Pied-de-Port over the mountain pass of Ibañeta (1066 m) into Roncesvalles and on to Santiago de Compostela. However, although the best known, this is not the oldest crossing point of the Camino de Santiago.

Views of the Baztan Valley

Views of the Baztan Valley

This accolade goes to the Camino Baztanés which, for the past 1000 years, has led pilgrims from Bayonne to the monastery in Urdax and then over the far easier and lower mountain pass of Otxondo (a mere 632 metres and the most western of all the Pyrenean crossings).

The route from Otxondo then sweeps down through the green, verdant Basque lands of the Baztan River – which today offers hikers a wonderful portfolio of Baztan Valley walks .  In those days, the Camino was hugely instrumental in the development of the towns along its way – and for many towns their real ‘raison d’etre’.  An example of this is the beautiful village of Urdax, nestling at the foot of the Pyrenees, and boasting the impressive 10th century monastery of San Salvador Urdax, which was run as a hospital for pilgrims by the Augustine canons.

Urdax and the monastry of San Salvador

Urdax on el Camino de Santiago

Urdax on el Camino de Santiago

The monastery’s wealth was very much linked to the activity of the blacksmiths in the village but, like so many of the towns developed along the camino, lodging houses, traders and horse farriers (as well as pickpockets and prostitutes!) would all have eked out a living from the stream of pilgrims passing through the town.

Today visitors to the village could do little better than staying at José Miguel´s magnificent country guest house, Irigoienea, and popping into town to meet Montxo, a charismatic character who makes the best pintxos in the valley!

After Urdax, the Camino de Santiago climbs up to the pass of Otxondo before dipping down to the historical village of Amaiur in the kingdom of Navarra, whose presence was first felt on the pocket when pilgrims paid their taxes to the castle guards at the town´s entrance.

Amaiur; Gateway to Navarre

Amaiur (or Maya) has a special name in Basque hearts as it was here that the last 200 defenders of the Kingdom of Navarre´s independence fought their final battle. Exhausted and starving they finally surrendered to the troops of Castile on the 19th July 1522 … and the kingdom of Navarre came to its end.

As you enter the village behind the chapel on the Camino de Santiago you will find the ruins of the castle and its ramparts high up on your right, together with a memorial plaque to the soldiers who died there.  Walking through this historic and bucolic mountain village, look at the many engravings on the fountains which represent the passing pilgrims with their cape, stick and clam shell (the universal symbol of the Camino)  – and if you are feeling particularly footsore  do note the rough foot towel left at the final fountain on the way out of town.

The Black Plague in the Baztan Valley

If you look up at the arch on the south side of town you will see a statue of a virgin who has been worshipped ever since the time of the black death in the 17th century. Although the plague was said to have killed about 80% of the local population some miracle seemed to save every inhabitant living within the village walls. As you pass the arch, look back to see a mysterious and inexplicable stain on the stones which seemingly emanates from the very back of the virgin herself.

Lunch at the mill in Amaiur on the Camino de Santiago

Lunch at the mill in Amaiur on the Camino de Santiago

At the end of the village you will also see the church, constructed with stones left over from the ruins of the castle, and to the right of the church is a delightful working water mill. If it is open do go in and say hello to the miller, Felipe, (see video) as on certain days he will serve you traditional Basque corn bread talos with local sausage and cheese, downed with tumblers of fresh Baztan cider.

And, if your feet (or the cider), get the better of you he has a charming two bedroom apartment to rent right above the mill in Amaiur in the Baztan Valley.

Posted in Visit the Pyrenees, Walking in the Pyrenees
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Baztan Valley – Traditions and Code of Honour

Views of the Baztan Valley
Views of the Baztan Valley

The Baztan Valley in Navarre is an area of extreme beauty and mediaeval Basque landscapes which, due to geographical, social and political factors, still keeps many of its secrets to itself.

There are almost eight thousand people living in the Baztan Valley, spread between its fifteen pretty, white-washed villages. Elizondo is the capital of the valley and is once said to have had more banks per capita than any other town in Spain. It has a population alone of around three thousand five hundred people although how many of them are bankers I am not so sure. That they are almost all either descendants of smugglers or past smugglers themselves, I am far more confident!

The Baztan Valley and the ‘Euskaldun Hitza’

It may seem incongruous to go from smuggling to the Basque code of honour in one simple step. But actually it is not so strange. The Baztan Valley has seen very little immigration and the thousands of prehistoric burial mounds in these mountains indicate that many Baztan families have been here since primordial times. The Basque language is predominantly a spoken language and agreements here have always been sealed by a handshake and one’s word of honour. To this day, ‘Euskaldun Hitza’, (the Basque word) is accepted with great solemnity and taken very seriously indeed and still forms a binding contract between the true mountain Basques of this area.

When I asked my 9 year-old Basque daughter what would happen if she didn’t keep her ‘Euskaldun Hitza’ – she replied – ‘it would mean that I was Spanish!’.

Almost two decades ago I came to work as a mountain guide in Elizondo, and as the year progressed, I found it increasingly difficult to pay anyone. Roberto, the butcher, repeatedly told me to come back and pay later when he was less busy. Lourdes at the bread shop never had the bill made up when I dropped in, and my taxi driver, Francisco, would dismiss my furtive attempts to square up with a wave of his hand. Jumping on his bike, he would disappear over the mountains leaving me standing in the doorway of his house, purse in hand.

It took me a while to learn that it wasn’t that the local people were adverse to money (quite the contrary: hence the smugglers!). It is that the people of the Baztan Valley were paying me a compliment. They were offering me the ultimate token of acceptance; that they considered me a person of my word and worthy of the ‘Euskaldunak Hitza’.

Wood and apples

In these Basque valleys of the Pyrenees, the Basque code of honour can be detected in different ways. Most farms have orchards of fruit trees but to reach over the wall to pick fruit off the trees is totally unacceptable (even though the farmer would be the first to offer you a bag of apples if you met him.) Wood, too, is another example. Here in the mountains wood means wealth – (you almost find yourselves drooling over these immense and immaculately aligned wood piles that surround every Basque mountain farm). These wood stocks are usually left unguarded at the edges of the property but everyone knows that to take the smallest of logs would be to commit the ultimate cultural crime. And this thought leads me to another. Is it possible that this seemingly naïve act of leaving their wood (and wealth) so exposed to passers-by is an act of defiance? Is it a stand down? Is one being challenged to show one’s true Basque colours? Were Roberto, Francisco and Lourdes really putting my true ‘Basqueness’ to the test?

Smuggling and honour

The ‘Euskaldun Hitza’ and a strong Basque code of honour was also one of the reasons that the smuggling network in this area worked so well. Every smuggler had his own territory and worked his own crossing point over the border into France and no smuggler trespassed on another smugglers patch. Once over the border into France, French Basque smugglers from the Pyrenean villages on the other side would then take over. If a Basque Spanish smuggler was caught smuggling horses or cows over the border the first thing he would do would be to release the animals and run for cover. The Guarda Civil would herd up the animals but as they had no immediate use for them they would auction them off in the nearest market town. Such was the code of honour within the local Basque community that the farmers (who were invariably smugglers themselves) would boycott the auction leaving the sole bidding up to the family members of the smuggler who had lost the animals the night before. With no competition the smuggler would win back his livestock at a pittance only to head out on the next moonless night to gain a better price for them over the border in France.

To this day I still feel that it is an honour to live here and hope that I never (inadvertently) breach the trust my Basque neighbours and friends have given me. (Do see the blog on when I get the Day of the Joaldunak Wrong! )
I am off now to pay José Mari in the computing shop in Elizondo, in the Baztan, …. that is if he will let me!

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Baztan Valley
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The Baztan Trilogy, Dolores Redondo – are we ready?

The Baztan Valley and its many mysteries.

The Baztan Valley: Mists over the village of Amaiur.

The Baztan Valley: Mists over the village of Amaiur.

We thrive on mysteries in the Baztan valley. Our history, our wealth, our survival – in fact our very identity – has always depended on our intimate knowledge of our land. This has been our closely – kept secret since the beginning of time. However, now that The Baztan Trilogy, Dolores Redondo, her international best-selling crime fiction, has been translated into over 20 languages and Nigel Nadermann (the German director of Stein Larsson’s best-selling Millennium Trilogy) has obtained filming rights – are we ready for fame? Are we ready for the mists to clear? Are we happy to let the world into what is perhaps our greatest secret of all?

Delores’s first book, the Invisible Guardian, is due to be published in the UK on 19 June 2014 and those interested in an excellent review of the book in English can find one here.

Smugglers and witches

Witches of The Baztan Valley

Witches of The Baztan Valley

The dank and misty winter forests encircling the town of Elizondo in the Baztan Valley which provide the murder scene for Dolore’s Redondo’s victims hide far more than their corpses and the tracks of their assassins. These murderers follow in the footsteps of thousands of people before them, not only Basque farmers and shepherds leading their flocks out to pasture, but pilgrims and refugees, smugglers and witches. The Basque people of these mountain villages, with their inscrutable language, pagan Basque mythology and herbal remedies, have all too often incited fear and suspicion. During the 17th century the Baztan women were easy victims to the witch hunts of the Spanish Inquisition. Some escaped through the forests and over the mountains into France but others were dragged to Logrono, tortured and burned at the stake.

Secret paths in the Basque Country

Smugglers of the Baztan Valley

Smugglers of the Baztan Valley

Late into the 20th century the Basque people were still being marginalised and this was evident during Franco’s times when school children were whipped for speaking Basque and all Basque traditions were banned (with limited success).

However, the smugglers turned the language to their own advantage. The Basque language was a secret code that they shared with their French Basque neighbours over the border and, coupled with their intimate knowledge of forest paths and mountain passes, facilitated an impenetrable smuggling network involving virtually every household in the valley. Cows, horses, coffee, tyres, radios and lace were some of the many goods smuggled over the borders by night and which helped to keep the Baztan economy alive. In fact, the clandestine smuggling activities of the area were so successful, that it has been said Elizondo once had more banks per capita than any other town in Spain!       See other articles on smuggling in the Basque country.

The path to Hell Mill (Infernuko Errota)

The miller of Amaiur

The miller of Amaiur

The farmers also had their reasons for keeping their paths a secret. Part of Franco’s clampdown on the Basques was to lock the mill wheels at the village watermills in an attempt to control the Basque’s food supply. Instead of making their own bread, the locals were now dependent on buying their bread from state-run ‘panificadoras’ with its reviled black bread ‘pan negro’ (memories of which still send a shiver up the spines of the older Basque generation).

However, the location of one mill, Infernuko Errota, (Hell Mill), hidden in an obscure valley to the north of the Baztan, was a ferociously guarded secret and one that Franco’s police never did discover.

For years, the children of the Baztan valley trembled as they stumbled over the hills by night on their way to Hell Mill, trailing reluctant donkeys loaded with corn and grain behind them.  It is easy to imagine the fear of these children as they groped their way along the forest paths. According to Basque folklore the forests were haunted by grotesque forest dwellers and spirits such as Basajaun, a huge hairy creature who lived in the woods and protected the flocks of sheep, or the beautiful, golden-haired Lamia, who lived in the rivers and streams, waiting to lure lonely shepherds away to their death. Even today, you can still find the form of a Lamia carved into the coats of arms on the Baztan houses or the name incorporated into local place names near the water’s edge.  (See an article on the Lamia).

No Trespassers Allowed

Basque Joaldunak of Ituren

Basque Joaldunak of Ituren

Nevertheless, the tangled labyrinth of paths through the woods not only served the initiated few with an escape route, but also had a vital role in keeping foreigners and marauding armies out.

This part of the Pyrenees, with its intricately-woven system of river valleys, thick woods and hidden mountain pastures, was virtually impenetrable to outsiders. Romans, Visigoths, Moors – even Franco’s Guardia Civil – never felt comfortable here and would cling to the major routes for fear of getting lost or being ambushed.

The intricate lie of the Basque lands has undoubtedly played a central role in preserving the Basque language, culture and identity.

Despite so many efforts to stamp out their Basque ways, behind closed doors or on obscure mountain farms their dialects have been whispered and their pagan rituals have been enacted since pre-Christian times.

The Baztan Trilogy, Dolores Redondo – yes, perhaps, we are!

However, there is another, present-day secret that still comes as a surprise in our modern jet-setting climate. This is the unworldly, God-sent beauty of the Baztan valley when the winter mists lift and the summer and autumn sun lend these lands their Midas touch.

Picture of Delores Redondo's Baztan

Picture of Delores Redondo’s Baztan

So we return to the question about Dolores Redondo’s The Baztan Trilogy. Are we really ready to be put in the spotlight? Ten years ago I would not have been so sure.

However, although this was one of the last places in Spain to feel the effect of the recent recession (smuggling money has kept it buoyant for so long) we realise that we can no longer be complacent. A gentle trickle of sustainable eco-tourism is the perfect complement to our traditional, rural way of life.

It offers some help to local artisans and cheese-makers, millers, cider houses and family-run restaurants and in so doing helps to keep the local culture alive.

So YES, to a few, initiated, discerning tourists we are just about ready to prise open the doors to this paradise of ours – but, please, don’t forget just how lucky you are!


Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Mythology, Baztan Valley, Dolores Redondo, Visit the Pyrenees
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The importance of ‘work’ in the Basque Culture

Amatxi in the vegetable garden of Zubialdea in Ameztia

Amatxi in the vegetable garden of Zubialdea in Ameztia

As I dashed out of my neighbour’s farm Amatxi (the grandmother) waved to me from the door ‘Que trabajes mucho!’ she said; a translation from the Basque ‘lan haunditz egin’ meaning ‘I hope you have lots of work!’. She wasn’t being funny, nor making subtle remarks about my lazy ways, (I don’t think), she was simply sending me her heartfelt wishes for a good day! Work is a very interesting concept in the Basque culture and a far cry from the ‘mañana’ approach to work that we often attribute to the Spanish of the south.

Here in the mountain Basque culture the greatest honour bestowed upon a person is that they are a good worker; neither their education, their breeding, their position nor money can elevate a person to a higher status than their simple capacity to work.

Amatxi was simply wishing me the most desirable thing she could think of; a full working day!

For good or for bad, work for a rural Basque person is not only their source of pride but their whole identity. Luis, my 50 year old neighbour, has been recently pensioned off early due to kidney problems. This episode in his life has been traumatic for him; and I am not referring to the ongoing dialysis sessions in Pamplona hospital where the constant attention of pretty nurses has worked wonders for this shy, confirmed bachelor). Luis has Read more ›

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Lifestyle, Spanish-English differences
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Cider Houses in the Basque Country .. and a few less trees

Cider drinking at the mushroom fiestas in Elgorriaga

Cider drinking at the mushroom fiestas in Elgorriaga

For some reason cider has become the theme of the week … and not a drop has yet passed my lips . .. I swear!

My partner, the village lawyer, always seems to get interesting cases when the Basque cider houses open (usually between January and April) although I have to admit, the  ‘wild-boar-in-the-boot-of-the-car’ case during last year’s hunting season also had its appeal.

From what I can gather the local cider seems to reach deep into the Basques lumber-jacking genes (many of them having spent their youths as log cutters in the high Pyrenees or the French alps) and more than one Sagardotegia (cider house) has woken up on a Sunday morning to find itself with a couple of trees less than it had had the night before. Near Elizondo, a couple of evidently  ‘new-age’ Basques, also bestowed their affections on the local flora; but this time just the shrubs and flower pots outside the door. I will ask tonight what the arguments were in their defense.

The Basques have an age-old tradition of making cider, and cider was the traditional beverage way before wine was every introduced.  In days gone by almost every farmstead would have made cider for its own use and even now, if it is possible to lure my farming neighbours away from the toil of the farm for an evening on the tiles, (where does that expression come from?), then the local cider house would still be very much their first choice. Today, the Sagardotegiak are a slightly more elaborate affair offering an accompanying menu of cod tortilla, piperada, T-one steaks and sheep’s cheese etc.

I leave you all with a happy picture of Stuart, a guest of mine from last year on our Walking, Basque Culture & Gastronomy week enjoying the cider at the mushroom fiestas in the village of Elgorriaga down the road. (In his case I believe the trees (at least) were left standing!).


Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Food, Basque Lifestyle
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Talk about languages; we have enough problems with our own!

Talking about languages; we seem to have problems enough with our own! How many of us have tried in vain to get past the automated telephone systems that protect companies from their clients! (For those of us living abroad with foreign accents trying to get through the automated switch boards of large telephone companies (NO NAMES!) this can be the bane of our lives.) DO see this wonderful video about a Scotsman and an Irishman in a voice recognition run elevator in Scotland!


Posted in Spanish-English differences

Don´t take the Spanish people out of learning Spanish

My Basque/Spanish daughter, Marion, learning English with my mother at Christmas

My Basque/Spanish daughter, Marion, learning English with my mother at Christmas

I am always amazed at the number of Spanish language schools in Spain that boast about their highly sophisticated language labs full of the latest technology! Surely, (I have always thought) it is far better to learn languages with real people? Surely, the elderly señora with time to talk on the plaza, or a friendly shepherd bringing the sheep down from the hills are far more efficient teachers for those learning the Spanish language than an audio tape in a sound-proofed room? So, when Francois Grosjean, Emeritus professor of psycholingusitics at Neuchâtel University drew my attention to the following experiment, it was refreshing to know that what seemed pure common sense … does still make sense! (Which is not always the case these days.)

Patricia Kuhl* and her colleagues at Washington University conducted an experiment on infants. They asked themselves whether any type of exposure to two languages (through human interaction, DVDs, audio input, etc.) is enough to encourage infants to develop the phonetic categories of each languages.  They exposed 9 month old American infants to twelve sessions with Chinese native-speakers who read and played with them in Mandarin. With a second group of similar infants they gave them the same amount of Mandarin language exposure but only through DVDs and audio input, specifically avoiding any live human exposure.

Interpersonal skills play an essential role in the learning of a second language

The results were clear. Whereas the infants exposed to live human exposure acquired the Mandarin phonetic contrast, the second group (which learned through audio, and audio visual mediums) did not. Kuhl hence concluded that the presence of a live person interacting with an infant and engaging them in an interpersonal and social context were essential in motivating the infant to learn a second language.  Naturally, I ask, as adults, do we really learn that differently

So, next time you find yourself learning the Spanish language in a language lab at a Spanish language school in Spain  … get up and go for a walk, find a lively bar, join an aerobics class or knitting group or a local AA session, or simply chat up the lab assistant, but take those headphones off!

*Kuhl, P K., Tsao, F.-M. & Liu, H.-M. (2003). Foreign-language experience in infancy: Effects of short-term exposure and social interaction on phonetic learning. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 100 (15), 9096-9101

Posted in Bilingual Families, Learning Spanish in Spain, Teaching Spanish
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Spanish Language Courses at the Open University: their Perfect Summer Complement

Open University students learning Spanish this summer

Open University students learning Spanish this summer

Open University Spanish language students enjoy our Spanish language courses and house-parties in the Pyrenees in Spain, and have done for over a decade; braving the 10 hairpin bends to our Pyrenean farmhouse to join us for a chat! Our total immersion Spanish language courses have always offered an ideal summer complement to years of distance learning where Spanish tuition is based primarily in reading, writing and comprehension skills! It appears that many Open University Spanish students (and adult learners of Spanish in general) miss a genuine opportunity for a chin wag; to chat, to converse, to interact, to discuss, charlar, conversar, interaccionar, exponer, departir — basically  – HABLAR en español!

This may seem a long way to come just to  ‘chat’! However, unless you have Spanish-speaking friends or relatives, or live abroad, unstilted conversation practice with native Spanish speakers is not always easy to come by. And, even when travelling abroad, there are many places (especially in the south of Spain) where the Spanish would rather hone their English skills than wait for foreigners to stumble through their irregular verbs and muddle their ‘paras’ and ‘pors’. It would not be the first time that British guests from the south of Spain have ventured up to our Spanish house-parties in the Pyrenees merely to find native Spanish people happy to ‘speak’ to them in Spanish!

Spanish summer school

Spanish conversation classes are difficult at the best of times, not only on Open University Spanish courses but in traditional classroom-based evening schools as well. Conversation classes require small groups, preferably with the presence of fluent (native?) Spanish speakers, but also a genuine reason to interact! Teachers … or (let us say) … language facilitators, have to be imaginative, inspiring, resourceful and genuinely emphatic which is not always easy within the confines of a sterile, formica classroom.  They need the ability to both whip up an atmosphere and debate among the group, while simultaneously supporting each member with their personal language needs. Fill-in-the-gap exercises are so much easier to hand out!

Spanish summer courses .. perfect for Open University Students

Spanish summer courses .. perfect for Open University Students

Lozanov, Vygotsky, Krashen, and Goleman

Lozanov, Vygotsky, Krashen, and Goleman as well as other theories on second language acquisition have all inspired the total immersion Spanish language courses and house-parties that we run from our farmhouse in the Pyrenees (now in their 15th year). Our intensive Spanish teaching methods and the personal nature of these courses dictate small groups of no more than 8 guests at one time. We invite them to join in our Spanish lives in the village of Ituren and meet our local Spanish friends: farmers, shepherds, millers, smugglers, musicians, cooks, lawyers and teachers. All of our courses are hosted by a professional language facilitator with over 20 years’ experience of working with intercultural groups and … just as importantly … a passion and interest in people! The walks, cultural visits, fiestas, meals, talks, guitar recitals, cooking classes etc. all provide a fun, lively and dynamic platform for endless and uncontrived Spanish conversation between the local Spanish people and our guests.

What sort of vocabulary drills can you do underneath a chestnut tree? (sacar las castañas del fuego, darse un castañazo, castañear, las castañuelas etc.) and what idiomatic expressions can you practise in the bar? (soltar la gallina, pagar a escote, estar como una cuba, cambiar el agua al canario etc.)

By linking new Spanish vocabulary and grammatical constructions  to emotional, visual, aural and kinaesthetic experiences we cement them in our memory far more effectively. In this way our total immersion Spanish language courses offer a refreshing, summery but also efficient boost in language skills for those following distance-based language courses (such as those run by the Open University) during the winter months.

More blogs on the theory and methods used in our exclusive total immersion Spanish courses can be found here:

Posted in Learning Spanish in Spain, Teaching Spanish
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Change of Language? Change of Personality?

Edorta sings us songs in Basque, English, Spanish and Catalan

Edorta sings us songs in Basque, English, Spanish and Catalan

Once again thank you to Francois Grosjean, Ph.d. Emeritus professor of Psycholinguistics at Neuchâtel University, Switzerland, for his latest blog on bilingualism and personality change. Without falling into boggy ground over the definition of personality (something so difficult to define and yet something we are so acutely aware of ) the question ‘do our personalities change when we change languages?’ is fun to ponder. It even appears that bilinguals themselves are totally divided as to whether they think their personalities change with the languages they speak.  As always, my favourite guinea pig is my tri-lingual daughter Marion (See blog: Trilingualism and the Maternity Ward): Is she actually a politer person in English not only because English has more PLEASES and THANK YOUS than the Basque but also because her only models of English here in the Pyrenees are the dulcet tones of a genteel mother (ONLY to make a point!) and the mild censored expressions on cbeebees (the BBC children’s channel)? And why does she tend to choose Spanish as the language of drama and mimickery? Is it because at her Basque school, Spanish is the language of the playground, the language of make-believe role plays, rhyming songs and skipping games with her friends?

Read more ›

Posted in Bilingual Families, Spanish-English differences
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Basque Smugglers and Tomatoes

Koikili on his horse ranch in Lesaka

Koikili on his horse ranch in Lesaka

Koilkil, our retired smuggling friend, continues to surprise us with his tales of smuggling cows and horses over the Spanish/French borders of the Basque Pyrenees. He rarely speaks with animosity about the Guardia Civil during Franco’s regime … sometimes I even note a tone of sympathy! The youths sent up to patrol the borders were usually from the south of Spain, dragged into conflict, miles away from home and absolutely ‘shit-scared’ (excuse the expression but it is totally relevant to this blog post). Petrified about ending up stranded in these dense, dark and misty Basque valleys, the Guardia’s were little match for the local smugglers whose knowledge of the mountains and local weather patterns is virtually part of their genetic inheritance.  So the Guardias would often huddle around the main intersections, drawing heavily on cigarettes, sharing their food (cheese, chorizo, bread, tomatoes etc.) where the sound of them talking and the light and smell of their cigarettes were an easy giveaway to the silent smuggler.

If by chance a smuggler did get spotted, the Guardia would usually aim above his head whereby the smuggler would often drop his load (or scatter his animals) and take off into the night. If he was lucky the packages would contain something useful that the Guardia could either use himself or sell on (such as coffee, chocolate, radio’s etc.). If not, he could find himself running around the woods rounding up a smelly herd of calves or horses which his unit would then send to auction. However, the smugglers so often had the advantage. Their mountain farms allowed them a supply of cheeses, chistoras and cuts of meat, inaccessible to ravenous Guardias dependent on irregular army rations, and hence a safe passage through the mountains was an easy bribe.  And, even if a smuggler did loose his calves or horses to the Guardias (which represented months, years of wages) these were not too difficult to retrieve at the auction the following day.  All the locals knew exactly who the livestock in the auction  really belonged to and, in an act of solidarity, (which is so quintessentially Basque) no one else apart from the smuggler would turn up! Being the only bidder at the auction he would retrieve his livestock for a fraction of the cost … and the following night he would undoubtedly head back over the mountains with them again!

And so what about the tomatoes… I hear you ask? Well, coming from the south of Spain the Guardias tended to eat far more tomatoes than the Basques … so next time you find a wild tomato plant growing conspicuously at some desolate place in the mountains you might now know why! Another dead give-away for the smugglers.

P.S. A question for another blog. How did the smugglers stop the stallions making a sound and nickering at the mares as they passed them over the borders at night?

More about Koilkili in the Guardian Article by Max Walker:

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Lifestyle
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Lunch & Autumn Walks in Ituren (17th November 2012)

Views from the school run to Ituren

Views from the school run to Ituren

The best way to start off this invitation is with a picture of Ituren on the school run down the mountain earlier this week .. and if this photo came with a sound track, you would also hear the haunting cries of the cranes as they cross the valley fleeing the winter from the north.  True to Amatxi’s prognosis we are now experiencing an Indian summer or “quince summer” (el veranillo de San Miguel o el veranillo del membrillo). With the warm golden sunshine and the walnuts ripening on out-stretched sheets in the farms this is by far the most beautiful time to see the area.

Invitation: 17th November 2012

Those who are up for the adventure are welcome to join me for a light lunch of cheese and wine etc. at my home in Ameztia, Ituren this Saturday between 13.00 – 14.30.  Afterwards I invite you all to join me on a pretty walk along the shepherding paths and smugglers tracks that lead from the house so that we can enjoy the stunning autumn colours! The perfect tonic before winter sets in.

Here are the directions: Good luck!

Take the N121a from Behobia, direction Iruña/Pamplona and turn off at Donestebe (Santesteban). Cross the village and take the direction to Leiza, passing the village of Elgorriaga and then Ituren.  As you enter the village of ITUREN (from N121A and Santesteban) you will pass the Farmacia on your right, then an Asador on your left. Soon afterwards you will find a square on your left and a road that goes off to the left alongside the square (direction LATSAGA). Take this turning. This road crosses over a bridge and continues past some small, modern houses on the left and at the end of the road some older houses (the first with a large balcony over-looking the road). Here, do NOT enter the area of the older houses but follow the road as it takes a very sharp and steep fork to the left. Follow this road about 3 km uphill through the countryside until you get to a set of blue rubbish containers.                               

At the rubbish containers the road forks; it goes either straight ahead (putting the first house on your left-hand side) or forks steeply left up-hill (putting the first house to your right). At the rubbish containers go straight ahead, putting the first house on your left hand side and continue gently up hill. You will soon pass fields on both sides and drive through the middle of a farm, the farmhouse to your right. (If you see anyone at the farm say hello and ask then for directions to my house). If not, continue up-hill until you come to a cemented crossroads. (More in the shape of an X than a  +). Continue straight ahead/leftish along the flat along a row of walnut trees and you will soon see a wide turning to your left. Do NOT take it).  

Continue straight ahead on the road that gently bares right (putting a largish barn (which looks like the face of a Koala Bear) to the left of you). The road climbs and then dips and passes through some chestnut trees with a long barn above a field to your right. When you come out of the trees you will see a sign saying IAULIN BORDA and a gravel drive dipping sharply away to your left. Take it. The house you see to your left is ours! You have earned the first drink simply by getting here!

P.S: (Bring walking boots and warm clothes and a bottle of water)






Posted in Uncategorized

El Día del Joaldunak (When I got the dates wrong!)


Lazaro, the Joaldunak leader, prepares to perform 'on the wrong day'!

Lazaro, the Joaldunak leader, prepares to perform ‘on the wrong day’!

It is the day that only the villagers know about, (and me) and last year I got it terribly wrong!

This is the private day of the Joaldunak – the mythical, pagan, carnival personality of our village of Ituren. This is the day they make their personal pilgrimage to our mountain farms in honour of their ancestors.  But today there are no coaches, no television cameras, no tourists just my neighbours hurriedly preparing mushroom tortillas, and pintxos of spicy sausage and sheep’s’ cheese.  Bottles of cider are uncorked as the Joaldunak approach, and the deep dirge of the bells reaches a crescendo in the oak trees at the bottom of the track.

Sheep’s skins, lace petticoats, whips and bells.

As an English woman living here among the Joaldunak it is a great honour to be part of this event. For the handful of special guests who join me for this Walking and Basque Pagan culture week (in which this event is pivotal) few have not been visibly viscerally moved.

SO: when guests from all around the world had booked their flights to join me for this ceremony, you can imagine that the most I can do is get the date right!  You can imagine the horror when Juanito explained that (due to a misleading calculation in the lunar cycle), the dates had been changed! How the hell do you face your clients after that????

Sagrario with her husband, Ignacio, and his brother, Luis. Without doubt, the last time they wear the bells

Sagrario with her husband, Ignacio, and his brother, Luis. Without doubt, the last time they wear the bells

What happened next is without doubt, the greatest honour ever bestowed on me during the 10 years that I have lived here. When the Joaldunak leaders learned that I had  ‘metido la pata’ as they say in Spanish, the troop of Joaldunak rallied around me. (Lazaro rushed back from San Sebastian), Juanito, Javier, Pello, José Ramon, Juanjo all donned their bells and sheep’s skins. Sagrario put on a huge comida popular at her home,  roasting the lamb on the spit outside the farmhouse, while her husband, Ignacio and brother-in-law, Luis, put on the bells for the first  (and last) time in 25 years. Visual tears of pride as the bells were strapped to their broad 50-year-old backs. Musicians came up from the village and over 40 people came together that day to stage an enormous ceremony just so that I (La Inglesa) would not loose face in front of my clients.

As this wonderful fiesta drew to a close, the last words of the Bertsolaris (Basque bards) over their sloeberry liqueurs were GEORGINA; DON’T FORGET THAT NEXT YEAR (2012) El DIA DEL JOALDUNAK IS THE 22nd SEPTEMBER!

There are still a few rooms left on this walking holiday 16th – 23rd  September and the experiences of the Basque culture this week will be absolutely unique for anyone who comes.

More information about this week:

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Lifestyle, Ituren carnivals
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