Zubieta in the Basque Pyrenees

The Basque Village of Zubieta in Navarra

The church in Zubieta in the Basque Pyrenees

Basque values, contrasts and contradictions

Zubieta is a traditional Basque village of just 300 inhabitants nestled in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees in northern Navarre. Despite its bucolic mountain architecture, cobbled streets and wooden balconies overflowing with geraniums, Zubieta is better known to the Basques for its wild-eyed, pagan carnivals or ‘inauteriak’.  Here, camera crews find a more exciting subject in the bare bottoms, screaming demons and grotesque masked faces in the square, the top prize being the footage of the Joaldunak as they lunge through the crowds, their bells, whips and lace petticoats flirting with the frenzy.

Yet it is the pastoral vignette of life in Zubieta that has made international fame thanks to Michael Portillo’s eloquent narrative of his travels through the Basque Country. Perhaps for the best, the demons weren’t out the day Michael joined me to film the documentary ‘The Pyrenees with Michael Portillo.’ (Aired on 23rd August 2022.)

Even before you cross the bridge into Zubieta, the artefacts of a pragmatic, rural lifestyle are easy to identify. You will find the washing stones, the prized, immaculately aligned woodpiles, an 18th-century lime kiln and a watermill which has been grinding corn for almost 400 years. A priori, little would you suspect that the homes of these burly Basque farmers, backs broken by years of wielding axes and swinging scythes, are decorated with lucky charms. Betraying a belief in powers greater than sheer brute force, sprigs of laurel and dried ‘eguzkiloreak’ (lit. ‘sunflowers’ in Basque, ‘silver thistles’ in English) are nailed to their doors to frighten any of the local ‘witches’ intent on entering the house. An endearing mix of pragmatism and superstition are trademark in this part of the world.

"In Zubieta, we live in Basque"

On crossing the bridge you are confronted immediately by two slightly incongruent signs. You wouldn’t know that of course because they are both in Basque.

The first states “Zubietan Euskaraz bizi gara” (in Zubieta we live in Basque) which, unless you are one of the 750,000 Basque speakers, could sound vaguely exclusive and inhospitable. Nonetheless, not understanding the sign, you will walk into the village and get a beer at the bar all the same. A second bright purple sign is much more welcoming. “Zubietan ez dugu eraso sexistarik onartzen” states that ‘in Zubieta we do not condone sexist behaviour’. This sign, repeated at the entrance of all the Basque villages along the Malerreka river valley, reveals an egalitarian and progressive-thinking side to the Basque culture.  Being female and Basque-speaking is no bad thing.

This is manifest in the Zubieta-Ituren ‘inauteriak’, a festival occuring in the same week as the pagan festival of Imbolc, halfway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox. The festival is about blessing the land and the interplay of good and bad, chasing away the cold and darkness of the winter months and heralding in the light, warmth and fertility of the spring.

Zubieta signs
Joaldunak of Ituren and Zubieta carnival

The Joaldunak: protagonists of the Basque pagan carnival of Zubieta and Ituren

Equality, honesty and 'hard graft'

On this day, the villagers dress up as evil spirits, donning macabre and repulsive guises while the ‘Joaldunak’ (lit. bell ringers), with their cross-dressing and slightly bizarre attire, symbolise the more benign forces. 

Traditionally, the role of the Joaldunak (read my Sunday Times feature Jan 2022) was taken by the unmarried bachelors of the village. However, recently, several women have taken up the role, strapping the 13-litre cowbells around their slightly slimmer waists and stepping in unobtrusively behind the leaders of the troupe.

None of this seems to have affected the solemnity or gravitas of the festival in Zubieta and, unlike festivals in other towns of the region (such as the Alarde of Hondarribia or even the Mutildantzak dances of Arizkun in the Baztan valley) little fuss has been made at the inclusion of women in a traditionally male role.  

Equality of all kinds is probably no better demonstrated than in the practice of ‘Auzolan’. 

Auzolan is a Basque tradition of paying one’s village taxes with community work on the land, a practice that is dying out but is still alive in Zubieta and Ituren and the Basque valleys of northern Navarre. Several times a year the village men and women come together to work side by side, driving tractors, clearing rocks and debris from the drains, repairing mill chases and road ruts etc.  No one is exempt. Your income, family background, sexual orientation, nationality, skin colour - (even the size of your woodpile) - are of little importance in comparison with the ability to work hard, the most respected Basque value of them all. In my two decades of experience, the path to ultimate acceptance in the Basque community is through ‘hard graft’ and ‘honesty’ and, of course, speaking Basque. 

The Basque handshake

Of course, you may think, ‘honesty’ goes without saying. Yet in so many cultures in the world, we are used to agreements being protected by signed documents and written laws, just in case. In contrast, in this most rural and traditional part of Basque Navarre, honesty really is all about giving one’s word of honour, known as the ‘euskaldun hitza' (lit. the ‘Basque word’). Here, pacts are made with a handshake and are, still, a virtually unbreakable promise.

And then, of course, where most of my writings conclude, is with the subject of language. Euskara, this beautiful, inscrutable Basque language of unknown origin is the crown jewel of the Basque culture and arguably synonymous with its identity.  

Typical farmhouse in Zubieta

Typical farmhouse in Zubieta (note the sunflower on the door!)

Even the very word for being Basque, Euskaldun’, means ‘a person who speaks Basque’ and the mere act of speaking it has the effect of a Mason’s handshake, opening up hither-to-unappreciated depths of acceptance into Basque society. 

And so, here are my final words for those of you visiting Zubieta - seduced by its pretty portrait of pastoral life and the tinkle of sheep bells from the fields - do stop to learn just a few Basque words before you head to the bar. Although you will acquire a beer, all the same, a few words of Euskara may just make the reception slightly warmer and, who knows, the beer may taste slightly better too!

Kaixo - hello

Egun on - good day

Garagardo bat/bi garagardo  mesedez - a beer/two beers please

Eskerrik asko - thank you

Agur - goodbye

(If you get it right, the next beer is on me!)



Articles on the culture, languages, traditions and values of the Basque Pyrenees as well as stories taken from over two decades of our own, personal Pyrenean Experience.