We race down the mountain on the narrow single track. Victor in the front and me on his heels, trying to keep my balance, focus and speed. 2 minutes later, we’re on the Plazaola, a former railway track turned into a 44 km greenway through the Navarese Pyrenees and 10 minutes later, we’re back in Leitza. Behind us are 26 kilometres of excellent mountain biking with accumulated 1.235 vertical metres and lots of spectacular views on the trip.
Back in the village, Victor – our kind landlord and a passionate mountainbiker – and I enjoy a chilled glass of the local Txacoli white wine and the warm rays of sun, still able to produce degrees above the twenty degrees, even though we’re only one day short of Halloween. The lazy afternoon sun is pierced by the crisp, cool Txacoli and our laughter, while we discuss the differences of our countries and what it means to be Basque.
Because even though Leitza lies in the region of Navarre, we are in Basque country and everybody are Basque. Basque and proud of it! Basque first and Spanish secondly. And with good reason.
A thousand years ago the ancient Kingdom of Navarre encompassed the entire Basque region all the way op to the gates of Bordeaux. United under King Sancho III, the end of his reign unfortunately meant a division of Navarre. Exchanging vows of allegiance to the Crown of Castile in the 14th century granted the region some extraordinary privileges – fueros – such as tax exemption and local autonomy.
500 years of autonomy and preserving their Basque language – Euskara – cemented the Basque confidence, separated them from the Kingdom of Castille and gave them a Basque national feeling. The northern Basque provinces were assimilated in France in the 17th century and the spread of liberalism throughout Europe in the 19th century meant, that privileges of the southern Basque provinces – on the Spanish side of the border – were taken away by the Spanish government in 1876.
Ever since, the Basque have fought to regain their rights, while the Spanish government has tried to oppress them. And when you try to oppress someone, they usually press back. While bombings, terrorist actions and violence is hopefully left in the past, the desire for preserving the Basque identity remains, and the Basque have numerous ways of celebrating the old customs, so their children won’t forget their heritage.
The Basque still preserve their traditional dancing, rural sports – herri kirolak – which covers physical exertions such as stone lifting to wood chopping and tug-of-war, carnivals like in Ituren, where men dressed like the abominable snowman walk with bells of their back, gastronomical societies – txokos – where people enjoy food and each other’s company and of course pelote, the traditional ballgame that’s reminiscent of squash – but without the racket!
Coming from the north of Europe, where people are stuck in front of their televisions and local traditions are considered uncool, I marvel at this people’s ability to connect with their past and each other. A whole lot of marvel and a wee bit of envy.
Euskal Herria means Basque country, but Herri means more than country. It also means village, region and people. Because that’s how close the Basque people are connected to their land and heritage.
Heart of Basque country
Leitza is this charming little village in the heart of the Basque Country, just 25 minutes south of Donostia (San Sebastián) and 40 minutes north of Iruña (Pamplona), ideally located for nature lovers, hikers, mountainbikers, bird enthusiasts and cultural explorers, because it’s in the heart of a stunning nature yet close enough to the two very different cultural landmarks.
We were so incredibly lucky to spend a month in this charming town, where every house has a name (also a Basque tradition), where the central town square every afternoon is filled with kids playing ball and pelote and where people generously shared their recommendations, ideas and history.
Everywhere we went, the houses were extremely well kept. I guess naming a house gives it character, makes it a representation of the family and is therefore meticulously cared for.
It’s no surprise that Leitza – as beautiful that she is – has become a movie star. The charming town was last featured in the Spanish movie “Ocho apellidos vascos”, a romantic comedy which centers on a Basque girl and Sevillan guy and their cultural differences. Of course it’s stereotype and exaggerated, but for foreigners like us, it was a humorous introduction to the contrast of Spain and the tension still existing today.
The Basque country is full of mystery, traditions, tales and tension. When you first open the book to this region’s many stories; its past made up of giants and witches and its present filled with tradition and respect for nature, you can’t put it down again and you’re forever enchanted.
More information about Basque country, heritage and culture:
- Basque country on Wikipedia
- Basque rural sports on Wikipedia
- Basque culture in short
- Casa Arritxenea – from where you can explore Basque country
- Pyrenean Experience – blog on Basque traditions by a resident Brit
- Plazaola – information about the greenway and its surrounding area
- The movie “Ocho apellidos vascos” on IMDB