Category Archives: History

Two Basque History Lessons: Anaiak Danok and Refugee Children in Bristol

Here are two articles that provide some interesting Basque history, both outside of the Basque Country.

anaiokThe first, an article at the Blue Review by Kyle Eidson and Dave Lachiondo, describes an interesting period in the history of the Basque diaspora in Boise. During the middle of the 1950s, when new Basques were immigrating to the United States from Franco’s Spain, there was much more political awareness of what was occurring back in Spain than had been true of the previous generations. Many of these Basques had experienced life under Franco’s rule, and were interested in what they could do against it. This lead to the formation of the group Anaiak Denok (All Brothers), which brought together like-minded Basques who discussed these issues. The most prominent member, Pete Cenarrusa, was of course also heavily involved in Idaho politics, and his two passions often overlapped. Dave and Kyle describe how, in the end, it was different views of ETA that ultimately lead to the end of the group.

bristol-refugeeAlso related to the after-effects of the Spanish Civil War, the second article, published on the Bristol Post’s website, delves into the role that the city of Bristol played in adopting 4000 Basque refugee children escaping the ravages of the War. These children, ranging in age from 5-15 years old, were originally expected to spend only about 3 months in the UK before being returned to the Basque Country. Things didn’t turn out quite like that.

There is a funny little anecdote that the children misunderstood and thought that the straw that was being used for their bedding was what they were meant to eat for dinner.

 

A Fairytale Visit to Butron Castle

butron castle-mapRoughly about 20 years ago, during my second visit to the Basque Country, a friend of mine, Xabier Ormaetxea, who has been a frequent contributor to these pages particularly with the Basque surname research he used to do for visitors, took me to Butron Castle (Butroi in Basque). Not far from Bilbao, in the heart of Bizkaia, el Castillo Butron was pretty magnificent, especially to an American who is not used to seeing castles around every corner. The castle was all decorated inside, with people in period costume, trying to recreate the feel of ancient times. I remember Xabier lamenting the fact that everything had to be Disneyfied, that a castle couldn’t simply be, it had to be made into some sort of spectacle.butron-2014-1

Last month, my wife, daughter and I were in the Basque Country visiting my dad’s family and I thought Butron would be a nice place to take them. My wife hadn’t seen it and I thought that my daughter, being a young girl who is into princesses (how do they know every Disney princess without ever watching the movies?) and castles (one of our favorite activities together it to draw castles and fill them with dragons, knights and, of course, princesses), would really enjoy seeing her first castle.

Bbutron-2014-2utron is a real castle, with towers, arrowslits, and a large front gate. It took us a while to find it since, though there are signs pointing in the general direction, they aren’t very clear. We ended up going down a dirt road along side a river, having turned just a little too early, passing by various gated houses until we ended up at a dead end. We eventually found the castle, and maybe understood why it was so hard to find.

The spectacle that bothered Xabier was certainly no longer an issue. In fact, the castle is closed. No one is there. When we pulled up (by-passing the parking lot because, well, no one was there), there was one other car of tourists taking their picture in front of the castle. While we were there, a bicyclists and a woman on a horse rode by, but that was the extent of the people we saw.

But, no matter. It was still a magnificent sight! My daughter was very excited, peaking into any hole she could find, wondering if a princess might have looked down from this tower or that tower. We speculated which hole might be a window into the dungeon and if there had been a lot of bad guys kept there. My wife and I enjoyed watching our daughter fantasize about what must be inside the castle as we also did our best to peak in wherever we could, circling the castle, looking for any better view of the interior.

I butron-2014-3t turns out (you gotta love Wikipedia) that while the castle is old, the current structure was built in the late 1800s. It was remodeled to mimic the castles of Bavaria. It is now the largest existing medieval castle in the world (according to Wikipedia). When I visited, it had beenrenovated and opened to the public, but it failed to generate enough revenue to keep up operations and has since been closed to visitors. In 2005, a group purchased the building, but have yet to do anything with it. It was a pity we couldn’t tour the inside, but my daughter still loved her first visit to a real castle.

And she isn’t the only one who fantasizes about Butron. Again according to Wikipedia, it seems Kate Middleton (yes that one) dreamed of being married in this castle. I guess she found an even fancier one to get married in.

Priest of Pirates by Guillermo Zubiaga

Azalak2The third and final installment of Guillermo Zubiaga’s epic about Basque whaling, Joanes or the Basque Whaler: Priest of Pirates, follows the final exploits of Guillermo’s hero, Joanes. This graphic novel, based on historical documents of Basque derring-do on the high seas, culminates the grand adventures of Joanes and his crew as they encounter deadly pirates, an even deadlier monster whale, and mythical creatures from Basque myth.

I won’t spoil the story, but suffice it to say it takes Joanes and his crew to the depths of the ocean, to the coasts of New Foundland, and through glacial fields. Along the way, Joanes and the crew encounter a monster killer whale, a lamiak, various Native American tribes, and British and Danish pirates. It is a roller coaster ride that is fast paced and covers a lot of ground and time. Compared to the previous volumes, it felt both grander in scope and thus a bit less action oriented (though there is plenty of action).

As with the previous volumes, there are so many references to history and myth that I really found myself wishing to know more. Guillermo opens the volume with a little bit of background, particularly regarding the skull chalice that graces the cover. I understand that Guillermo is working on collecting the three volumes into one graphic novel (which provides him with an opportunity to correct some mistakes that crept in). I sincerely hope that it is annotated to provide that historical and mythological context the story and art are based upon.

The story is a rowdy jaunt through Basque history that is delightful, both for the art and for the cultural references. I highly recommend it and look forward to the collected volume!

Zorionak Guillermo!

Some food and wine to get you through

I ran across a few articles dealing with food and wine in the Basque Country that I thought were particularly interesting.

pintxo-passportFirst, in this article at Financial Times, Paul Richardson describes his adventures in San Sebastián’s Old Town, the Parte Vieja. The interesting spin here is a so-called pintxos passport. A company, San Sebastián Food, run by Englishman Jon Warren, provides, for the cost of €75, a “passport” pointing to a selection of pintxo bars in the Parte Vieja and wooden tokens that can be used to pay for the pintxos. The passport not only points you to the bars, but gives a write up both of the bar and the pintxos they recommend you order. You get your pintxo, hand over your token, and move on your merry way. It seems that drink is included in this. This might not be the most adventurous way of experiencing the Parte Vieja and the pintxo scene in Donostia, but it might give the solitary tourist enough motivation to explore what might otherwise prove a daunting facet of the Basque culture.

ancient-vineyard-617x416Next, archeologists in the Basque Country have excavated what appears to be a 10th century vineyard in the now-deserted village of Zaballa (incidentally, the surname of my grandmother, though it is a pretty common Basque surname). These two articles describe the discovery. The research was published in the journal Quaternary International. The study author, Juan Antonio Quirós-Castillo, describes the importance of this, and a related finding, in terms of the socio-economic history of the region. In particular, he says that understanding how the peasants of the region responded to regional economic changes provides a better understanding of the history of the region. It further sheds light into the economic conditions of the time, which have tended to be viewed as rather simple. These findings suggest that significant economic development, by way of vineyards and cereal fields, were occurring during this time. Because of their historical importance, the researchers are pushing for this and the sister-site to be named World Heritage Sites.

Sons of the Dawn: A Basque Odyssey by Hank Nuwer

sonsofthedawnwebMy dad has mentioned stories about how sheep herders were treated in cow country. My dad was posted in the hills surrounding Malheur County in Oregon and Owyhee County in Idaho, particularly around Silver City, and while he hasn’t gone into any great detail, there certainly were tensions between cattle folk and sheep folk. And it seems the Basques were somehow in the middle of it.

Hank Nuwer takes these types of historical incidents and builds his novel, Sons of the Dawn, around them. Inspired by newspaper accounts of Basque herders being attacked by cowboys or buckaroos, Nuwer’s novel focuses on that time in the late 1800s when hostilities between the two were particularly tense. Nuwer has an unique perspective on the situation as he is a national expert on hazing and bullying, and his story is reflected through that lens.

Sons of the Dawn is inspired both by newspaper accounts and by Nuwer’s own experiences working with Basque herders, as well as his visit to the Gernika Peace Museum. I haven’t read it yet, but it is high on my reading list. Anyone who has read it, let me know what you thought!

For a few interviews with Hank Nuwer about his novel and the road that lead him to writing it (including an interlude with famous Basque-American author Robert Laxalt), see this article at Nuvo.net and this one at IndyStar.com. The book can be purchased at Amazon.com.

Robert Laxalt: Story of a Storyteller by Warren Lerude

Lerude ppbk cover.inddProbably most Basque-Americans are vaguely familiar with who Robert Laxalt was, though the Laxalt name might be more recognizable because of his brother, Paul Laxalt, who was a Senator from and Governor of Nevada. Robert was a writer who distilled the Basque-American experience into simple but stark stories of life in the Nevada hills. His stories explored Basque identity both in the American West as well as in the Basque Country, which was the focus of a couple of his books. My favorite book of his, though, doesn’t deal with the Basques at all. A Man In The Wheatfield deals with a small rural western American town and the people and their fears that govern the life within the town. It’s been a long time and I’ve forgotten most of it, but I remember a scene dealing with rattlesnakes that was pretty intense (clearly, I need to go back and read his books again!). The other minor anecdote I have about Laxalt is that, by pure chance, browsing a used bookstore in Albuquerque I ran across a signed copy of one of his books, a cool buried treasure I chanced upon.

If you haven’t read any of his books, I would highly recommend them, even to someone with minimal or no interest in the Basques themselves. Laxalt’s writing is wonderful and paints a vivid picture of life in the American West. It’s not for nothing that he was nominated for the Pulitzer twice.

This all brings me to a new book, a biography of Laxalt by Warren Lerude entitled Robert Laxalt: Story of a Storyteller, published by the Center for Basque Studies at the University of Nevada, Reno. I haven’t read Professor Lerude’s biography yet, but I’m hoping it captures that magic I encountered in reading Laxalt’s words. You can read some advance praise about the book here and here.