Basque Fact of the Week: Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve

Euskal Herria is known for its lush beaches that almost immediately lead to towering mountains that once were thought to be home of the goddess Mari. However, even in this wonderful landscape, there are special regions that stand out and the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve is one of those. Centered around the Oka river and covering about 85 square miles, or 10% of Bizkaia, it boasts wetlands that contain over 200 species of birds.

Image from
  • Created in 1993, the Reserve includes the towns of Gernika and Bermeo. It also includes famous sites such as the Oma Forest, where artist Augustin Ibarrola painted a series of trees, and the Santimamiñe Caves, an important archeological site with cave paintings dating back 13,000 years (incidentally, the caves were accidentally discovered by a pair of kids). The Reserve extends from the island of Izaro south to Mount Oiz.
  • The Urdaibai Bird Center sits in the heart of the Reserve. The Basque Country is a focus point of bird migrations between northern Europe and northern Africa. As a result, a large number of birds not seen in many other parts of Europe pass through Urdaibai. These include the grey heron, the cormorant, the common tern, and the Eurasian spoonbill.
  • The Reserve is also home to some of the Basque Country’s most spectacular beaches. These include Laga and Laida, both belonging to the town Ibarrangelu. And, of course, there is Mundaka, world-famous for its surfing.
  • The Reserve was created with several objectives. These include
    • Ensure the preservation of the unique ecosystems of the coastline.
    • Maintain biological diversity.
    • Protect valuable landscape resources.
    • Promote environmental research and education of naturalistic and environmental heritage.
    • Encourage recreational use and tourism in an orderly manner.
    • Support rural development, improving the quality of life of the local population and the rational use of natural resources.
    • Maintain hydro-geological cycles and fight erosion.

Basque Fact of the Week: Ravel Began, But Never Finished, a Basque-Themed Concerto

Maurice Ravel Deluarte is perhaps one of the best known composers in the world. His most famous work is Boléro, a piece he composed while he was on vacation in Donibane Lohizune/San Juan de Luz/Saint Jean-de-Luz, in Iparralde. Before World War I, Ravel had been working on a piano concerto entitled Zazpiak Bat. “Zazpiak Bat” is, of course, a common motto in the Basque Country, signifying the unity of the seven Basque provinces. Zazpiak Bat is also the nickname of the coat of arms of the Basque Country, which was created in 1897, when Ravel was 22 years old. Thus, as argued in this article, he seemed to strongly identify with the growing Basque identity. Indeed, he spoke Basque fluently.

Image from France Musique.
  • When World War I broke out, Ravel tried to join the French Air Force, but was rejected because of his age and a slight heart issue. He eventually made it into the war effort as a truck driver for an artillery regiment. He delivered munitions in the middle of the night under German bombardment, suffered frost bite, and had to undergo a bowel operations to fix issues related to dysentery.
  • Ravel was born in Iparralde, in Ziburu (Ciboune in French), in the province of Lapurdi. His father, Pierre-Joseph Ravel, was an engineer and inventor. He invented a steam-powered automobile in the 1860s and, with his other son Edouard, built a vehicle that could perform somersaults. Ravel’s mother, María Deluarte, was from the Basque town San Juan de Luz. She was “illegitimate and barely literate” but she was also a free thinking person who passed this trait onto her son.
  • Ravel’s dad’s mechanical mind seemingly influenced his music. Ravel’s friend Igor Stravinsky once said that Ravel had “the somewhat mechanical thoroughness of the Swiss watchmaker.”
  • Ravel’s strong connection to the Basque Country is summed up by words he wrote to Eugène Cools: “A compatriot of mine, because you have to know that we Basques have two homelands, l’abbé Donostia de San Sebastián [Aita Donostia], has visited me to make his works known and ask me advice.”
  • The reason Ravel abandoned Zazpiak Bat seems to be World War I. After he enlisted, he was busy driving trucks and tending to the wounded. Indeed, he wrote his friend Alexis Roland-Manuel “Impossible to continue Zaspiak-Bat, the documents having remained in Paris.” While he never finished Zazpiak Bat, some Basque influences did make it into other works, such as his Piano Trio. In particular, the opening movement was what Ravel called “Basque in coloring.”

Primary sources: Wikipedia and Mazorra Incera, Luis. Ravel Deluarte, Maurice. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2019. Available at:

Basque Fact of the Week: The Strange Literal Meanings of Some Basque Words

At the time of his death, Professor Larry Trask was working on an etymological dictionary of the Basque language. The dictionary was to give the origin of Basque words, tracing their history to either other languages or to a so-called Proto-Basque, a reconstructed Basque that must have been spoken many years ago. Though I’m not a linguist, the process is fascinating, as the regional dialects of Basque — ranging from Zuberoa through Gipuzkoa to Bizkaia — provide some clue to how Basque words have evolved, giving linguists an idea of what kinds of changes in words are natural to Basque and allowing them to reconstruct ancient proto-words in the language. In the end, no dictionary was published as Prof. Trask died before it was complete. However, his colleague, Max Wheeler, took Trask’s notes and made them into a web publication. Looking through it, I was struck by some of the literal meanings of some Basque words and phrases. I’m sure that a lot of English words sound strange when one thinks of the literal meaning, but as a native speaker, they don’t catch my ear. Looking at Basque, these words stand out.

Dolphin equals man plus pig?
  • adarbegi, the word for a knot in a tree, literally means adar ‘horn, branch’ + begi ‘eye’
  • andereder, meaning weasel, comes from andere ‘lady’ and eder ‘beautiful’
  • haserre, anger, comes from hats ‘breath’ + erre ‘burn’
  • begiluze ‘envious, curious’ from begi ‘eye’ and luze ‘long’
  • belhagile ‘witch’ from belar ‘grass, plant, herb’ and gile ‘maker’
  • belaingorri ‘stark naked’ from belaun ‘knee’ and gorri ‘red’
  • eguraldi ‘weather’ from egun ‘day’ and aldi ‘time’
  • emagaldu ‘prostitute’ from eme ‘female’ and galdu ‘lost’
  • erlasaski ‘beehive’ from erle ‘bee’ and saski ‘basket’
  • ezbai ‘doubt’ from ez ‘no’ and bai ‘yes’
  • gatzil ‘insipid, tasteless’ from gatz ‘salt’ and hil ‘dead’
  • gizaurde ‘dolphin’ from gizon ‘man’ and urde ‘pig’
  • gogabera ‘merciful’ from gogo ‘mind’ and bera ‘soft’
  • goiartu ‘defeat, vanquish’ from goi ‘high place’ and hartu ‘take’
  • idibegi ‘camomile’ from idi ‘ox’ and begi ‘eye’
  • hilerri ‘cemetery’ from hil ‘dead’ and herri ‘inhabited place’
  • ipurterre ‘impatient’ from ipurdi ‘butt’ and erre ‘burnt’
  • izarrihitz ‘dew’ from izar ‘star’ and ihitz ‘frost’
  • jainkojale ‘one who is religious in form but not spirit’ from jainko ‘god’ and jan ‘eat’
  • katagorri ‘squirrel’ from katu ‘cat’ and gorri ‘red’
  • lubizi ‘landslide’ from lur ‘earth’ and bizi ‘living’
  • mihiluze ‘gossipy’ from mihi ‘tongue’ and luze ‘long’
  • minbizi ‘cancer’ from min ‘pain’ and bizi ‘living’
  • ogigaztae ‘weasel’ from ogi ‘bread’ and gazta ‘cheese’
  • saguzar ‘bat’ from sagu ‘mouse’ and zahar ‘old’
  • sorgin-orratz ‘dragonfly’ from sorgin ‘witch’ and orratz ‘needle’
  • urtxakur ‘otter’ from ur ‘water’ and txakur ‘dog’
  • Trask notes a few other things that jumped out at me. For example, Basque has next to no native nautical terms nor words for weapons or related to cooking. There are a few words in Basque of Arabic origin, including azoka ‘market’.


Basque Fact of the Week: The Earliest Documentation of the Word “Euskara” is in the Name of a Basque-Muslim

We all know how central language is to the identity of the Basques. Indeed, the Basque word for a Basque person, euskaldun, means one who has, or speaks, Euskara, the Basque language. However, given that Euskara has not been a written language for very long, it isn’t clear exactly where the word Euskara comes from. It seems that the very earliest record of the word, as chronicled by Ahmad ibn Umar al-Udrí (1003-1085), comes from the name Marzuq ibn Uskara, a Basque that had converted to Islam during the Muslim conquest of Spain.

Drawing of Bahlul ibn Marzuq by Arantzazu Blanco Grañera.
  • Marzuq ibn Uskara means Marzuq son of Uskara. Marzuq, it seems, was a local ruler. He had settled in the Castle Muns or Muñones, in what is now La Puebla de Castro, having come “from the north.” Likely to preserve his power when the Muslims invaded, he became a muladi, or a converted Muslim, himself. (Though, maybe Uskara himself had already converted to Islam.)
  • The historian Alberto Cañada Juste has suggested that this name might mean that Marzuq was son of a Basque named Uskara while the historian and writer Txomin Peillen has argued that Uskara can’t be an Arabic or Berber name, that it must have been indigenous, and, at that time, meant euskaldun (from the Uxue blog).
  • Some sources say that Marzuq ibn Uskara had three sons, others thirty. The most important of these was Bahlul ibn Marzuq, born in what is now Puebla de Castro. Bahlul led a popular revolt against the Arab-Muslim rulers. In 798, he rebelled against Al-Andalus in Zaragoza and in 800 he conquered the town of Huesca, which had been ruled by the Banu Salama family.
  • Bahlul created an independent kingdom that barely lasted 4 years (798 to 802), but was of such impact that its feats and ideal of justice were told and recreated throughout the northern area of the peninsula for decades, passed down from generation to generation by oral transmission: “…Bahlul, a rebel prophesied and sent by God to free his people from the tyranny of the Banu Salama rulers, who snatched the city of Zaragoza and the lands of the rich Ebro Valley from the powerful Emirate of Cordoba…” (from La Puebla de Castro blog).

Basque Fact of the Week: Argizaiolak, the Basque Funerary Candles

In many parts of the world, it is common to light a candle in remembrance of those who have died. In the Basque Country, this kind of tradition has taken its own special form. The argizaiola, literally translated as candle-board (from argizari — candle or wax and ohol — board), is a wooden board around which a thin wax candle is wrapped. The argizaiola was placed on the family tomb and lit, on all Sundays but particularly on All Saints Day, to give a light to show souls the way and chase away the darkness.

  • The use of argizaiolak probably began in the 15th or 16th centuries, when parishioners gained the right to be buried inside the church, and was common until the middle of the 20th century, when the introduction of benches by the Second Vatican Council hindered the ability to access the family tombs. In reality, by that time, the tombs were no longer in the churches themselves, having been moved to cemeteries by the end of the 18th centuries, but symbolic tombs were still present. Today, there are very few places where the argizaiola is still used, with the church in Amezketa standing out in continuing the practice.
  • The argizaiola was lit by the etxekoandrea, or woman of the house, or the eldest daughter, and placed on the family tomb in the church. This rite was so important that, when the women of wealthy houses could not attend the trades, they hired a maid or another woman to keep the fire in their place.
  • An argizaiola can be smooth or decorated, and comes in a variety of shapes, but characteristically it has a handle to turn it as the candle burns, a smooth central part where the wax is coiled (white or yellow, depending on whether the dead is single or married), and the two ends that are decorated and outlined. Its shape is often anthropomorphic, with decorative motifs such as rosettes, helices, crosses, vegetables, leaves, curved sutures, leaves, and notches.

Primary sources: Otermin, Joxe Mari; Argizaiolas de Amezketa. Enciclopedia Auñamendi, 2019. Available at:; KeixArt; Los Viajes de Aspasia

Basque Fact of the Week: The Basque Farmhouse, or Baserri

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.

Image from
  • 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.

Primary source: Wikipedia.

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