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.

Blackbeard’s pirate ship gives up its anchor

pirate, pirates, Blackbeard
A pirate ship owned by the notorious Blackbeard is being investigated by archaeologists, who have just retrieved one of its anchors.

The Queen Anne’s Revenge, was grounded in 1718 while trying to enter Beaufort Inlet, North Carolina. Blackbeard had just come from blockading Charleston until he received a ransom. Currently the wreck lies in only 20 feet of water, as easily accessible to archaeologists as Captain Kidd’s pirate ship, which will soon become an underwater museum.

The anchor, which is 11 feet long and weighs 2,200 lbs, is only one of thousands of artifacts recovered from the ship in recent years.

While Blackbeard transferred to another of his ships and continued pirating, he didn’t survive for long. He was hunted down and killed in a fierce fight in late 1718, shown here in a painting by Jean Leon Gerome Ferris, courtesy Wikimedia Commons. Blackbeard was decapitated and his head hung from the bowsprit.

Blackbeard was one of the kinder pirates. There’s no record that he hurt his captives or his crew. He could be violent when opposed, though, and in reality no pirate fit the heroic adventurer stereotype of Hollywood and Johnny Depp. That’s just a romanticism. One wonders what tales people will spin about the Somali pirates 300 years from now.

For more information about this amazing dig, check out The Queen Anne’s Revenge Shipwreck Project’s website.

Archaeologists to raise 17th century shipwreck

shipwreck, Mary Rose
The shipwreck of a 17th century merchant vessel off the coast of England is going to be raised from the sea, the BBC reports.

An armed merchant vessel that plied the high seas sank in the Swash Channel off the coast of Dorset more than 300 years ago. Underwater archaeology teams have been studying the wreck and have found cannon, pottery, and an intriguing face of a man carved into the rudder. Their work has had to speed up as sediment is eroding away, leaving the old wood exposed to decay and attack by shipworms, which cut holes into the wood.

Researchers have decided the only thing to do is to raise the ship out of the water and conserve the wood for future study. Sadly, some of the ship is so decayed that it will have to be left on the sea bottom. It will be reburied in sediment to prevent further decay.

The salvage operation planned for this summer is going to be a tricky one. A ship hasn’t been raised from UK waters since the Mary Rose was brought to the surface in 1982. This 16th century warship, shown here in a Wikimedia Commons image, is now the subject of its own museum in Portsmouth, England.

While historic shipwrecks are often taken to the surface to be studied and conserved, or their locations kept secret to avoid looting, the shipwreck of Captain Kidd’s pirate ship will become an underwater museum.

Captain Kidd’s pirate ship to become underwater museum

Captain Kidd, pirate, pirates, pirate ship
The submerged wreck of Captain Kidd’s pirate ship will become a “Living Museum of the Sea” reports Science Daily.

The Quedagh Merchant was found a couple of years ago just off the coast of the Dominican Republic. It’s only 70 feet from the shore of Catalina Island and rests in ten feet of water, so it’s a perfect destination for scuba divers or even snorkelers.

Underwater signs will guide divers around the wreck, and like in above-ground museums, there’s a strict “don’t touch the artifacts” policy. Often when shipwrecks are found the discoverers keep the location secret to protect them from looting. Hopefully this bold step of allowing visitors to swim around such an important wreck will help inform the public without any harm being done. One can only hope!

Captain Kidd is one of the most famous and most controversial of pirates. For much of his career he was a privateer, a legal pirate with permission from the King of England to loot enemy ships and hunt down other pirates. Privateers were one of the ways the big empires of the day harassed one another.

Lots of stories of his evil nature have come down to us. He was supposed to have been brutal to his crew and was even reported to have buried his Bible, as is shown in this public domain image courtesy Wikimedia Commons. He’s also supposed to have buried treasure all over the world. How much of this is true and how much is legend is still hotly debated by historians.

The Quedagh Merchant was an Armenian vessel carrying a rich treasure of gold, silver, and fine cloth that Kidd captured in 1698 off the coast of India. Although the ship was Armenian and was under the protection of the French Crown, it was captained by an Englishman. This got Kidd’s status changed from privateer to pirate and from then on he was wanted by the English authorities.

Kidd left the Quedagh Merchant in the Caribbean with a trusted crew as he sailed off on another ship to New York to clear his name, but his “trusted crew” looted the vessel and sunk it. His loss was posterity’s gain.

Kidd shouldn’t have gone to New York. He was lured to Boston by a supposed friend and then arrested and shipped to England to be put on trial for piracy. The judge found him guilty and sentenced him to hang. His body was left hanging over the River Thames in an iron cage called a gibbet as a warning to others. The museum will be dedicated on May 23, the 310th anniversary of Kidd’s execution.

[Image of Captain Kidd rotting in the gibbet courtesy of Wikimedia Commons]

The spread of Somalian pirates

indian ocean piratesShould we be concerned by suggestions that terrorists are taking clues from the Somali pirates and considering hijacking ships across the Indian Ocean for reasons other than ransom?

Absolutely.

There is increasing evidence of links in Somalia between the mafia-like organizations that run most of the pirating and the Somali-based terrorist group Al-Shabaab, which controls most of southern and central Somalia and both the U.S. and U.N. accuse of having links to al- Qaeda.

The obvious concern is that the rag-tag pirates are grabbing small private yachts and cargo boats loaded with lawn tractors may be providing a working model for the terrorists more interested in hijacking tankers loaded with chemicals and cargo boats carrying weapons.

The fact that the pirates seem to be getting more brazen, and successful, is not helping to deter others hoping to follow in their footsteps.

In 2010 pirates hijacked a record 53 ships and took 1,181 crewmembers from 30 countries hostage. Ninety two percent of the attacks took place off the coast of Somalia. According to the London-based International Maritime Bureau losses topped $7 billion in shipping revenue, higher insurance premiums and the expense of deploying naval warships to the Gulf of Aden and Indian Ocean. Last year alone NATO spent $2 billion on efforts to safeguard the international sea-lanes off the Horn of Africa.As attacks move further eastwards, toward Oman and India, concern mounts. A few days ago an unusually large group of 30 to 50 Somali pirates seized an Indonesian cargo ship on its way to Suez, Egypt, with 20 sailors onboard. The next day they used the captured ship to attack a Liberian-flagged chemical tanker but were repelled after “an exchange of fire” with security crew on board.

The two Danish families grabbed off their yacht three weeks ago, including three teenagers, are still being held – despite that the Danish Navy has a warship parked just off shore and its government is negotiating hard for their release.

A handful of governments say the reason they pirates are flourishing is because penalties, even if caught, are insufficient. According to Jack Lang, advisor to the U.N. Security Council on piracy issues, nine out of 10 captured pirates are released because there isn’t sufficient capacity to prosecute or incarcerate them.

Some think imposing firm, tough sentences is the answer. Russia, for example, has asked the U.N. Security Council to demand that all nations enact laws to criminalize piracy. It has “urgently” encouraged creation of three distinct courts for piracy cases and construction of two prisons for convinced pirates. The idea is to build these specialized courts in the semi- autonomous regions of Somalia — Somaliland and Puntland — and a third with Somali jurisdiction in Tanzania.

In March, China agreed, leading a Security Council meeting that called for a more comprehensive international strategy for dealing with political instability in Somalia, piracy and the threat posed by the al- Shabaab militia. It suggested the U.N. needs “a comprehensive approach to tackle piracy and its underlying causes.”

In a statement, China “strongly urged” Somalia’s transitional government to operate in a more “constructive, open and transparent manner that promotes broader political dialogue and participation.” It also asked U.N. member governments for greater support for the 8,000 African Union troops trying to defeat the insurgents.

[flickr image via Gui Seiz]