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.)
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.
The next day we wait on the bridge, ears trained on the sounds of the mountain slopes above our head. A horn sounds in the distance; a long eerie whine that summons the Joaldunak in from the forests and down towards the village square. Marion, my young Basque daughter, grabs my hand as she tensely awaits the first deep rhythmic dirge of the bells that herald her father’s arrival. The Joaldunak, clad in sheepskin with huge copper bells roped round their waists, high hats and ribbons, whips and lace petticoats, march solemnly out of the forest towards us. Our stomachs lurch. A huge carnival bear with ram’s horn ears lunges at the crowd. The children run screaming to their parents’ side. The forces of spring, fertility and hope battle those of winter, darkness and disease and the carnival fervour begins.
In the square the sound of the bells reaches a raucous crescendo and, as I look at the tense faces of the Basque villagers around me, I realise how deeply engrained this sound is on their cultural psyche, passed on generation to generation from their early pagan ancestors to this day. I look down at Marion’s pale Basque face by my side and realise, oddly, that I am the only outsider here; this is my daughter’s cultural heritage – not my own.
Read here Max Walker´s article in the Guardian about the Ituren carnivals and the Joaldunak: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2010/apr/17/spain-basque-navarre-culture-walking