Hiking and politics in the Basque region’s Grand Canyon

Basque, horse, horses
“The Basques have the oldest history in Europe,” says Dr. Alberto Santana, historian and co-founder of Aunia, a Basque cultural magazine. “We have been here since the Stone Age and have the most distinct language in the world. There are some 6,000 languages in 12 language families. Basque is in a family by itself.”

The Basque language, Euskara, is the heart of Basque identity, he tells our hiking group. In Euskadi a Basque is a Euskaldunak (“one who owns the Basque language”) and the Basque region is Euskal Herria (“the land of those who speak Basque”). Yet only 28% of Basques can actually speak it. At a corner shop in Orduña, where we’re staying as we tour Spain’s Basque region, I only find books in Spanish, including a cookbook on Basque cuisine.

The Basques straddle the border of Spain and France, an independent people who have never had independence. Santana’s statement that they can trace their heritage back to the Stone Age isn’t nationalistic chest thumping; it’s the prevailing opinion among archaeologists and linguists. The theory is borne out by the language itself. For example, the word for “knife” is aizto, which translates literally as “stone that cuts”.

%Gallery-124109%While they may still talk about stone tools, the source of Basque wealth was iron. Basque foundries fueled the Spanish Empire. Basques were Spain’s great shipbuilders too.

He goes on to list several important Basques. Two names stick out. Juan Sebastián Elcano captained Magellan’s ship after the famous explorer was killed in the Philippines. It was Elcano, not Magellan, who circumnavigated the globe. The South American leader Simón de Bolívar came from a Basque family. Dr. Santana then talks about the sufferings of the Basque people during the Spanish Civil War, especially the infamous bombing of Guernica, leveled by the Luftwaffe. The slaughter was immortalized in Picasso’s famous painting.

“What about ETA?” a man in the audience asks after Dr. Santana finishes his lecture.

ETA is a terrorist group fighting for Basque independence. Formed in 1959, they’ve killed more than 800 people. People like Diego Armando Estacio and Carlos Alonso Palate, two Ecuadorians killed when ETA set off a bomb at Madrid’s Barajas airport in 2006. Talking about Basque history without mentioning ETA is like talking about Irish history without mentioning the IRA.

Santana pauses for a moment, obviously choosing his words carefully before saying, “ETA is a radical and violent organization formed by students during the Franco dictatorship. At that time giving a lecture like this one was illegal. I would be arrested. Now ETA is nearing its end. It’s leaders are looking for a way to end it. You will probably see its end this year.”

Indeed, I’m hiking through the Basque region at a critical period in its history. Local elections are being held across Spain. In the Basque region Bildu, a separatist party, is the newcomer and potential game-changer. It was legalized only last month. Many Spaniards believe it has ties to ETA and much of the public is strongly against it being allowed to run. The courts decided to legalize it, perhaps in the hope that with political representation, Basque nationalists will turn their backs on ETA.

Today we’re hiking far away from politics, or so I think. We ascend a steep slope, passing flocks of long-haired sheep and stout horses grazing on rich grass. While Basque ports made their mark on world history with whaling and shipbuilding, most Basques made their living as farmers or herdsmen. It’s these towns and villages that preserved the Basque language and traditions, and it’s in the rural areas where you’ll hear the most Basque spoken today.

Besides a couple of hikers sharing a bottle of wine, we see nobody. After a further climb we’re treated to a stunning view of the Nervion Canyon, a sheer drop of 2,000 feet. The canyon widens out to the north, opening onto rolling cultivated fields and little villages of red-roofed houses.

We head south, where the walls of the canyon close in on each other, finally meeting. The sheer gray rock looks impossible to climb, but in the shade of one overhang a couple of hundred feet down we see a herd of goats sitting away from the sun’s glare. In the air we see Griffon Vultures wheel and dive.

These are the largest vultures in Europe and they favor these high pastures, hoping to feast on a dead sheep or goat. When we stop for a picnic, one member of our group stretches out for a rest on the grass some distance from us. The vultures circle lower and lower above him. They must realize he’s alive because they never land to pick at his flesh. He continues to enjoy his vacation and I miss out on a chance for Gadling’s Photo of the Year.

As we continue, we come to a pair of man-made walls about two miles long. They form a giant triangle, mirroring the natural triangle of the canyon, but instead of ending at a cliff, they end at a deep pit.

“This is a lobera,” our guide Josu explains. “When wolves were common here the people from all the villages would beat drums and pots to scare the wolves into this space. They’d fall into the pit and could then be killed.”

Wolves still roam the mountains not far from here. Like in the U.S., there’s an ongoing controversy between farmers, environmentalists, the government, and pretty much everyone else about how to handle the predators. Should they be protected? Farmers worry about their flocks. Should they be hunted? Hikers worry about people prowling the countryside with guns. Should they be kept away entirely? Environmentalists say this species needs to spread to survive.

Like with human politics, the politics of nature has no easy answers.

Don’t miss the rest of my series: Beyond Bilbao: Hiking through the Basque region.

This trip was sponsored by Country Walkers. The views expressed in this series, however, are entirely my own.