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.

Giant yellow teddy bear bound for New York City

giant yellow teddy bear
Visitors to New York City this spring should be on the lookout for a new landmark: a giant yellow teddy bear, bronzed and 23 feet high. The 35,000 pound untitled (Lamp/Bear) sculpture was created by New York-based Swiss artist Urs Fischer, one of three made in 2005/2006. The button-eyed bear sits against a lamp, which turns on above the bear’s head to keep him lit at night.

The behemoth bear will be outside the Seagram Building at Park Avenue and 52nd Street in Manhattan from next week for five months. Christie’s will auction the bear in May and the private collector who owns the artwork has already turned down a $9 million offer. There is a possibility the sculpture could be bought by a private institution or museum, but don’t rule out New York as a buyer if the bear proves to be a tourism draw.

Hat tip to Brooklyn Nomad on the story.

Photo courtesy of NYC Loves NYC on Flickr.

Detroit, home of the Uniroyal Giant Tire

Interstate I-94 East from Ann Arbor, Michigan to downtown Detroit is a monotonous drive. Low-rise housing complexes, mall parking lots and the Detroit Metro airport pass you by on the mostly flat route, snaking its way towards the heart of the Motor City. But if there’s one weird landmark you’re not likely to miss along the way, it’s Detroit’s very own Uniroyal Giant Tire, rising more than 80 feet above the roadway.

This giant disk of premium rubber has been greeting Detroit-area commuters for more than 40 years. First built in 1964 as a monument for the World’s Fair in New York, the tire was originally a working Ferris wheel which could hold 96 riders. After the Fair’s conclusion the wheel was moved to its current home along the interstate. It’s been confusing and delighting motorists ever since, suddenly rising into view like a celestial hubcap sent from the heavens above.

It’s fitting that Detroit, a city that has long staked its reputation on the auto industry, would have such a landmark. But perhaps these days, with all the doom and gloom that’s been forecast in the state of Michigan, it’s become more a ghostly reminder of glory days past than a symbol of Detroit’s hopes for renewal. Still, for anyone who’s ever driven that flat road East towards Detroit, it’s a much needed symbol of whimsy and pride that never fails to make you smile.

Poor Little Giant Squid

It turns out the giant squid is not a creature out of science fiction. The Japanese have captured it on film, Fox News reports. The creature was 24 feet long! Next time I am scuba diving off Ogasawara Islands (south of Tokyo), I’ll be on the lookout for the world’s largest invertebrates!

The sad part is that the squid actually died while being captured. Now, you can watch for it in your neighborhood sushi joint.