A Festival of Witches and Rituals in the Basque Pyrenees
Excerpt adapted from my manuscript, 'In the Footsteps of Smugglers - 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.