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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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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 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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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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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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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!

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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 ›

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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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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:

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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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Business with the Basques in Northern Spain

Basque friends at a cideria with Basque champion woodcutter 'Olasagasti'

Basque friends at a cideria with Basque champion woodcutter ‘Olasagasti’

Any article entitled ´Working with the Spanish’ will get into stormy waters if it attempts blanket coverage of the Iberian Peninsula and this is no truer than for the proud Basque people who inhabit the rugged coasts of the North.

Just like the English ‘go on holiday to Europe’ so the Basques ‘go on holiday to Spain’ and in the public Basque-speaking schools (Ikastolas) more hours of English are taught than Spanish! Although business with the Basques usually takes place in either the English or Spanish languages, the Basques do NOT see themselves as Spanish (the World Cup excluded) and this is often the first cultural faux pas to be made!

Naturally, generalisations can be made and a love of food and wine, family and friends can be found throughout the Mediterranean lands, but the Basques are not Latins and business with the Basques is quite a different kettle of fish than with the more extrovert Spaniards of the South.

Business in the Basque country is informal and non-hierarchical

From a British point of view, the Basque reserve and informality are easy to relate to. The Basque dress code is usually relaxed and understated, and any overt display of status or position does not impress. Historically, the Basque culture has always tended towards democracy and a flat social hierarchy which is also reflected in the language they use.  When speaking Spanish the informal use of ‘tu’ to address your colleagues and business partners is used far more in the north of Spain than in the south, where echoes of a feudal past can still be discerned in the  more formal and commonly-used ‘Usted’.

Are the Basques on time?

I can hear the reply of ‘mañana, mañana’ but NO, don’t be taken in and don’t take the mañana system for granted when heading off for appointments in San Sebastian or Bilbao. Although the timing may be slightly more relaxed than we know it in Britain, the Basques tend to be refreshingly punctual and to the point. One notable difference is that in Britain we like to fill up our posh leather agendas weeks, if not months in advance. Trying to nail down a Basque (or Spanish) business partner for a meeting too far ahead of time may do little more than bemuse their shorter-term mind sets. In these your partner will quite often ask you to call to make an appointment when you arrive in town and then fit you in in the next couple of days.

This helps me make another point about formal and informal systems. In the Basque country there is a very reliable formal system where your word is your honour and a date is a date. However, when plans go astray for whatever reason you will find that the Basques can be very flexible too and that a few phone calls later appointments can be changed, dates and venues can be swapped, and the new plans will be equally reliable as the old ones. Having run a business in the Basque Country for over a decade these two systems allow a refreshing mix of security and flexibility.

 My word is my honour   

The Basque culture has a strong oral tradition where people are expected to honour their word and, on the whole, the system still works. Basques like to show trust and like to feel trusted and for many Basque shaking your hand on a deal is as binding as any written document. Nevertheless, there is a naturally a fine line between leaving yourself wide-open and nailing down every detail of an agreement in writing, but do at least be sensitive to this deeply-seated Basque code of honour.

Pintxo bar in San Sebastian

Pintxo bar in San Sebastian

Money is always a quagmire of cultural differences and, in the Basque Country (and Spain as a whole), talk about money and pricing are usually introduced towards the ends of conversations. If a client does hand you over cash then he may feel offended if you sit down and count out the notes in front of him. If you do have to check, be discreet.

However, there is no better demonstration of this code of honour than in the bustling tapas (pintxo) bars of San Sebastian. With the bar tops laden high with colourful plates of pintxos you are invited to spend the evening grazing, helping yourself to one after the other , ordering a glass of ‘tinto’ or a bottle of ‘Txakoli’, (and then perhaps a couple more pintxos to round off the day). Hours may pass before you nudge through the crowd to get the bill from the waiter who, more often than not, will only have your word as to how many pintxos and drinks have passed your way.

Business and Socialising

From my experience the Basques do not like to mix business and pleasure. It is either one or the other and the idea of working breakfasts or lunches is generally anathema to them. If you are asked out to lunch by your business colleagues then more often than not the content of the lunchtime conversations should be kept to general social topics such as family, Basque culture, wine, food and football etc. If you have any Basque contacts or business colleagues in common then showing that you are already part of an inner circle is also a clever step to make. However, if strict business talk is absolutely necessary don’t let it creep into conversation until the coffee is served.

Likewise, during meetings, it may feel natural for Northern Europeans to take coffee breaks and saunter back into the meeting room cup of coffee in hand, whereas for the Basques this seemingly innocent act could be interpreted as a lack of seriousness and respect. Food and work just don’t mix. (This attitude to business is a far cry from that of the Danes, Barry Tomalin * and I worked with in Copenhagen. Here, they would start the morning training sessions with ‘hyggelit’ cakes and  coffees but would be talking about numbers and prices before they had had time to wipe the crumbs off their business plans!)  

* I have had the great honour to work with Barry Tomalin in Cross-cultural Awareness Training over the years. Barry is a writer, author and public speaker who is now the director of Cultural training at International House in London and lecturer at the London Academy of Diplomacy. His book ‘The World’s Business Cultures and how to Unlock Them’ is well worth a read. See his website at



Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Lifestyle, Spanish-English differences
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The Basque House – a mixed blessing.

Over the past decades I have come to realise just how important a role the Basque farmhouse (etxea) plays in the Basque culture. When the final roof tile is put into place, a sprig of bay leaves is tucked into the eaves above the front door and the house is given its name. It is usually by this name that the family is best known and it has taken me years to get to know my neighbours by any other name:  they are  – quite simply –  Isidro de Zubialdea, Amaia de Sumbilleneako Borda,  Juanito de Arozenea etc.  Had Marion and I not been better known as ‘las inglesas’, we too would simply be Marion and Georgina of Iaulin Borda. Surnames are used little around here.

My neighbour's house, Zubialdea

My neighbour’s house, Zubialdea

The Basque house is perhaps better thought of in terms of a family seat, rather than a mere dwelling place of bricks and mortar and for many mountain Basques the mere thought of selling their home, or even a piece of their land, is shameful. In the old laws (fueros) of Navarre, the Basque etxea had the same properties as an embassy or a church; it was out of the reach of the law and, if a family member was wanted for some serious crime, the police had no right to enter the house, having to sit out the long wait until the suspect deigned to appear.

I remember a conversation years ago with my friend Tere who was talking at length about ‘her house’.  The more she went on the less I recognised the family chalet she lived in with her husband in Elizondo. When I tried to clarify the matter it appeared that the simple and unqualified term ‘mi casa’ referred unambiguously to Read more ›

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Carnivals of Ituren & Zubieta 2011

Ituren Carnival: 31st January 2011

After a mug of hot broth, (caldo), traditionally made from boiled pork and chickens feet, we climbed the steps to the attic rooms above the town hall and plunged into a frenzy of bells and ropes, of sheep’s skins and brightly-coloured swaddling ribbons. No, don’t be misled by the pretty pinks and baby blues, the lace petticoats and the empty bottles of Patxaran – the Ituren carnival is NOT a frivolous affair.

10 litre bells pulled tight on the Joaldunak's back

10 litre bells pulled tight on the Joaldunak’s back

The atmosphere is serious and the faces of the Joaldunak are tense and pale under their thick Basque eyebrows as they wait for a heavy boot to be wedged in the base of their spine.  Thick ropes are heaved tightly around their girth as a pair of 10 litre copper bells are secured tightly to the small of their broad Basque backs. Years ago the Joaldunak would have lived and slept in their bells during the whole carnival period and, with the ropes so tightly knotted around their midriffs, chicken broth would have been the staple for days on end.

( I can only imagine that Patxaran  – the local sloe and aniseed liqueur – would have found its way through parted lips as well.)

Today is the first day of the Zubieta – Ituren carnival, the Monday after the last Sunday in January and it is Ituren’s day to host the carnivals and welcome the Joaldunak from Zubieta into our own village square.

Ituren carnival: The Joaldunak follow in the footsteps of their ancestors 1000's of years ago.

Ituren carnival: The Joaldunak follow in the footsteps of their ancestors 1000’s of years ago.

This is by far the most important day in the year for our village and the opportunity to ‘wear the bells’ (the word ‘Joaldunak’ literally means ‘the bell-wearers’ in Basque) is a great honour and tremendous responsibility handed on from generation to generation since documents began. Pello ( a local historian) told me last week that there was even mention of a Joaldunak-like character in these parts during Roman times!)

During the rein of Franco, Basque traditions were outlawed completely, as was the Basque language. ( This was such the case that there is now a missing generation of Basques whose parents refused to teach them Euskera for fear of their children being detained in the streets).  However, even during these difficult times, the Basque villagers from Ituren and Zubieta clung tenaciously to their carnival traditions, aided and abetted by the tortuous mountain roads that lead to our villages and the opaque winter mists that shroud our valley floors.

Around 2pm the Joaldunak from Ituren congregate in the plaza, and the leader of the troupe (the enigmatic, Lazaro,) starts off the procession with a call on his horn and a back flick of solid hips releasing a heavy clonk from the Joariak on his back. The rest of the troupe fall into step;  a complicated rhythmic step where the total synchronisation of movement and sound between the troupe members is of vital importance as well as a source of immense individual and village pride.  The men are so acutely concentrated on their movements that they enter into a meditative, trance–like state and their solemn faces contrast markedly with the wild celebrations and obscenities of the beasts and demons, monsters and witches that scatter in their wake.

The chained bear (hartza) and the Joaldunak

The chained bear (hartza) and the Joaldunak

The Joaldunak, together with a chained bear (harza) with rams horns, said be symbolic of the devil,  then make the rounds of the village, blessing the village with flicks of horse-hair whips and the ringing of their bells. In times past there may have been real wolves and bears to frighten away from their herds of sheep and cattle, as well as the more intangible forces of evil, disease and infertility. The rituals and dress of the Joaldunak in the Ituren carnival seem to have changed relatively little over the ages although I believe that there are more youths ‘wearing the bells’ today that ever before – not only because fewer families could afford these immense bells but also because of a growing interest from the youths of the village to continue the tradition.  While the Joaldunak march around the village, the rest of the villagers from Ituren and Zubieta dress up as mozorroak; masked, unruly, anarchic figures and symbols of evil, taunting the Joaldunak who scatter them in their wake. In the past the locals would have traditionally dressed as witches, demons and monsters however their costumes today bare evident signs of modernisation, and the masked figure of an ugly diseased man with a stick years ago may now be a semi-naked Basque youth with a chainsaw. The donkey pulling the cart of animal excrement today could quite possibly be a tractor in disguise! (Much better for the animals I am sure.)

Here is a video of the Ituren carnivals in 1970 made by Basque writer and historian, Pio Baroja. And here is a more recent video of the Ituren carnival.

I could go on about the symbolism and meaning behind these ancient carnivals and its visceral impact on everyone who plays a part,  or runs for cover under the porticos of the village hall.  It is a very moving, unnerving affair and for some strange reason as I come to understand my neighbours and friends behind the facades and share in their everyday lives, the carnival means more to me year by  year.  My lasting impression this year was the total contrast between the eternal solemnity of the Joaldunak and the crazed grimaces and cries of the mozorak. Are they from two separate worlds? Or are they just two different facets of the same one?

Read here Max Walker´s article in the Guardian about the Joaldunak in the Ituren Carnival

Come and meet the Joaldunak on our Walking, Basque Culture and Gastronomy weeks run here in the village of Ituren.

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Food, Basque Lifestyle, Ituren carnivals
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Mermaids with Dangerous Combs! Lamiak con Peines Peligrosos

The Lamiak, easily compared to Greco-Roman nymphs, are creatures of Basque mythology who figure greatly in local toponyms, and are often found represented in the coats of arms of the large farmhouses of the area.

The lamia on a coat of arms on a house in Oriegi

The lamia on a coat of arms on a house in Oriegi

According to legend, the Lamia is a mermaid-like creature with either bird-like feet or a fish’s tail who dwells in mountain springs and streams. Here, in the notoriously misty forest glens of the Basque Country, she can be found combing her long blond hair with a golden comb. Whether it is the golden comb or her golden tresses, I am not sure, but she is often attributed with the disappearance of some lonely shepherd of unmeasured ambition who wanders off into the forest in her pursuit and is consequently never seen again.

However, the Lamia often brought good luck to the local peasants and if a farmer left the Lamiak a present, he Read more ›

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Mythology
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Carnival Time Again – The Bustle of Life in Ameztia

Petticoats, whips and bells - all part of the Joaldunak carnival dress.

Petticoats, whips and bells – all part of the Joaldunak carnival dress.

I just popped in on Amatxi yesterday and she was bent double over the kitchen table taking in the waist on her grandson’s lace petticoats. Carnival time is coming .. by far the most exciting and loved moment of the year for our village of Ituren.  There is a general buzz everywhere, groups of youths congregating in farm sheds and clinks and clonks going on late into the night. If you come across a motorised bracken stack speeding around the village square next week like some demented Dougal from the Magic Roundabout then Iñaki, Sagrario´s son, is usually somewhere inside it on a tractor!

However, I have been told that this year Iñaki and Juanito are preparing some bizarre carnival version of Herri Kirolak (Basque rural sports) which is in fact Maika’s domain (and SHE is always a force to be reckoned with at carnival time!).

p.s. My great friend, Maika, who deserves many blog posts in her own right farms much of the land around here in Ameztia and has made national fame as a Spanish cross-country running champion and as a Herri Kirolak Basque  heroine (with particular reference to her way with an axe and her stamina on the ‘corn-cob’ relay races.!)

Tiny,  muscles of steel and a mischevious grin, I have discovered her soft spot for cheddar cheese and apple pies! One of my greatest friends and partners in crime, Maika, you are in for a blog post pretty soon.

For a charming little picture of Maika see Simon Busch’s article on the Basques: Bells to Men.

Also read here Max Walker´s article in the Guardian about the Joaldunak:

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

Another guest post from Veronica of La Recette du Jour.
Being in a country where you don’t speak the language well enough to understand everything that’s going on gets you into some odd situations where you can discover all sorts of interesting things you would never have guessed the existence of otherwise. Yesterday was one of those days. ”Dia de la sidra” in Leitza, said the Navarran tourist authority website. “Cider tastings.” Sounds good, and we haven’t visited Leitza yet. So we get in the car and set off, arriving at about 11 a.m. Absolutely no sign of any cider festival. As usual walls and shop windows were plastered with fly-posters, 100% of which were in Basque. But by using the few words of Basque we do recognise and looking at the pictures, we soon determined that none of them were anything to do with cider.

Steve asked in a haberdasher’s shop; the two women inside shrugged their shoulders. Try the square where the town hall is, they suggested. So we did. Still no cider festival; we studied a few more posters without success, as usual taking photos of some of them so that we could decipher them with the help of the Basque-French dictionary later. On the way back down the hill we asked in a newsagent. “Oh yes, el dia de la sidra. It’s this afternoon. At seven o’clock.” Hmm. To us, “dia” had implied “all day”. And to the Spanish, “afternoon” starts at about four and goes on till nine. Leitza didn’t look so interesting that we wanted to hang about till seven in the hope that a couple of stalls selling cider might appear. “Let’s go the butcher’s shop near where we parked the car,” I suggested. “I want to buy some chicken for dinner.”

The window of the butcher’s had a poster in it (in Basque) which seemed to be an advert for a museum of stone-cutting. Inside, the walls were plastered with photos and newspaper cuttings showing large sweaty men heaving improbably large blocks of stone onto their shoulders. Ahh, harrijasotzaile (Basque stone lifters)! “My dad,” said the butcher proudly. “And my brother.” “What about you?” asked Steve, eyeing his slim, thirty-something frame doubtfully. “I like partying too much,” he grinned. “It’s our family museum – it’s open till two-thirty if you want to see it.” Well, we didn’t have anything better to do, so we drove out of town and followed a large pointing finger sculpted in concrete up a steep track.

We arrived at a farmhouse overlooking a field. In the field were a giant Basque beret, a few stone circles, dolmens, and menhirs, standing stones with letters painted on them, an 8-metre tall statue of a man with a spherical stone on his shoulder, painted in brilliant silver, and an even more massive silver arm and shoulder emerging from the earth. The usual ponies and sheep appeared unconcerned by this, grazing calmly around the giant legs of the statues, and scratching their backs on the menhirs.

peru harri stone-lifting museum

There was a bus parked outside the farmhouse, and when we went inside about 40 people were milling round a table drinking cider and eating pintxos. TV screens on the walls were looping images of the butcher’s dad heaving stones onto his shoulder. Read more ›

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Visit the Pyrenees
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Home-made Basque cheese

Cheese making: separating curds from whey

A guest post from Veronica of La Recette du Jour.

We took the opportunity of living a few months at Iaulin Borda in Ameztia in the Navarran Pyrenees. It is next door to a sheep farm run by Sagrario and her husband, Ignacio, so we to went over one day to find out how our neighbour makes cheese. She has about a hundred sheep and for part of the year makes cheese in her kitchen every couple of days. It’s a surprisingly simple procedure, requiring little equipment.

You will need:
about 7-8 litres of this morning’s sheep’s milk (I expect cow or goat milk works just as well)
about half a teaspoon of liquid rennet or other coagulant (I’m told nettles work, but I haven’t tried them yet)
A large metal pan or bucket to hold the milk
a thermometer
a large wire whisk
a cheese mould lined with cheesecloth

It goes without saying that all your equipment must be scrupulously clean. First of all, heat the milk to 36 degrees C. Turn off the heat. Add the rennet to a very small amount of water, about a tablespoon (just to make it dissolve better). Pour into the milk and mix thoroughly with the whisk. Leave to stand for 20-30 minutes. Sagrario told us that you could achieve the curdling by dangling a bit of tripe in the milk, but she prefers liquid rennet!

At this point the milk should have thickened to a lumpy, yoghurty consistency. Don’t proceed to the next stage until it does.

Cheese making: amateur cheesemaker

Reheat the milk to 39 degrees C, whisking constantly to break up the curds. According to Sagrario, this is important to kill all the bugs and prevent your cheese from ending up full of maggots. Remove from the heat and set aside to settle for 5 minutes.

Plunge your hands into the bucket and grope around the bottom, pulling all the settled solids together. Lift out your large and dazzlingly white lump of cheese, squeezing with your hands to firm it up and get rid of some of the liquid. Press into the lined mould and squish it down as hard as you can.

The cheese is left to drain for 24 hours, then put in a cheese press and squeezed further before being left to mature for two months. The resulting hard cheese will keep for up to a year.

There was a lot of liquid whey left over in the bucket. “It’s not wasted,” Sagrario assured us. “You can take this liquid and boil it up. Lots of froth will appear on the top. You can scoop this off; it’s called requesón, and it’s delicious.” A check in the dictionary confirmed that this was curd cheese, the word literally meaning “re-cheese”. And later we realised that the word ricotta (re-cooked) in Italian expresses exactly the same principle.

Cheese making: moulding the cheese

Even simpler is cuajada, a very simple and delicious dessert  made in small clay pots that’s often served as a dessert with honey or sugar. It’s basically junket; the sheep’s milk is simply curdled with rennet as in the first stage above, and then left to set in pots. I’m going to gather some nettles to make my own rennet for this.

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Food
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Smuggler Friend – Koikili (part 1)

Koikili and my daughter, Marion, 6, at our Pyrenean mountain home

Koikili and my daughter, Marion, 6, at our Pyrenean mountain home

Ask Koikil what he does for a living and he will say that he is an unemployed smuggler. Like many of the people here on the Basque/Spanish – French border Koilki was a very young child when he first accompanied his father on his night smuggling missions over the Pyrenees into France. Born in 1955, Koikili’s family had a tradition of horse breeding and so he has spent his life roaming the mysterious wooded slopes of the mountain passes. During the Franco era, and beyond,  (the last time he was apparently shot at was in 1992),  Koikili would smuggle sheep and horses over the border to fetch higher prices in France, bringing back other livestock and all sorts of goods that Spain was short of at that time.  His father and mother were smugglers too as was his grand father who was one of the local Basque guides that helped Allied pilots over the border through the COMET line resistance network during the Second World War.

A skilled raconteur (and lady’s man) . Read more ›

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Lifestyle
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Farming by the Moon

Making hay while the sun shines

One of the striking things I have learned in this Basque farming hamlet of Ameztia, is just how much of daily life is affected by the moods of the weather and the cycles of the sun and moon.  Amatxi, (our adopted grandmother of 83), always says that the full moon heralds a change in the weather. Yesterday there was a sense of urgency among the neighbours in Ameztia as we joined in to help her son, Isidro,  bring in the hay. ( A quick note here about Isidro for those who maintain that only women can multi-task: Isidro not only runs one of the farms but is also the local Justice of the Peace, official grave -digger, pig slaughterer and board member for one of the local banks). The sun scorched our skin, the red kites swooped low to hunt mice, the dogs barked at the tractor wheels and the scene was Van Goghesque.  With sore hands and chafed skin we finished around 7pm and joined Amatxi back at the farm, Zubialdea, for a merienda of jamon, tocino, chistora, sheeps cheese and quince jam – all washed down with Txakoli, a light dry sparkling white wine from the Basque coast, and a Navarran red. “Did you notice the full moon last night?” asked Amatxi, “tomorrow the weather will change”.

Amatxi and Atautxi on their farm, Zubialdea, in Ameztia

Today, as I sit on the terrace, with the rain clouds racing in overhead, I attempt to record all that Amatxi, Atauxi and Isidro told me about farming by the moon. Not only are certain crops planted during certain phases of the moon, but the moon also seems to affect the decision when to cut firewood, sheer sheep, kill pigs and conceive babies!  Read more ›

Posted in Basque Culture and Tradition, Basque Food, Basque Lifestyle, Wildlife of the Pyrenees
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Carnivals in Ituren. Recognised by UNESCO.

The Basque Carnivals of Ituren, Zubieta and Lantz in the tiny mountain villages of the Spanish Pyrenees have now been officially  recognised by UNESCO as an invaluable part of Europe’s cultural heritage!*

(The mysterious nature of the Basques, their inscrutable language and impenetrability of the Pyrenees has long kept the prying eyes of the 21st century at bay and mountain life here remains virtually untouched since mediaeval times.  These carnivals are unique, the intensity of their pagan resonance is frightening and  – so far – their story is only known by the few hundred people who live here.)

Joaldunak in Ameztia

Joaldunak in Ameztia

On the Eve of the Ituren Carnivals (My personal story)

Late at night, the attic lights are still on at my neighbour’s farm. Sheepskins and lace petticoats are tugged free from warped wooden chests.  Strings of Txistora are unhooked from old oak beams and brought downstairs where black bean stew bubbles on the stove and Amatxi, 83, stitches pink and blue streamers to a long conical hat  – a whip at her side. There are whispers and secrets; tomorrow is Carnival. Here in my tiny Basque Pyrenean village of Ituren, now internationally recognised and protected by UNESCO, we have one of the oldest carnivals in Europe. It is pagan, raw and visceral. This is no public show case – it is a deeply private affair. Read more ›

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