I was born in Bilbao, in the industrial heart of Hegoalde, the southern part of the Basque Country—most people know it as Spanish Basque Country. The Basques divide the region into four provinces in Spain, and three provinces in Iparralde on the northern French side.
After growing up in Bilbao and spending a few years traveling and living in other parts of the world, I returned to the Basque Country in 2011, as a good Basque should, to become reacquainted with my home turf. But this time I found myself on the French side, in Urrugne, a small town not far from the border in the foothills of the Pyrenees, the mountain range that forms the natural border between France and Spain. From this vantage point as an explorer in my own homeland, I’ve been discovering special corners of the Basque Country on both sides of the mountains ever since I’ve returned. In late April, I set out on a road trip to dig a little deeper into what defines and unites the seven provinces of the Basque Country.
Bayonne stands as the most important enclave in the northern Basque region, a lovely city defined by a mix of classic Basque and French architecture. On one side of the Adour River, you’ll find Petit Bayonne (Baiona Ttipia in Euskara), a barrio where you feel an especially strong current of Basque culture, with graffiti articulating the political struggle of the region. Residents here use Basque currency—the Eusko—unofficial but accepted throughout the neighborhood with the same value as the Euro.
We set out from Bayonne in search of rural discoveries. As you get farther from the coast and deeper into the heart of the Basque Country, you’ll begin to find towns and villages peppered with baserri, traditional Basque houses, always with red or green detail (the color of the Basque flag). You’ll also begin to hear more Euskara, the official language of the Basques with no known antecedents. During the Franco years in Spain, Euskara was banned in many parts of the region (namely, those that didn’t support the dictator), but today is spoken by almost 30 percent of the area, the vast majority (over 95 percent) in the Spanish Basque Country.
We lose ourselves on the winding back roads that cut through the area like tributaries. After crossing the mountain pass of San Ignacio, I come upon Sara, named one of France’s most beautiful villages by the arbiters who give names to these things. A stand in the main square sells gateaux Basque, the traditional Basque pastry from Iparralde made with layers of flaky pastry and cream or jam.
Brand Basque is especially strong on the French side of the region. You’ll find Basque flags, Basque peppers (the famous Espelette pepper), Basque berets, and everything that represents Basque culture adorning the streets of Bayonne and the souvenir shops of the touristy towns throughout the provinces.
But it doesn’t take much to get off the tourist trail in this part of Europe. A few turns, a few kilometers and suddenly the souvenir shops give way to a more rustic reality—wandering flocks of sheep, small bars with men drinking coffee, red and green houses with plumes of smoke curling out of their chimneys.
In Iholdy, a small town in Baja Navarra, I meet Daniel Barbararen and his 18-year-old son Kaiet. Barbararen is both a farmer and an activist, part of an association of Basque farmers from both sides of the border. He says that the Basques from the Spanish side have a stronger voice, while the Basques of Iparralde still struggle to unify, especially given how the French government does not recognize the French Basque Country as an official region (technically it forms part of Department 64, the Atlantic Pyrenees). “We can be divided into two countries but we Basques know that we’re united.” His son nods his head in agreement and adds: “My passport says I’m French, but in my heart I’m Basque.”
From Iholdy we push on to Irouléguy, a small village surrounded by green mountains where they produce excellent wine, like the kind made by Peio Espill who produces natural wine in the basement of his home. There, he lets nature do its thing, producing a wine without sulfites in harmony with its environment. A truly Basque wine.
From Irouléguy we drive through Baigorry and its lovely Roman bridge before crossing the Izpegi Pass into the Spanish side of the Basque country. Koldo Villalba, a guide with Itarinatura, takes us into the Irati Forest—dense with old growth beech trees as well as extensive high mountain pastures full of unique alpine flora and fauna—to see the old arms factory of Orbaizeta. Built in the 18th century to support the Spanish army, it quickly turned into a strategic and fiercely contested puzzle piece among the warring factions along the Spanish-French border. “The factory was a huge lie, a constant humiliation for the Aezkoa valley and a magnet for wars,” says Villalba. “All sides wanted to hold it, or destroy it, and the locals were turned into either victims or sources of food and shelter for the supposedly friendly sides. The valley still cries for this tragedy.”
In nearly every house in the Aezkoa Valley you’ll find a dry flower called the eguzkilore in the door. This “flower of the sun” is thought to protect Basque houses from evil spirits.
In 1856, the border between Spain and France was definitively established, and what was once standard commerce between neighboring valleys came to be contraband. People risked their lives to run black market goods in order to survive in difficult times. After the Spanish Civil War, they brought packs of horses in through Aezkoa, and from the north they brought sewing needles, sugar, nylon stockings—building blocks of a semi-modern life. With a hard day’s honest work, you could make 80 pesetas (about 50 cents), while a good day of trafficking contraband could mean making more than 1,000 pesetas. With the better part of the population suffering from abject poverty, who could say no?
We get lost in the Irati forest with Villalba, among the leafy trees where the crews running contraband made their way through the silent night bringing cattle to the other side and a waiting buyer.
Villalba, who learned Euskara as a kid, says the language is what makes a Basque a Basque. “It’s beautiful to see when people from both sides come together and speak as one.” The myth of the Basques and where they come from is directly tied to their native tongue—one of the oldest in Europe—which, unlike the majority of European languages, doesn’t belong to the Indo-European base. Historians have tried for decades to pinpoint where exactly the Basques—and their language—come from. Were they prehistoric hunters who maintained a tightly-knit tribe over millennia? Migrant farmers from northern Europe? The original settlers of the Iberian Peninsula? No one can quite agree, so the Basque enigma persists.
What we do know is that these days, we can embrace what is truly and uniquely ours: a land rich in culture, with its own explosive cuisine, its own traditional sports, its own mythology filled with magical beings, with green valleys and high mountains brought to life by a thousand stories that are still told through the seven provinces of this majestic stretch of earth.