Basque Without Borders
At twilight in early summer, when the warmth of the day has cooled enough for sweaters and jeans but the lingering light still renders the last beach walkers in ghostly shadow, the tiny Basque port of Lekeitio fairly glows. Red and blue boats bob expectantly, prepped and waiting for fishing excursions; seafood restaurants open side by side along the orderly docks, ready for customers; and the fishermen and women inside the 17th- and 18th-century homes facing the water begin to open windows, catching the summer night breeze and pulling in the day’s laundry, now dry.
Above this tableau, a 15th-century cathedral stands silent watch over a darkened courtyard where fancy prams are pushed silently back and forth by patient amonak, grandmothers.
So it was one evening this June, when my partner, Ian, and I, traveling with our 5-month-old daughter, Orli, arrived (too early at 9:45 p.m.!) at the portside restaurant Kaia for a dinner of freshly caught hake, grilled and crispy with just a touch of garlic and lemon, washed down with a bottle of cold Txakoli, the young white wine of the Basque region. Passersby called out to one another — “Agur!” (“Goodbye!”) or “Kaixo!” (“Hello!”) — nearly all conversing in Euskera, the Basque language, with the occasional smattering of Spanish “Buenas ...!”
Groups of twos and threes — families, teenagers, 20-somethings — began to pass our table, laughing and rushing toward the beach. We looked twice, three times, because nearly every other person was wearing a witch’s hat, tall and conical, some flimsy, some remarkably sturdy, all heading toward a bonfire that by dinner’s end had grown to a dramatic height, burning what appeared to be a devil in effigy in its midst.
We had stumbled on Lekeitio (pronounced leh-KAY-tee-oh) in the midst of the festival of San Juan Eguna (St. John the Baptist), a solstice celebration that also commemorates the witch burnings of the 17th century that took place in País Vasco — Basque Country in Spanish — up to Le Pays Basque — its French counterpart. Throughout the year, centuries-old Basque fiestas, named for patron saints, take place along the coast and into the mountains, from Spain to France, punctuated by raucous song and dance.
We were driving along the Basque Coast, choosing towns in Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa (also known as Vizcay or Biscay and Guipúzcoa or Guipuscoa), two of the seven Basque provinces. Avoiding the new European Union-financed highways, we stuck to the old roads that cling to the shoreline, sharing the pavement with the ubiquitous Lycra-clad bicyclists, who seemed to mock us as they climbed seemingly endless inclines.
Our plan was to dip in to San Sebastián for a few days and then continue on to the Pays Basque — or as one family from Bilbao would say to us later in the trip, “Iparralde,” the “North Country.” We were searching for what makes these areas more Basque than Spanish or French.
When I first visited Basque Country, back in 2006, I was bowled over by the depth, nuance and tenacity of Basque culture, so different, it seemed, from the mores of Spain and France. Basque festivals and traditions feel ancient, even though their kitchens, and their style, can be light, whimsical and modern. As a people, they trace their roots from the south of France through the north of Spain, sharing a language, Euskera — though it sounds different from south to north — and a vibrant maritime history.
On this trip I hoped to compare Basque culture and identity in France, where it is far less controversial, against its photo negative in Spain, where it seems to inform everything about public life.
Some years ago, I met the Basque writer Bernardo Atxaga, who mused about the Basque Country.
“How many names it has!” he exclaimed. “For some it is Euskal Herria, others Euskadi, still others, País Vasco. In French, it is the Terroir Vasca.” It is, he said poetically, “a kind of small jungle with a lot of paths.”
On this trip, I learned what Mr. Atxaga meant. On the Spanish side, the Basqueness was front and center: there, children careened between Spanish and Basque effortlessly, and the signs and celebrations and simply the landscape, feel purposefully, and palpably, different from Madrid’s. On the French side we had to look harder, but the Basqueness was there — in homes, sometimes behind closed doors, but also in the similar celebrations of dance, song, athleticism and food.
The two halves are connected: more than cousins, but not quite brothers. And yet they borrow tradition as well from their host countries. To start the day in Spain and end in France, or vice versa, was to play roulette with eating times: Spanish Basques eat with Spain, lunch at 2 or 3 and dinner at 10. The French Basques eat with Paris, lunch at 12:30 and dinner at 8.