We were taken by another entrepreneurial couple to San Sebastián (Donostia in the national language) situated on the Bay of Biscay in Basque or Euskadi Country, about twenty miles from the French border. Irene has travelled around the globe on her own and with nothing more than a backpack and a smile. This spunky lady deserves her Basque heritage! Irene met her husband Zach at scuba diving instructor's school in Mexico. An American from Michigan, he married Irene and moved to her beloved Basque city of Bilbao. Together, they introduce tourists to this unique and ancient culture.
Zach is holding the Basque flag, which displays the seven provinces of its heritage- two in France, and five in Spain, nestled between the northern coast of Spain, Pyrenees Mountains and the Santiago de Compostela, the pilgrim’s road. The land has ancient forests, Paleolithic painted caves and Neolithic dolmens (think Stonehenge with a capstone). The Basque are ancient, too— the oldest people group in Europe. Sadly, they have no country to call their own, although they have tried to unify and make it happen.
In the 1600's, many Basque, having formerly pagan/magical roots, were converted to Christianity by Léon the Bishop of Rouen. During the Spanish Inquisition, some still clinging to the old religion and practicing witchcraft and were convicted and put to death. Today, paganism is occasionally mixed with Catholicism. The Basque, unlike the Spanish, are a matriarchal society, and have a unique language having no common roots at the base of the language tree. Hearing and reading the language, I would say it seems like a cross between Turkish and Greek, but it is truly unlike any other. They are as ‘old as the hills they live on’, and excelled in guérilla warfare and mountain ambush for survival. These resourceful people built the Spanish Armada, were great sailors, whalers and conquistadors-and had a few pirates staining their history. As the saying goes, their culture reaches so far back that "When God created the first man, he got the bones from a Basque graveyard." These folks have no history of living anywhere else on earth except in this 'cradle of human culture' sequestered in the Pyrenees Mountains, and have the highest proportion of O negative blood along with other ancient cultures (think Celts and pre-Indo Europeans.) Now you know why I'm so fascinated with the Basque! Today, they run most of Spain's banks and insurance companies.
Above you see the old walls below street level in San Sebastián. . . an example of the Neolithic structures to be found in this ancient culture. After the Second Punic War, the Romans called these distinct people the 'Aquitani' (ring any royal bells?) Now that's ancient!
On this date, August 31st, 1855, captured first by Napoleon and the French, the British and Portuguese pillaged and burned this gorgeous coastal town during the Peninsular War. San Sebastián was known as one of the most important ports on the Bay of Biscay. It took decades to rebuild it, but the Queen of Spain, Isabel II, discovered it to be the perfect place for an elegant seaside resort, with stunning beaches and coasts, along with temperate weather all year round. Here is a photo of her palace from afar:
Now it is known for its sandy beaches, film festivals and gourmet food- mainly fish and seafood, due of course, to its location. Tapas or Pintxos (Pinchos) bars are a common find along the streets. San Sebastián boasts more Michelin-starred restaurants than anywhere outside France.
During the early 20th century, the dictator Franco, with an attempt to unify the country under socialism and control the Basque people, forbid them to speak their native language, using only Spanish. He even went as far as to prevent them from giving their children Basque names. When Franco was ousted, they rebelled and demanded their own country, which was denied. Below are bibs hand-embroidered with traditional names they now have the freedom to use.
Even so, they are a strong and unified people, and through the years, have continued their traditions and language. Being near the Atlantic Ocean, they have the treasures of the sea at their disposal. The usual seafood like shrimp and clams are enjoyed, but the true delicacies are octopus and barnacles. Unfortunately, we did not have the opportunity to try either one! The indoor market unparalleled—it's the largest in all of the continent of Europe! Here are a few stalls we passed. Below are barnacles. . .
Above is salted cod . . .a staple in their diet. Below, a myriad of fish and squid:
While I was here, I had to buy a traditional txapela (chapela) . . .basically a beret worn in a Basque manner. Here I am with our guide, Zach, who, although married to a Basque woman, never owned one until this day!
The city is beautiful, the coast scenic, and the Playa de la Concha a most stunning beach! Victor Hugo wrote: “Everyone who has visited the Basque Country longs to return; it's a blessed land.” It certainly had me hooked. I might renege on my vow (to never visit a place twice if I can help it) and someday return to explore its fascinating history and land!
One more shot of Getania, the seaside town nearby: we had a fabulous lunch here on a steaming hot day. You can see Irene in the lower right of the photo:
Gero arte, Euskal Herria! See you later, Basque Country!
Jarm Del Boccio, Author
I love to share the quirky things I see in the world. Sometimes, it's for a laugh; at other times, to teach a lesson. Or, just maybe, it will encourage you!