Politics and people: an immigrant’s impressions of Spain’s Basque region

Spain, BasqueOne downside to being an immigrant is that you have to learn a whole new set of politics and social divisions. Since moving to Madrid six years ago, I’ve heard a lot of people talking about Spain’s Basque region. Everyone has an opinion about it but most haven’t actually been there.

I’ve recently returned from six days hiking in the Basque region with a group of Americans and two Basque guides. One guide, Josu, got elected mayor of his local group of villages on the night of our farewell dinner. This photo shows him at the moment a friend called with the news. In case you can’t guess, he’s the guy in the middle with the ecstatic look on his face. I think I detect a bit of surprise and relief too.

As is typical of locals showing around foreigners, our guides wanted to show us the best their region had to offer and leave us with a good impression of Basque culture. That wouldn’t have worked with a Spanish tour group, by which I mean a group of Spaniards from other parts of Spain. Any mention of Basque culture, the Basque country, or the Basque language will often elicit a variety of reactions ranging from dismissive grunts to angry lectures.

The Basque people have a distinct identity yet have never had their own nation. At times they’ve been oppressed, most recently from 1936, the start of the Spanish Civil War when Franco’s fascists bombed the Basque region, through Franco’s dictatorship until his death in 1975. Basques often say they suffered the most under the dictatorship. Many Catalans say they suffered the most. I’ve heard Castilians say everyone suffered equally. I have no idea who’s right and to be honest I don’t care. The bastard has been dead for 36 years. Time to move on. To keep the ghost of Franco hovering over Spanish politics is to grant him a power he shouldn’t have had in the first place.Spain’s regions enjoy a great deal of autonomy, but the central government is trying to hold them back from full independence. The Basque independence movement is the oldest and loudest. This perfectly legitimate expression of nationalism has been soured by ETA, a terrorist group that has killed more than 800 people and has set off numerous bombs in nonmilitary targets such as airports.

ETA today looks like an anachronism. The military dictatorship is long gone. It’s legal to speak Basque or Catalan, and in fact they are official languages in those regions. Nobody is being tortured for waving a nationalist flag. These things happened under Franco but they are not happening now. I’ve been to Palestine. I’ve been to Kurdistan. I know what oppression looks like, and I’m sorry if this offends the many Basques who’ve been nice to me over the years but the Basques are not an oppressed people.

It’s not even clear the majority want independence. I’ve asked several Basques the question, “If there was a referendum tomorrow, would the Basques vote for independence?” All of them said no. Our guide Christina said no, adding she herself wouldn’t vote for it. Our other guide Josu, who’s a member of the separatist Bildu party, replied, “Tomorrow? No. People need to learn why they should want independence.”

The central government in Madrid is helping with that. Its fumbling of the economy, stalemate political fighting, and widespread corruption and incompetence are enough to give anyone thoughts of secession. Having lived in six different countries, however, I’m not sure replacing one group of greedy politicians with another group of greedy politicians who happen to speak the local language is going to solve anything.

The one thing that must change here in my new country is that ETA needs to go. A group that sets off bombs in tourist destinations has no place in a democracy and too many people make apologies for them. I asked one Basque man what he thought of the ETA’s 2006 bombing of Madrid’s Barajas airport, which killed two Ecuadorians. This occurred after ETA had called a ceasefire. His response was to say, “The ceasefire had been going on for nine months with no political progress.”

Well, OK, I can see how that would be frustrating, but why does the answer have to be a bomb? Why not call a general strike, or block the highways with tractors like the French farmers do? Nonviolent direct action. The airport bombing seems to have been intended to derail the peace process rather than encourage it. Like other terrorist groups, ETA thrives on conflict. If it accomplished its goals it would lose its reason for existence.

And that’s why ETA remains a threat to everyone in Spain–tourists, Spaniards, immigrants like me, and the Basques themselves. As one Basque woman told me, “I know people who had to leave the Basque country because of threats from ETA. If they ask for a revolutionary tax and you don’t pay, that’s it, they kidnap you.”

Spain is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the world. Visitors come to experience both its present and past. Its sunny beaches and formidable castles. Its lively cuisine and Renaissance art. But if all Spanish citizens–whether they call themselves Spanish, Basque, or Catalan–can’t stop pointing fingers and get over their collective past, tourists won’t have a Spain to visit.

One member of our group emailed Josu after the election.

“You were kind enough to translate a motto that I wanted in Basque for a Makil walking stick that I am having made: “Makil zuzena egia erakusten du.” (The straight stick points true.). That’s not a bad political motto to use. Read that every Monday before you start your week. That is why you ran for office.”

Sounds like good advice for all politicians in Spain, whether they call themselves Spanish or not.

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. Especially this post.

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.

Hiking the Basque coastline

Basque, Spain
While the Sierra de Toloño offers some amazing trails and views, the most alluring sights I’ve seen in the Basque region are along its coastline.

The coast of northeast Spain and southwest France along the Bay of Biscay is part of the Basque heartland. Inland villages played a key role in keeping Basque culture alive, but it’s the ports–Bilbao, San Sebastian, and many smaller towns–that helped the Basques make their mark on world history.

Today I’m hiking a stretch of Spanish coastline east of San Sebastian and within sight of the French border. Much of my trail today corresponds with the famous Camino de Santiago. This pilgrimage route stretching from France to Galicia on the northwest corner of the Iberian peninsula became popular in the Middle Ages. It’s still one of the most popular trails in Europe, with a record 200,000+ hikers last year.

I can see why. Our route takes us past little towns where churches once offered medieval pilgrims spiritual solace, vineyards growing on steep slopes leading down to the sea, and wide views of the water. The coastline here is rugged, with jagged rocks jutting up from the foamy surf and numerous little islands, some topped by churches and homes.

%Gallery-124603%One of these islands has an important history. It makes up part of the little port of Getaria, home to Juan Sebastián Elcano, the Basque people’s most famous sailor. He was one of Magellan’s officers on the explorer’s circumnavigation of the globe.

The journey started in 1519 with 241 men. That number quickly dropped due to malnutrition, disease, mutiny, and storms. When Magellan was killed in the Philippines in 1521, two other officers took joint command. They were killed by natives soon thereafter. Another officer took over, but he proved unpopular and when his ship sprung a leak, some men decided to follow Elcano in the only remaining vessel. They finally made it back to Spain in 1522 with only 18 of the original crew.

His hometown, shown above, isn’t very big and probably wasn’t much of anything 500 years ago. I can imagine Elcano climbing to the top of that little mountain on the island that dominates Getaria and looking out over the sweeping view of the Bay of Biscay. It’s not surprising such a place produced one of the world’s greatest sailors.

Continuing along the coast we find a slope covered in thick grass. Looking out on the sea, there’s a good view of Getaria to our left and to our right, almost lost in the distance, we spot the coastline of France. It’s a perfect place for a picnic and we feast on Spanish tortilla (a bit like a thick omelet with potatoes), cheese, bread, and fresh cherries. I’ve been on a lot of hikes in Spain and I’ve eaten well on all of them. This picnic takes the prize for best view, though.

This coastline made much of its wealth from whaling. Whale oil used to be the petrol of the world, lighting up the streetlamps of Paris and London and used in a variety of products. While whales enjoy some protection today, they were hunted by the thousand until early 20th century and came close to going extinct. Basque whalers were some of the most adventurous. When stocks were used up in the Bay of Biscay and other parts of the European coastline, Basque whalers went further afield to Siberia, Iceland, Greenland, and even the coast of Newfoundland and Labrador. In fact, they may have arrived in the New World before Columbus!

Our hike ends when we make it to the beach at Zarautz, an old whaling port turned resort. People are surfing and swimming, the smart ones wearing wetsuits to protect them from the cold water. When whaling died and the iron industry faltered, the Basque coast reinvented itself as a northern resort paradise for rich Europeans. San Sebastian, which I’m visiting in the next installment of this series, was one of the best. When you see the photos you’ll know why.

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.

Salt, wine, and wealth in Spain’s Basque region

Basque, wine, Rioja, wine tasting
In the modern world we don’t give much thought to salt. We casually pick some up in the supermarket or tear open a packet at a café, but in the past salt was a vital and sought-after commodity. Everyone needed it for preserving food and as a source for iodine. Nobody could live without it and those who controlled its supply became rich and powerful.

The Basque region of Spain was a major supplier of salt thanks to a strange legacy dating back 220 million years. The remains of an oceanic deposit of salt lie close to the surface at Salinas de Añana. People have been digging up salt here for at least 5,000 years. Our hiking group is visiting this valley. We see pipes channeling saline water onto platforms, where the water evaporates and leaves behind a salty crust. The water has 250 grams of salt per liter. By way of comparison, the Mediterranean has only 40 grams per liter. The Dead Sea has 350 grams per liter and is so salty you can float on it.

The salt is ultrapure and highly prized by top restaurants. Despite this, international competition from more affordable brands has led to a decline in business. Fifty years ago there were some 5,500 salt platforms. Now there are only 45. Yet the workers at Salinas de Añana have carved out a niche for themselves and are hoping their traditional extraction process will get the valley named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

%Gallery-124223%Leaving the salt valley behind, we follow the old Salt Trail through rolling fields punctuated by forest. We circle Arreo Lake and come to Fontecha, a town made rich by salt. Back in the Middle Ages, salt meant wealth, and wealth meant power. Two huge towers glower over the little town, erected by rival families from the money and influence the salt trade gave them. Sadly, both are being worked on and are closed to visitors. Instead we stop for lunch at a terraza, the outdoor seating of a local café. Sitting at terrazas is a favorite pastime in all regions of Spain. Sip some wine, talk to friends, and watch the world go by. It’s a nice way to spend an afternoon or relax after a hike.

More wine comes that night when we visit Bodega El Fabulista in the hilltop town of La Guardia. This is in La Rioja region, where Spain’s best wine comes from. An employee takes us down into the cool cellars, where vaulted stone ceilings shelter orderly rows of oaken barrels. The air is a constant 11-13°C (52-55°F) and 85% humidity. The barrels are made of various types of oak to lend the wine distinct flavors. The amount of time the wine is left in the barrels is critical for its rating: crianza wine spends a minimum of 12 months in oaken barrels, reserva needs 15 months, and gran reserva spends 5 five years in the winery and at least two years in the barrel.

This is all very interesting, but I’m getting anxious to sample some good old Spanish vino. I have some more waiting to do because as we stand glass in hand, the wine temptingly close, we’re treated to another lecture. This time it’s about tasting wine. When a waiter opens a bottle for you and pours out a little for you to check, there’s no need to actually drink some. Smell it to make sure it hasn’t turned to vinegar, and look at it to make sure no bits of cork are floating in it.

Next we examine the wine’s “crown”. If you tip the wine a little while holding it over a white surface, you can examine its edge. The color tells you how old it is. Young wine has a purple edge. As the wine ages it gradually darkens, until with gran reserva it looks brown. Finally we’re allowed to taste it, and everyone holds forth on their observations about its accents and flavors and subtlety. I suppose I could too, but I know very little about wine (I’ve always tasted it to check it, and until now I had no clear idea what crianza meant) so I’ll spare you the pontification and just say that to my uneducated palate, Rioja wine, especially that from El Fabulista, is delicious.

Wandering through the narrow, winding streets of this medieval town we see that wine, like salt, meant wealth and power in the old days. Many houses are adorned with ornate family crests, and the town gives off an aura of money and social standing. Rioja wine is drunk all across Spain. While the salt from Salinas de Añana has become a specialist product for connoisseurs, Rioja has a major market share in a country that demands quality 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.