One of the most unique and ubiquitous sites in the Basque Country are the rural dwellings that dot the mountainsides. With their red-roof tiling, their stone corners, and white-washed walls, they are an enduring symbol of the rural traditions of the Basque Country.
Each baserri has its own name and, in the days before it was mandated that children take the names of their parents, people were named after their baserri. These names are toponymic, meaning that they refer to the place. The baserri my dad grew up in is called Goikoetxebarri, meaning the “new house up there” (in my own translation). Uberuaga means “place of hot water” or “hot springs,” indicating that, at one point, the family baserri was next to a hot springs.
The word baserri comes from the Basque words basa and herri, meaning, respectively, wild and settlement.
The original baserri were made of wood. It wasn’t until the 15th century that rich farmers who could afford stonemasons started building with stone. The increased building activity of this time led to some of the first environmental laws, in 1657, which required, amongst other things, that anyone who cut down a tree had to plant two in its place.
In Hegoalde, the Spanish side of the Basque Country, when a husband and wife are ready to retire, they select one, and only one, of their children (it doesn’t have to be the eldest nor a male) to inherit the baserri. In Iparralde (the French side), however, the Napoleonic Codes made such inheritances illegal.
While there are many variations in style, some basic features common to nearly all baserri are the fact that the stables are in within the building and there are three floors. The entrance typically points to the south-east, shielded against the weather.
One superstitious practice is to hang “eguzkilori” or “sunflowers” (silver thistle) on the baserri door to both ward off witches, devils and lamia as well as protect against lightning.
Being part of Europe, the Basque Country naturally has flora and fauna similar to other parts of Europe. For example, as far as I can tell, there are no species of frogs unique to the Basque Country. However, just like the people themselves, the ruggedness and relative isolation of the mountainous region (along with some help from their human friends) has given rise to a few animals that are special to the Basque Country. Here are just a few; for a more complete list, see this Wikipedia article.
The Pottok is a semi-feral breed of pony that has lived in the Pyrenees mountains for thousands of years. There are two varieties of these ponies, a mountain and a plains Pottok. There are roughly 5,500 of purebred Pottok remaining. Their coloring and familiarity with mountains made them ideal for smugglers moving goods across the French-Spanish border. The Basque Mountain Horse is another equine that is indigenous to the Basque Country.
The Basque Shepherd Dog is, as the name indicates, a breed of dog used by shepherds in the Basque Country to herd their sheep and cattle. In Basque, the dog is called euskal artzain txakurra. There are two types of Basque shepherd dog, the smooth-haired Gorbeiakoa and the rough-haired Iletsua. There is evidence, from skeletal remains in caves, that the Basques have had sheepdogs for about 12,000 years.
Maybe the most recognized Basque breed is the Great Pyrenees, this dog is used as a guardian for livestock, as it can be very aggressive with any predators that threaten its flock. It was bred centuries ago specifically to aid in shepherds and herding dogs in caring for their flocks. It has a thick double coat that protects it from the weather. While aggressive with predators, it is known for its gentle nature around young and defenseless animals and children.
The Basques are known for cheese, and thus it might be no surprise that there is a variety of sheep, the Latxa, native to the Basque Country that is used to make maybe the most famous Basque cheese, Idiazabal. Their name refers to the long, rough wool that covers their bodies. Since 1982, special breeding plans have been put in place to prolong the breeding season.
The Euskal Oiloa, or Basque Chicken, is another breed native to the Basque Country. It differs from other Spanish chickens by its yellow feet, red earlobes, and brown eggs. There are five varieties of this chicken, ranging in color from black to red to white. Basques preferred the brown eggs of their chickens to the white eggs of Leghorns. However, brown-egged hybrids came on the scene, the Basque Chicken lost its hold on the Basque consumer.
Miguel Indurain Larraya is recognized as one of the greatest cyclists in the history of cycling. He is one of four people to win five Tours de France (Lance Armstrong‘s victories were stripped when he admitted to doping). Indurain holds the distinction, however, of being the only one to win his five Tours consecutively, winning the Tours from 1991 to 1995. Not only did he win five Tours, he also won the Giro d’Italia twice, being only one of seven riders who won both the Giro and the Tour in the same season. He also won the individual time trial at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Indurain was born in Villava, Nafarroa, just outside of Pamplona/Iruña. Villava is a small town that was founded in 1184 by King Sancho VI the Wise.
His first bike, given to him by his dad when he was 10, was stolen a year later. Indurain worked the fields with his dad to buy a new one. However, it wasn’t until he was 14 that he competed in his first race and by 18 he had won the national amateur road championship.
To understand Indurain’s almost superhuman abilities, many tests were performed on him. These tests revealed that (1) his blood cycled 7 liters of oxygen through his body per minute (the average person only cycles about 3-4 liters per minute), (2) his cardiac output was 50 liters per minute, compared to about 5 liters per minute for the average person at rest, (3) his lung capacity was 7.8 liters, compared to an average of about 6, (4) his resting pulse reached 28 beats per minute, while the average person’s is 60-72, and (5) his VO2 max was 88 ml/kg/min compared to an average of 35-40 ml/kg/min for a healthy but untrained man. It is these superior physiological qualities that are suspected to have given Indurain such an advantage.
Cycling is very popular in the Basque Country and the region has produced a large number of cyclists. The Tour of the Basque Country weaves through the region every year. Indurain competed in the Tour of the Basque Country in 1990, taking 3rd place.
One of the primary ways in which Basques express their culture is through music, and a revival of folk instruments has been, pardon the pun, instrumental in developing a unique sound. Possibly one of the most unique and thus identifiable instruments is the txalaparta. In its simplest form, the txalaparta is simply a set of wooden planks (maybe only one) that are supported by either baskets, chairs, or boxes and are pounded with wooden mallets. Percussive music is made by where the plank is hit, with different notes resonating depending on location. Typically, the txalaparta is played by two players.
Other variants of the txalaparta include the toberak, kirikoketa, ttinbilin-ttanbalan and ote-jotzea. These often arise from work. The kirikoketa, for example, is played at the fiesta celebrating the making of the cider, using the hammers and mallets used to smash the apples to hit the boards. Similarly, the ttinbilin-ttanbalan celebrates the placing of the center beam in a new house, using the chisels and hammers to make the music.
The txalaparta itself is related to cider making. In many cider houses around Donostia, when they were done making the cider, they would place the txalaparta outside and begin playing it. They often used the boards used to press the apples. This alerted the surrounding villages to the party. The villagers would come, where they would be “jumping, shouting, drinking cider, and playing and listening to the txalaparta until dawn” (Ramón Goikoetxea).
The toberak replace the wooden mallets and planks with metal rods and bars. These may have started, again, as a work task, taking the pipes from the forge and hitting them with hammers to knock soot loose, cleaning them. In modern txalaparta playing, in addition to metal and wood, glass and stone are sometimes used, all in combination.
There are typically two players, called ttakuna, tukutuna or bia (the two) and herrena (lame), urguna (lame), pikatzailea or bata (the one). They have different roles. One is responsible for creating the rhythm and the other dismantles that order, creating tension. They constantly speed up until it isn’t possible to maintain the tension any longer. While the rules for playing the txalaparta are strict, they also allow the players, through phrasing and rhythmic combinations, tone, intensity and tempo changes, to play with great freedom to develop their creativity and to improvise.
Pidgins are languages that arise when two other languages come in contact. They are simplified languages to ease communication between two people that have otherwise very different languages, often to facilitate trade. As such, they are always second languages (never the mother-tongue of anyone). Given the extensive and often commercial travel of Basques, it is not surprising that several pidgins developed over time that involved Euskara, the Basque language. These pidgins developed in both Europe and the Americas.
In their journeys ever westward in the search for new fishing and whale hunting grounds, the Basques stopped at Iceland, for the first time around 1600. There is an infamous episode, in 1615, where a number of Basque sailors, after stealing some dried fish from a local merchant, were massacred — the last massacre to occur in Icelandic history. This so-called “Slaying of the Spaniards” led to a law that said all Basques should be killed on sight, a law that was only formally repealed in 2015.
During their interactions, the Basques developed a pidgin with the Icelanders. This pidgin included a number of colorful phrases, including the phrase “Sickutta Samaria” which Dr. Viola Giulia Miglio has concluded means “go shag a horse.” A more complete bibliography specifically on the Basque-Icelandic pidgin can be found at Euskosare. I first heard about these pidgins a number a years ago when I encountered the work of Peter Bakker.
The Basques also developed pidgins with Native Americans, particularly the Algonquin peoples. The Basques and the Mi’kmaq people had a long history and, as might be expected, there was some intermarrying between the peoples. In fact, “Basque” is a somewhat common surname among the Mi’kmaq people. Some of the words from this contact actually made it into the Mi’kmaq language, including the Mi’kmaq words “atlei”, from the Basque “atorra (shirt)”, “elegewit” from “errege (king)”, and “Plansia” from “Prantzia (France).”
We are all familiar with the wave of Basque migration that brought sheepherders to the American West, and rightfully so given the close connection many of us have with those immigrants. However, the American Southwest is literally littered with Basque names from centuries earlier, when Basques were a large part of the conquistadors that swept through the Americas in the name of Spain. In fact, the state now called New Mexico was first settled and governed by the son of a Basque conquistador. Juan de Oñate was the son of Cristóbal de Oñate, who was born in Gipuzkoa. Juan founded the province of Santa Fe de Nuevo Mexico and was the province’s first governor from 1598-1610. He was later exiled from the region because of his use of excessive force.
Juan’s dad, Cristóbal de Oñate, is known for founding the modern city of Guadalajara in Mexico. He is also credited for founding several other cities in Mexico during the Spanish conquest of Mexico, including Compostela, Tepic, and Zacatecas. During the conquest of Zacatecas, silver mines were discovered that made him and his partners some of the richest people in New Spain. In contrast to many conquistadors, it seems that Cristóbal had a relatively benign disposition, offering “meals to the needy on a daily basis throughout his entire life, and is said to have turned over the proceeds from his encomiendas to improve native villages.” (source: Wikipedia)
Cristóbal was a descendant of the House of Haro, a powerful family that was deep in Spanish politics. Because of their support of the policies of Alfonso VI of Castile, Íñigo López became the first Lord of Bizkaia in around 1040. It was during his time as Lord of Bizkaia that the fueros were originally granted to the province, in 1051 by the king García Sánchez III of Navarre.
Juan himself is most infamous for his actions during the Acoma War. As his soldiers were trying to wrest supplies from the people of Acoma Pueblo, supplies the Acomas needed for the winter, 11 soldiers were killed. In retaliation, Juan ordered the pueblo destroyed. In what has become known as the Acoma Massacre, his forces killed between 800-1000 Acoma died. Those who survived were placed on trial. All Acoma older than 12 years old were enslaved for 20 years and all men older than 25 years old (a total of 24 men) had a foot amputated.
After several expeditions, including one where he tried to find Quivira, the fabled city of gold, Juan returned to New Mexico. He was summoned to Mexico City where he was tried and convicted of, amongst other things, extreme cruelty to both natives and colonists. He was banished from New Mexico for life. He eventually returned to Spain where he lived the rest of his days.
Juan is still a controversial figure. While some celebrate him for his role in establishing what is now the state of New Mexico and many of the cities within it, he is also vilified for his treatment of, in particular, the Acoma. In 1998, a statue in his honor was erected in Alcalde, New Mexico, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of his arrival. One of his feet was cutoff in protest by an unknown group.