As in many places, chocolate is a big part of Basque life. On birthdays, instead of the birthday cake familiar in the United States, Basques often drink a cup of liquid chocolate. It wasn’t so long ago, in the early 1800s, that chocolate was a common part of breakfast in the Basque Country. It was often viewed, not as a treat, but as a health drink, inspired, in part, by the way the Mayans and Aztecs used it as, effectively, an energy drink. Indeed, Hernán Cortés noted how drinking cocoa could help one resist fatigue. But, the Basques were also a big part of the development and commercialization of chocolate.
Europeans first encountered cocoa during the conquests of the “New World.” The first reference to cocoa was in 1502, when Christopher Columbus encountered the Mayans. It wasn’t long, in 1520, before the Spanish brought cocoa back to the Iberian peninsula, where they made chocolate by adding sugar to the cocoa. The Spanish guarded their secrets carefully and it wasn’t until 1600 that first Italy and then France learned how to make chocolate.
On the Spanish side, in 1728, the Real Compañía Guipuzcoana de Caracas was created to encourage trade between Spain and the Indies, at least in part as a reaction against Dutch trade with the Spanish colonies and the inability of the Spanish crown to control that trade — they wanted to break the Dutch monopoly on cocoa. This company enjoyed two special privileges, given by royal decree: a monopoly on the commercialization of cacao and the ability to persecute illegal trade. It wasn’t until 1774, again due to royal decree, that trade opened up between other countries of Europe and cacao producers in South America. This led to the first chocolate factory, founded in 1776, in France. The company dissolved in 1785. The company had a large role in the politics of Venezuela, including border expeditions such as that led by a company man, José de Iturriaga y Aguirre.
The chocolate company Elgorriaga was founded in 1770. It arose from shepherds going to market in Irún, Gipuzkoa. Some of the shepherds opened a chocolate business. In the 19th century, the wife of one of the shepherds opened a shop, calling it Confitería Elgorriaga, after the family. Today, the company is now part of the larger Urbasa Global Brands. While not its own company any more, Elgorriaga chocolates can be found the world-over.
Euskara, the language spoken by the Basque people, is now spoken by about 750,000 people. The language is perhaps the most singularly important feature identifying the Basque people. Indeed, the word for a Basque person in Euskara — euskaldun — means ‘one who has Euskara.’ Thus, the history of the language itself is of great interest and importance in understanding the history of the Basque people. Given that Basque has not had a strong written history, reconstructing the history of the language is challenging. The earliest known evidence for Euskara comes from a set of lead tablets from the Roman period. These tablets have the word “NESCAS” or “NISCAS” written on them, apparently referring to the modern Basque word neska, which means girl, used, in this context, to invoke the local nymphs.
It is now accepted that Basque is related to the now-dead language Aquitanian, that Aquitanian is an ancestral form of Basque. There are inscriptions of Aquitanian names from the first centuries BC and AD that can be related to Basque words; examples include NESKATO (neskato=girl), ANDERE (andere=lady), CISSON (gizon=man), OSSO, OXSO (otso=wolf), and HERAUS (herauts=boar).
After the lead tablets, the earliest record of Euskara is from personal names, the earliest of which is Momus, a Latin version of the no-longer-used Basque name Mome. This name appears in the cemetery of Argiñeta in Elorrio, usually dated to 883.
The earliest known phrases in Euskara are from the so-called Emilian Glosses from the San Millán monastery in the Rioja. These phrases, from a manuscript dated to 950, are jzioqui dugu and guec ajutu-ezdugu. The meaning of these phrases isn’t completely clear.
The earliest known example of a text connecting more than a few words together comes from a magical charm or prayer, dated to the 14th century, that was found in the cathedral of Pamplona in 1957.
The longest preserved text we have from before the period before publication began comes from a letter written in 1537 by the first Bishop of Mexico, Joan Zumarraga, to Kattalin Ruiz Muntsaratz with the goal of arranging a marriage between his nephew and Kattalin’s daughter.
The first printed book in Euskara is a book of poems, Linguæ Vasconum Primitiæ (“First Fruits of the Basque Language”), published in 1545 and written by Beñat Etxepare. In one of his poems, Etxepare calls for “Heuscara ialgui adi cãpora.” or Euskara jalgi hadi kanpora=Basque, go outside. He wanted Basque to be a more important language.
Anyone who has been to a Basque festival will recognize the rural theme of many Basque sports. Based on activities that would have occurred at the baserri, or farm house, Basque rural sports include wood chopping and sawing, bale lifting, and weight carrying. In fact, the Basque Government has identified 18 of these events in its Strategic Plan. Perhaps one of the most spectacular and popular of these events is harri jasotzea, or stone lifting. There are various variants of stone lifting, from lifting the biggest weight to lifting a smaller weight as many times as possible. In all cases, a successful lift consists of getting the stone to one’s shoulder.
The world record for the heaviest lift is held by Mieltxo Saralegi, with a lift of 329 kilograms, or 725 pounds, a feat which took place in 2001 in Lekunberri. That is, he lifted rectangular rock off the ground and up to his shoulder that weighed over 700 pounds!
Perhaps the most famous stone lifter is Iñaki Perurena, who held the previous record at 320 kilograms. He also held the record for the most lifts of a 100 kilogram stone: 1,700 times over the course of 9 hours. Iñaki has become a celebrity in the Basque Country, acting in the TV series Goenkale and writing bertsos.
There is a stone, the Albizuri-Handi de Amezketa, that has become almost mythic in the history of Basque stone lifting. Weighing “only” 166.5 kilograms (367 pounds), it is a natural stone with a very irregular shape. While stories swirl that it was lifted in 1875 by José María Zuriarrain Galarza, the first confirmed lift occurred in 1947, by Santos Iriarte (known as Errekartetxo), who barely got it to his shoulder within the ten minute time limit. Aimar Irigoien lifted this stone in 2002, when he was only 16 years old.
It wasn’t until stone lifter Bittor Zabala, who lifted between 1910 and 1945, came along that the stones were given standard dimensions and weights. Before that, stone lifters used whatever stones they wished, in whatever shape. Today, all of the stones (with the exception of special stones such as the Albizuru-Handi), are of specific size, weights, and dimensions.
One of the most infamous episodes in the Spanish Civil War is the bombing of Gernika, in which the German Luftwaffe’s Condor Legion attacked the Basque town on Monday, April 26, 1937, starting around 4:30pm in the afternoon. Monday was a market day, normally bringing thousands of people to the small town in the heart of Bizkaia. From the German point of view, this attack was a test of so-called terror bombing, in which civilians are attacked to break the will of the enemy.
The town of Durango lies some 28 kilometers from Gernika. It was bombed on March 31, 1937. Durango was viewed as an important transportation junction between the front and Bilbao. German and Italian planes, modified to drop bombs, attacked the town, which had no air defenses. About 250 people died that day. Two churches were bombed during mass, and in one 14 nuns and the officiating priest were killed.
Earlier on the same day that Gernika was bombed, the small towns of Gerrikaitz and Arbatzegi (collectively known as Munitibar) were also bombed and machine-gunned. About 11 people were killed during those attacks. Other towns surrounding the mountain Oiz were also attacked, including Markina, Ziortza-Bolibar, Arratzu, Muxika and Errigoiti.
The raid on Gernika was originally reported by South African journalist George Steer, who sent a telegram to London describing the bombing and the German markings on the casings. At one point, Steer hid in a bomb crater in Gerrikaitz to escape machine gun fire from German planes.
Of course, the bombing of Gernika is the source of inspiration for Pablo Picasso’s painting Guernica.
Though the numbers are uncertain and in some dispute, between 150 and 1500 people died that day. While many modern historians place the death toll to something less of 300 people, Xabier Irujo argues convincingly in Gernika, 1937: The Market Day Massacre that a figure of 1500 is more likely.
One of the last survivors of the bombing of Gernika, Luis Ortiz Alfau, died on March 8, 2019.
Aberri Eguna, coinciding with Easter every year, is a celebration of the Basque Country. It has always had a political aspect, with events organized by the various Basque nationalist parties. However, it has also always had a cultural aspect, which has been more emphasized in Basque communities outside of the Basque Country. While it is not an official holiday, it has become the de facto Basque national holiday and, today, celebrations are often filled with sporting events, dancing, music, food, and drink.
The word “aberri” was coined by Basque nationalist Sabino Arana, from his supposed linguistic element “aba”, meaning to him father, and “herri” meaning nation, land, people. While his etymology of the element “aba” is viewed as fanciful today, some of the words he made with it stuck and are used in Basque today.
The first Aberri Eguna was celebrated on March 27, 1932 in Bilbao. It was organized by the Basque Nationalist Party (PNV), on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of their founding. The next three were held in Donostia, Vitoria-Gasteiz, and Pamplona.
During the time of Franco (1937-1977), and the corresponding exile of the Basque Government, official Aberri Eguna events within the Spanish side of the Basque Country (hegoalde) were rare. However, events were held on the French side (iparralde) and the Basque Government often took to the airwaves to send their messages to their countrymen in the south.
In 1964, the Basque Government organized Aberri Eguna in Gernika. This is the first of several in which Aberri Eguna is used as a means to push against the Franco regime. ETA also began to hold its own gatherings on Aberri Eguna, for example in Irún-Hendaia in 1966.
In 1975, during another Aberri Eguna event in Gernika, the Flemish deputies Luyten and Juippers hung an ikurriña in front of the Casa de Juntas (where the tree of Gernika stands). They were arrested by the Guardia Civil, prompting Belgium to issue a formal complaint.
In 1978, after Franco’s death, celebrations were held in all four Basque capitals in hegoalde: Bilbao, Donostia, Vitoria-Gasteiz, and Pamplona. Together, some 230,000 people participated.