Georgina Howard, Writer and Founder of Pyrenean Experience

Georgina Howard founder of Pyrenean Experience

A passion for languages and landscapes

 

It was my writing that led me to this eagle’s eyrie in the Pyrenees from where I sit and speak to you now. Not so much those zany children’s poems of my youth such as ‘The Cuckoo and the Socks’ or ‘The Spider and the Washing-up Rack’ but my first book, ‘Freedom to Choose’, which naively laid out the process between articulating one’s dreams and making them come true.

With no idea of what this meant in practice, I decided to put my ideas to the test and, two decades ago, I headed south in Fred, my Ford Escort, with a map, a couple of Danish candleholders, a jar of marmite and a box of Earl Grey tea. My journey took me to an isolated mountain barn in a remote hamlet of the Pyrenees where I have lived among the Basque shepherds for the past two decades. The dream was to create a small, original and friendly walking, culture and language company, uniting people from all walks of life and - with trials and tribulations - Pyrenean Experience has become just that.

Today our Basque Mountain Experience Walking Holidays are known to people and to the press the world over, and our Spanish Language Immersion weeks (based on my second book, ‘Breaking the Language Barrier’) were listed by The Times, 2021, as one of the top 10 learning holidays worldwide. (See reviews)

I work together with an inspiring team of teachers, cooks, historians, guides, environmentalists, shepherds and musicians and no day is ever the same. We like it that way.

 

'Life on a Basque Mountain', a memoir by Georgina Howard

(Seeking representation)

Life on a Basque Mountain, a tribute to my neighbours

Life on a Basque Mountain’ is my recently finished memoir about the past two decades of my life. (See synopsis below). It weaves together my research into the local culture of smuggling and resistance with my life story as a single English mother raising my Basque infant daughter among the shepherds of the Navarrese Pyrenees.

An article adapted from the manuscript of 'Life on a Basque Mountain' was first published by The Sunday Times on 16th Jan 2022. (See article online or full article below). The reason for writing my life story was first and foremost to express a heartfelt thank-you to my Basque farming neighbours without whom I would not be living here today. Their patience and generosity - not without humour - have formed the bedrock of our lives in this wild mountain terrain.

However, the writing of 'Life on a Basque Mountain’ has also rekindled my passion for the written word and, together with my colleague, creative writing instructor Diana Friedman, we are excited to launch a series of Creative Writing Retreats from my mountain home. Its Tolkienesque views over the valley floor are here to be shared, and cannot fail to inspire all those who are not in charge of cleaning the windows!

Views from our farmhouse on our creative retreat in the Pyrenees
John Crawshaw, nature expert Pyrenean Experience

John Crawshaw - Nature expert and arboriculturalist

Edorta Zubiria - professional Basque folk singer and guitarist

Edorta Zubiria - Professional guitarist and folk singer

Georgina and Marion

Georgina and Marion

Diana Friedman Writing Instructor

Diana Friedman - Creative writing instructor

The Joaldunak of Ituren - Pyrenean Experience Ltd

The Joaldunak call in the spring during the Ituren carnival

Today, my 17-year-old daughter, Marion, studies at UWC Atlantic College in Wales together with young people from 90 different countries. She continues the truly international education that Pyrenean Experience has brought to our lives, while secretly missing the tranquillity of Basque mountain life, her Basque language, Euskara, and good Basque meat! 

 

Now that Marion has flown the nest, my horizons are unfolding, and my maps are spread across the kitchen table once again … 

 

Georgina Howard

16th January 2022

Ituren, Navarra, Spain

 

Publications:

‘Freedom to Choose’, 1998, was published in English and Danish by Time/System GmbH

‘Breaking the Language Barrier’ 2001 was published by Simon & Simon Publishing Ltd, UK

Life on a Basque Mountain by Georgina Howard
Synopsis

In 1998, as an English writer living in Copenhagen, I kicked back against the stultifying, cinnamon-scented hygge of Scandinavian life and headed south with a box of Earl Grey teabags, a pot of Marmite and a dream. My journey led to a tiny barn in the Basque Pyrenees, perched on a wild mountaintop where pagan carnivals still shake the valleys and the locals still believe in witches. Here, with the curiosity and support of the Basque-mountain shepherds, I built a walking-and-culture company into a thriving international destination, while single-handedly raising my Basque infant daughter, Marion. Belly dancers, magicians and Madagascan vegans are just a few of the thousands of eccentric guests who have joined me in my mountain hamlet, adding colour and amusement to the lives of my neighbours who include the Basque female lumberjack champion, the village gravedigger and a miller with a pet ostrich. Meanwhile, my work documenting the lives of the former smugglers and WW2 resistance fighters reveals a more sombre side to life on the Spanish-French border.

However, this is more than a history or anthropology book. At the heart of this uplifting tale are the struggles of a single, middle-class English mother chasing her dream and raising her daughter amidst the mud and grime of mountain life, and her eventual acceptance by the Basque community.

A Festival of Witches and Rituals in the Basque Pyrenees
Excerpt adapted from my memoir, Life on a Basque Mountain
Published by The Sunday Times on 16th January 2022

At the heart of the tiny Basque village of Ituren in the Spanish Pyrenees lies the ‘Ding Dong’ school. Officially chosen in a ‘name-the-school’ competition by the children of the village, it is not an obvious choice of name in this shadowy northern fringe of Navarra. Straddling the Spanish/French border, these mysterious mountains have not only offered refuge to smugglers, witches, penniless pilgrims and espadrilled Allied pilots but also to the Basque culture itself - preserving its language, traditions and pagan beliefs.

The ‘Ding Dong’ School is more-or-less the literal translation of the Pulunpa Eskola, the school’s name in Basque (Euskara) - a language with an outlandish bedside manner, full of onomatopoeias and all those consonants that you don’t want at the end of a game of scrabble. The Basque language, Euskara, is the diamond in the cultural crown of a people who love their language as much as they adore their land, but, for the villagers of Ituren, their identity is also unequivocally linked to ‘The Bells’. Big bells. Bells that chase away the cold, dark and disease of the winter months and herald in the light, warmth and fertility of spring.

Infamous throughout Spain, the Ituren ‘carnival’ of the Joaldunak (bell wearers) dates back to pre-Christian times, the Church having politely – but ineffectively – hijacked the local pagan celebrations of the winter solstice which, in turn, are thought to have hijacked an ancient Greek festival in which masters swapped clothes with their slaves and women dressed as men. During the 20 years that I have lived in Ituren, I have come to realise that the constant tussle between pagan and Christian rites is part and parcel of Basque mountain life. As are the bells.

But during my very first summer here, twenty years ago and newly arrived from Birmingham, I would awake to the sound of a lighter, gayer sort of bell. It was the sheep bells that I first associated with Ituren which, rather like wind chimes, would echo skittishly as the flocks grazed the green valley slopes.

It was not until one frozen, windy morning in the January of my first winter there, on a visit to the grandmother on my neighbour’s farm, that I started to fathom the full extent of the Ituren carnival, and exactly who these Joaldunak (bell wearers) might be. On entering the yard, I found horse-hair whips spreadeagled on the bench next to a maelstrom of pink and blue ribbons clinging to the hemming of conical hats. In order to ward away the witches, a large silver thistle (much like a sunflower) was fastened to the lintel above the door and yet, sitting beneath a crucifix in the kitchen – and evidently hedging her bets - I found the grandmother, warming her back against the wood-burning stove.
“Ya llegan los carnavales!” - carnival time is on its way - she grinned, as her hands, crooked like crow’s feet, delicately stitched a satin ribbon into the braiding of her son’s lace petticoat.

The next morning, I headed down the mountain towards the centre of Ituren, passing a small statue of the Virgin Mary en route as well as a derelict lime kiln (once - according to the grandmother - a favourite hideaway for expectant witches). Even before I arrived in the village, I could hear the bells; the valleys pregnant with their sound like a giant conch shell. These were nothing like the playful ring of the sheep bells, nor the dutiful hourly chiming from the church, but a deep, primaeval mantra that ricocheted between the mountain slopes from north to south and east to west.

Pulunpa … Pulunpa … Pulunpa …

Entering the village, I picked my way between broken plastic beakers, clods of manure and a dubious entrail or two. I didn’t stop to look. On the bridge, embodying the cruelty of winter, demons in miniskirts and chains, with grotesque masks and bloodshot eyes, writhed and screamed. Children with fluorescent wigs flung grey ash into the crowds while a pasty-thighed youth in a G-string and fishnet tights lunged at me with a screaming chainsaw – the chain, mercifully, removed. Centre-stage in the square, two severed car bodies, fitted with antlers, butted each other like stag beetles, their engines screaming while acrid black fumes filled the winter air.

I found this chaos was both gripping and terrifying, and it seemed I wasn’t alone. In his red uniform, a solitary young policeman huddled at a corner of the square, seemingly trapped between his call of duty and respect for tradition. He was evidently as out of his depth as I was. But my incredulity got the better of me and, wiping the muck and gore from my clothes, I stayed my ground, thrilled, liberated even, by this flagrant repudiation of all the codes of conduct that I had taken for granted. And then, as a second cowpat landed in my freshly shampooed hair, I abandoned my philosophical musings, and the thought of some chicken broth – or a glass of wine – in the village bar became an increasingly attractive idea.

But then the Joaldunak appeared from the woods.

Pulunpa … Pulunpa … Pulunpa …

Sounding a ram’s horn, the leader heralded their arrival, the thin eerie whine accompanying the troupe as they appeared, trance-like, out of the mists. In two parallel lines, some 40 to 50 men marched along the river path, eyes glazed, whips in hand and pointed hats - like miniature Maypoles - strapped to their heads, their black eyebrows just discernible through frilly fringes. Sodden sheepskins lounged on muscular shoulders while coarse ropes strapped 13-litre copper bells to the embroidered skirts around their waists, their deep dirge ringing out at every lunge of their hips.

Pulunpa …Pulunpa …Pulunpa …

Accompanying the Joaldunak, a shepherd held the chains of a huge carnival ‘bear’ with ram-horn ears who, swiping at the crowd, sent children and parents screaming into each other’s arms. But the march of the Joaldunak didn’t stop and, as if there was still one supreme law that presided over the madness, the sea of monsters stepped aside to let them pass. The arrivals were the good guys, dispersing the dark and disease of winter and ushering in the light and fertility of spring with the rhythmic flick of their hips. Lace petticoats flirting with thick Basque thighs.

Pulunpa … Pulunpa … Pulunpa …

Now, after two decades of life in Ituren, I do not wear my clean clothes to the ‘carnival’, nor wash my hair for the occasion. Seeking out my teenage daughter’s gaze among the thrashing demons in the square, the auburn highlights in her black Basque hair are the physical evidence that my genes have finally mixed with theirs. But perhaps I have become part of them in other ways too. This atavistic pounding of the bells seems to pull at some timeless elastic thread within me, concertinaing past into present and present into past; man into woman, human into beast, good into bad and – now, after so many years - Brummy into Basque.

Commissioning editor, The Sunday Times chief travel editor, Chris Haslam.

Excerpts from 'Life on a Basque Mountain'

Motherhood

Ultimately, there was no other choice than to relax into my chosen life in Ameztia, accepting the death, gore and grime that are part and parcel of mountain life. Any struggle to uphold my suburban hygiene standards – for Marion’s sake at least – was dealt a final blow one beautiful starry evening. We had just had dinner at Zubialdea and we were walking home with our usual bag of 'puskak'. There was a new moon and the stars were bright, and Marion had been silent for a while when all of a sudden she stopped and pointed at the sky.

‘Look Mummy,’ she commanded, ‘look, look at the sky Mummy.’

‘Yes, sweetheart, what is it?’ I replied, gazing upwards into the star-studded void.

‘Look Mummy, look, the stars look like fleas.’

And with that she took my hand and continued up the rise in her new, over-sized wellington boots, unaware of the devastation her words had left in their wake. I came from a world where stars had always looked like diamonds and now my darling daughter, the one person to whom I wanted to give the very best this world could offer, was telling me that these beautiful jewels of the cosmos looked like fleas. There was no other way of looking at it, our reference points were now galaxies apart.

……….

Smuggling

And so the adventures commenced and the stories began.

Shepherds hid transistor radios and alarm clocks in caves and bracken stacks, lumberjacks stuffed hollowed-out logs with silk tights and lace underwear, while butchers filled animal carcasses with French cognac and eau de cologne before driving it all into town in the meat van. Even petrol tanks had secret cavities. Ostensibly to visit his patients but in reality to play pelota with friends, a doctor from the village of Etxalar would drive past the guards on the border on an especially adapted moped with just enough petrol to make the journey to Sare (France), on the other side. After the match, he would fill up with petrol for the return journey, stuffing the other half of the tank with penicillin for his patients back in Spain.

Another famous anecdote, with less altruistic intentions, is of a priest who used to cycle backwards and forwards over the border. His constant comings-and-goings did raise suspicions but, although frequently stopped by the Guardia Civil, they found nothing – never realising that his frugal Catholic stipend was blessed and multiplied by the regular sale of bicycles.

……….

Becoming Basque

Our table companions showed us how to ‘break’ the cider by pouring it into our glasses from a height and made us drink it while the froth still fizzed and sparkled in the glass. With their knives, they fashioned strangely shaped stoppers from the corks, topping up our glasses with the devotion of religious zealots. And then came the pièce de résistance. To a bawdy fanfare of cheers and a drumroll of hands on tables, one heaped platter after the next of tender roast lamb, cooked to perfection, appeared from the kitchen. Our lunch companions, proud as kings, leant towards us with forks clasped in heavy fists, fat glistening on cracked knuckles. Screaming above the din, they would ask ‘Más? Más carne? Más?’ (‘More? More meat? More?’) until even the most ravenous of Basque lumberjacks – of which there were many – had had their fill.

Overwhelmed by their generosity, we joined in, gnawing at the meat with our bare hands, knocking back the cider and slurping and sloshing our way through desserts, coffees, champagnes and liqueurs.

If ever there was a day when vegetarians turned into carnivores, teetotallers became alcoholics and non-smokers sat angelically in halos of smoke, then this was it. We were excited and humbled by this extraordinary welcome from the tiny mountain village of Amaiur, and punch-drunk with the sheer honour of it all.

Inspiration dawns over the valley

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