San Sebastien may well be an European Cultural Capital in 2016, but to discover real Basque culture you need to head to the hills...
Baztan Valley (Shutterstock.com)
Basque Country is a region that spans the westernmost Pyrenees in adjacent parts of northern Spain and southwestern France. But the oldest and most traditional Basque lands don’t lie in the official ‘Basque Country’. They lie in the Pyrenean foothills of northern Navarre. This was the first – and only – ever Basque Kingdom and it is here where Basque traditions and culture is strongest.
Head to the Bidosoa and Baztan Valleys where you’ll find rural communities and villages like Ituren and Zubieta where farmers graze small herds of cows and sheep, the land is dotted with Bronze Age burial mounds, and locals celebrate some of the oldest festivals in Europe.
Making talos (Dreamstime)
Some of the best home-cooked Basque cuisine can be found during communal Basque feasts in the village squares. Lambs are roasted on spits, pepper stews bubble in huge hot pots, and local dry cider and wines flow freely.
Basque ‘talos’ – a traditional chapatti-styled corn bread served with spicy sausage, ‘txistorra’, and local cheeses – are also popular with the farming population. They are often prepared at 16th century watermills in the Baztan valley so make sure you try one when you visit.
Romanesque bridge in Navarra hills (Shutterstock.com)
80% of land in Basque territory is communal, allowing total freedom to roam. The medieval landscape is criss-crossed by age-old shepherding routes and smuggling trails and dissected by fast-flowing rivers. In the Basque borderland valleys of the Baztan and Bidasoa rivers, you’ll be following in the footsteps of Basque smugglers, witches, shepherds and Allied pilots shot down during the Second World War.
Basque farmhouse (Dreamstime)
Basque is a complex language that few tourists ever bother to learn. However, speaking a few words with local farmers such as Kaixo (Hello), Eskerrik asko (Thank you) or Agur (Good-bye) will win you the respect and help of these honest and generous people and maybe even secure you an invite to lunch, or at the very least, an offer of a talos or two.
Joaldunak in Ituren, (Creative Commons: Jean Michel Etchecolonea)
The Basques are by nature reserved but genuine, community-minded folk with a huge work ethos. In the evenings and weekends families congregate around the village square and bar ‘Ostatua’ which is the best place to strike up conversation and find out about local events.
True Basque festivals are mysterious, unpublicised affairs, but if you venture into the Basque Pyrenees you will find mushroom, apple and cheese festivals or witness the solemn Joaldunak with their huge bells, lace petticoats and whips. Anthropologists argue that these are among the oldest pagan traditions in Europe and witnessing one is an incredible experience.
For more information about experience the culture, food and hiking trails of the Basque Pyrenees, visit the the Pyrenean Experience website.
Main image: Misty Basque valley (Dreamstime)