The Baztan Valley and its Mysteries.
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 and I revel in the opportunity of revealing these secrets to the handful of guests who rent out my mountain home, Iaulin Borda, in Ituren, or join me for our Total Basque Mountain Experience Walking Holidays that I run throughout the summer months.
A thoroughly enjoyable week, all inclusive. Spanish teaching excellent and guided walks in Pyrenees every day. Delicious authentic Spanish / Basque food. Our host arranged very interesting outings and her attention to detail in making sure that we were looked after was excellent.
Although we are usually the only foreign tourists in the area, this may slowly change now that The Baztan Trilogy, by Dolores Redondo, an international best-selling crime fiction, has been translated into over 30 languages. The Baztan Trilogy films have also proven very popular on Netflix, especially during the latest lockdown of 2020. However, as the borders open, 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 secrets of all?
Smugglers and Witches
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. There is more than a tale to tell around our dining table to the guests that join us for our Basque Mountain Walking Weeks. These are all run from my beautiful Basque mountain home and offer guests a week of expert-led guided walks or, for those, looking for a more independent walking experience, we have 200 km self-guided hiking trails which step out from the door of the house. Each trail – each walk – comes with its story and secrets.
Secret Paths in the Basque Country
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 and our World War II COMET line Resistance Tours.
The Path to Hell Mill (Infernuko Errota)
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).
World War 2 COMET Resistance Network
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. One of the area’s greatest secrets is also the Second World War COMET Escape route which helped allied pilots out of Nazi-occupied France into Spain with the help of the Basque smugglers. This is the subject of one of my specialised Resistance and Smuggling Tours.
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.
So we return to the question about Dolores Redondo’s The Baztan Trilogy. Are we really ready to be put in the spotlight? Twenty years ago, when I started my company, Pyrenean Experience, 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!