Hiking in France’s Basque Region

Basque, Basque region, France
The Basque region straddles the border between northeastern Spain and southwestern France. For the past five days I’ve been hiking in Spain’s Basque region, and today I and my group are crossing the border into France.

One of our Basque guides, Josu, says the culture on the other side of the border isn’t as strong. While only 28% of Spanish Basques can speak Basque (Euskara), that number goes down to about 15% in France.

“They don’t have as strong of an identity,” Josu says. “They didn’t have Franco, they didn’t have Guernica, they didn’t have the Carlist Wars.”

And that’s an important factor for the whole Basque separatist movement. Being a distinct cultural and linguistic group got them a lot of grief from various Spanish governments. Just like with other minority peoples, that helped strengthen their identity, which in turn increased their separation from the nation. And while the Spanish Basques aren’t being persecuted anymore, they still mistrust the central government. In France there’s been more of a live-and-let-live feeling. ETA, a terrorist group that wants an independent Basque state, has committed relatively few attacks there.

%Gallery-124848%Today politics are on everyone’s mind. There are local and regional elections all across Spain and Josu is standing for mayor of Alcalá, a scattering of 23 villages with fewer than 700 voters. He’s in the Bildu party, a separatist party that was only legalized a month ago and has already caused controversy because of its alleged links to ETA. Some people call it ETA’s Sinn Féin. The supreme court, however, saw insufficient evidence of a link and allowed them to run.

Josu doesn’t think he’s going to win because he hasn’t done much campaigning. He’s mostly running so Bildu will be on Alcalá’s ballot. There’s some tension under his calm demeanor, though.

It’s a shame politics have to mar such a beautiful landscape. We drive only a few miles into France and our route has us walking along the seaside until we reach the border again. The views are excellent, with waves crashing into sheer cliffs and large fingers of rock stabbing out of the surf.

“Legend says that giants used to throw rocks at the people and they’d land in the water like this,” Josu says. “There are stories of witches too. They used to fly to the caves to have their covens.”

One true tale of this rugged shore is about the wreckers. These were a type of land pirate who lured ships onto the rocks and then looted the cargo. Josu tells us the women would stand up on the cliffs holding lanterns on dark nights to fool sea captains. When a mariner followed the signal of what he thought was a lighthouse, he’d crash on the rocks and have a horde of wreckers descend on the surviving crew. Read Daphne du Maurier’s Jamaica Inn for a great fictional account of this line of work.

In contrast to the shore, the land is peaceful, with broad green fields and apple orchards. A stately home with graceful, round towers stands proudly in the distance. The cliffs gradually level out and we walk along a wide sandy strand. This is Hendaia Beach, the longest in the Basque region. Like along other parts of the coast, it saw its heyday in the earlier part of the century when elegant villas and casinos housed and entertained the wealthy. It’s still popular for surfers willing to brave the cold waters of the Cantabrian Sea.

All too soon we’ve made it back to the border, where we go for lunch in Hondarribia, a very Basque town. While there we do a very Basque thing–bar hopping for pintxos! The Basque answer to tapas, these elegant little meals-on-bread will fill you up after two or three servings. There’s an endless variety and each bar has its specialties. They’re best when washed down with some txakoli, the Basque sparkling wine.

After lunch we return to San Sebastián, the wealthiest city in the Basque region. This port was the place to be back in the region’s days of high-class tourism, and our hotel, the Hotel de Londres y de Ingleterra, once accommodated the likes of Mata Hari. Check out the photo gallery for their astounding view of the bay.

Still talking about our very Basque lunch, we head out for a very Basque dinner on the outskirts of San Sebastián, overlooking the industrial port. With the sun setting and the ships coming and going, it’s a location to touch any traveler’s heart. We arrive a bit early so we go to a bar along Pasajes de San Juan, a street that seems to be a virtual Basque cultural center. Basque flags and protest banners adorn the windows. Basque is almost the only language heard in the bars as a band goes from place to place playing traditional music, to which everyone sings along as the txakoli flows freely.

Josu looks very at home, joking with crowd and smiling at the band. His mobile rings every few minutes as friends call him to give him updates. He plays it cool, still insisting he’s not going to win. I don’t quite believe his nonchalance. As another politician once said, “You don’t run for second place.”

Dinner is at Casa Mirones. The food is the usual high standard I’ve come to expect from this part of the world, while the view is incomparable. One wall is all glass, and we’re treated a full view of the harbor at twilight, the ships passing by so closely we could call out to the crew. Sometime during the excellent paella, Josu gets the call he’s waiting for. His face lights up and he beams a grin at the world. The table erupts in applause as he announces he’s won.

Bildu made a surprisingly strong showing. In the Basque region they got 25.9% of the vote and their candidates won many regional and local seats. Whatever people think of Bildu, it looks like it’s here to stay.

It’s not every day that your tour guide makes the news.

Coming up next: Politics and people: an immigrant’s impressions of the Basque Country!

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.

Climbing a Basque mountain

Spain, Basque, hiking
I’ve been hiking in Spain’s Basque region for three days now, and now I’m facing the most challenging hike of my trip.

I and a few volunteers from my group are going up and over the Sierra de Toloño in La Rioja, Spain’s most renowned wine-producing region. At nine miles it’s not as long as my daily hikes along the Hadrian’s Wall Path or the East Highland Way, but the 1,100-ft. elevation gain followed by a 2,100-ft. descent should be a pretty good workout.

If you have good enough scenery you never notice you’re exercising, and this hike certainly fits the bill. Starting along a dirt road high in the Sierra, we stroll through dark, damp forest. When we peek through the trees we see the morning mist is still veiling the summit. Here and there the land is scarred by new roads. Locals supplement their income with small-scale logging, a right they’ve had for centuries. Charcoal burners used to work up here too, slowly burning wood to create charcoal for the Basque region’s forges.

One legendary charcoal burner is still celebrated every year. Olentzero is a drunken old charcoal burner with a dirty face, a pipe clenched in his teeth, a beer gut, and a big sack of toys he brings for the kids. Sounds like the embarrassing uncle everyone has to put up with at family functions. Olentzero is a Basque figure. Most of Spain gets their presents from Los Reyes, the three kings.

%Gallery-124283%Sadly, no belching old charcoal burner shows up to distribute gifts, and we continue up through a mountain glade where a herd of cows stand munching the thick grass. To the south we see our first big goal, a series of rugged stone peaks and a saddle-back that’s the easiest way to go up and over the Sierra before descending into the Ebro River Valley.

Leaving the cows behind, we enter another forest and climb a series of steep switchbacks. It’s not long until we’re out in the open again, scrambling over rocks as we spot a crumbling ruin in the distance.

This is the Monastery of Santa María de Toloño, built in the ninth century on a promontory overlooking the Ebro valley. The view is spectacular. Stretched out below is rich farmland covered by vineyards as far as we can see. The Ebro snakes lazily through the vineyards.

“The Ebro is the southern boundary of the Basque Country,” our guide declares. Many Spaniards would disagree with this statement. In fact the Basque cultural region has no clear boundaries. Like with most cultures, it’s hard to say where one ends and the other begins, and this tricky task is made all the more difficult by sectarian politics.

Politics left its mark on the monastery too. It was destroyed during the First Carlist War, a fight for the throne from 1833 to 1840. The Carlists supported Carlos, while the Liberals supported Isabella II. The Basques threw in their lot with Carlos because of his conservative support for the Catholic Church, but the Liberals won and dealt harshly with them. The monastery was one of the casualties, and now only one wall remains standing. Civil wars being messy things, some Basques fought on the Liberal side too. Apparently they weren’t able to save the monastery.

Leaving the monastery, we make a steep descent into the lowlands. The river valley is mostly flat with a few huge outcroppings of rock, each with a castle or fortified church on top and a cluster of houses around them. They look like islands in a sea of vineyards.

No wonder this region has been fought over so much. Who wouldn’t want to live on an island in a sea of wine?

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.

Hiking through Spain’s Basque region

Basque
Most tourists who visit Spain stick to the central and southern parts of the country–Madrid, Granada, Seville, Barcelona, and the Costa del Sol. They generally skip the greener, more temperate north. If they head north at all, it’s to stop in Bilbao in Spain’s Basque region to see the Guggenheim.

Yet the Basque region has much more to offer. In Spain, it’s an Autonomous Community, something more than a province and less than a country. The Basques have never had their own nation but have a fierce sense of independence. With a distinctive culture and unique language, as well as a deep history and beautiful landscape, the Basque region rewards those who want to see more than the usual Spanish sights.

I’ve joined Country Walkers to hike through Spain’s Basque region and even pop into the Basque region of France. Every day I’ll be hiking through a different part of this varied landscape, meeting farmers, priests, chefs, and historians, while sampling the local cuisine. That’s the sort of tour Country Walkers offers: hikes every day, and then plenty of local cuisine and wine to get rid of the bad effects of all that unnecessary exercise.

%Gallery-123934%The first day’s hike starts at Retes de Llanteno, a village so small it doesn’t even have a bar. Anyone who has been to rural Europe knows exactly how small that is. It does have a lovely little church, however, with a bell tower covered in curling vines. As we unload our gear an old man standing by the road asks Josu, one of our Basque guides, where we’re headed.

“The Tower of Quejana,” he says. “We’re taking the old mule track.”

The old man looks surprised. Nobody uses that track anymore, and in fact Josu had to go along the trail a month ago and hack away the vines.

“My father used to use that track,” the old man remembers.

Josu explains to us that mule tracks used to connect villages, but in the age of the automobile that intimate connection has been lost. People are more likely to drive to the nearest big city than visit the next village over. He’s reopening the tracks in the hope of restoring that connection, as well as attracting hikers.

The rains and rich soil have covered up most traces of his work. We duck under branches and trip over creepers. The woman in front of me stumbles, sending a thorny branch thwapping into my face, then she slips and undercuts my feet. We both end up in the mud. I pick myself up and start to remove ticks.

Soon we’re through the woods and climbing up a steep, open field under a blue sky. The contrast with the dark, damp forest couldn’t be greater. We keep climbing, up and up, until we reach a high promontory with a sweeping view of the valley below in three directions. We’re only ten miles from the sea, and I think I can detect a salty tang to the cool breeze.

This was a Celtic hill fort during the Iron Age, before the Romans conquered the region. A double set of walls protected perhaps 300 people, and its position ensured a good view over the entire region. Forts like this are found on hilltops all over Europe. I visited a Pictish hill fort very much like it in Scotland.

“See that far mountain peak?” Josu says as he points to a distant summit, “That’s Anboto, a mountain sacred to Mari. She’s an old goddess who’s very popular with the Basques.”

The Basques may still honor an ancient goddess, but they’re good Catholics too, as we discover when we explore the hilltop. Little porcelain figures of the baby Jesus and Mary are preserved under glass bowls, left as offerings by devout hikers.

Another mile or so over rolling hills and we come to Josu’s home, where his wife Begonia has prepared a huge lunch of local cheeses, chorizo, freshly baked bread, and vegetables. There’s also a generous amount of txakoli, a sparkling white wine for which the Basque region is famous. Light and refreshing, it’s a good wine to drink while taking a break from a hike.

“People talk about the slow food movement, with all the ingredients coming from local sources,” Josu says with a shrug. “We just call that Basque food.”

This is hardly unique to the Basque region. One of the joys of traveling in Spain is trying out all the local specialties. Village butchers often have game shot the day before, restaurants in small towns serve vegetables taken from the back garden, and every region seems to have its own wine.

Stuffed and a bit buzzed, we put on our packs and head out to our goal–the medieval convent and fortress of Quejana. It was built by Pedro López de Ayala in the 14th century. He ruled the local area with an iron hand, and became famous as one of the pioneers of the Spanish language when he wrote some of the first poetry in the language. He also wrote a veterinary manual for birds and was an adviser to both Castilian and French kings. The alabaster tombs of he and his relations grace the interior of the chapel, and a soaring church with a grandiose gilt altar stands close by.

A climb up the tower that defended these lands gives a good view of the surrounding countryside. The green hills and thick forests are so unlike the common picture of Spain. The tower gives some insight into more recent Spanish politics too. During the 1970s the tower was crumbling. The government was still ruled by General Franco, the Fascist dictator who was the victor of the Spanish Civil War. Franco showed a rather medieval attitude to the Basques and is the cause of many of the political tensions today. He gave money for the tower to be restored, but the top part was rebuilt not as it would have looked when Pedro lived there. Instead, it was rebuilt to look like a Castilian tower.

In this part of Europe, you can’t get away from politics even at a historic site.

This is the first in a new 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.