Somewhere north of Spain and south of France, nestled deep among the conifer-covered slopes of the Pyranees mountains, lies Basque Country. This verdant, hilly territory has been home to the same enigmatic people for several thousands of years. The Basques are culturally, genetically, and linguistically distinct from all other Europeans, and, as far as is apparent, from all other people the world over. The name Basque derives from Medieval French and ultimately from the ancient tribe of the Vascones, first described by the ancient Greek historian Strabo.
In an effort to explain the origins of the Basques, quasi-anthropologists and linguists have postulated many things, including that the Basque people are the living descendants of the people of the lost city of Atlantis. In an effort to quell the fiercely independent spirit of the Basques, politicians have accused them of being many things---traitors, militants, rebels, extremists, and terrorists. In fact, they are not descended from a submarine-dwelling mythological race of enlightened humanoids, but are direct descendants of the Cro-Magnon people. As for their being rebels, since Basque cultural and linguistic identity has always been distinct from that of all other Europeans, many of them feel that political autonomy is deserved despite the fact that modern geopolitical delineations split Basque Country between Spain and France.
The original name (which is still used in the native tongue) of the Basques, is 'Euskera.' Though there are some modern words that have been assimilated into English, Spanish, French, and East Indian, the Basque language is entirely different from any other language ever seen or recorded. In the region's schools, the language that is now being taught is the "Unified Modern Basque Language." The language is called Euskadi (sometimes Euskari), and a Basque person is known as a Euskaldun.
The Euskera have been known historically as superior herders and fishermen. The modern use of the sheepdog is thought to have been pioneered in Basque country, and the Royal Basque Shepherd is a breed prized for its vigor and superior intelligence. Evidence suggests that Euskera fishermen discovered the American landmass long before Columbus, but opted to keep it a secret so that they could continue to take advantage of the plentiful codfish population found along the shores of what would come to be known as the New World. The Basques were insulated from the widespread miseries of the Dark Ages and the second pandemic of the bubonic plague (the Black Death) because of the wealth generated by their monopoly on salted cod.
With the dusk of the Middle Ages came the allocation of Basque territory between France and Spain. The power struggles that followed continue to this day. The Euskera are a fiercely nationalistic people. In addition to having their own language and culture, they have their own flag, national anthem, and their own separatist political movements. The Basque Nationalist Party was founded in 1895 with the goal of an autonomously governing Basque state which would be called Euzkadi. The Spanish republic granted self-government to Catalonia ,which also had a strong nationalist movement and its own linguistic and cultural identity, in 1931. The Basques had to wait several years longer, until the Spanish Civil War was underway, to be belatedly granted the autonomy that they desired. The majority of the Basque people sided with the leftists and against Francisco Franco's regime during the Spanish Civil War. Because of this, Franco ordered the bombing of the Basque town of Guernica (a town of no military import but great historical significance)---an event that was forever immortalized by Picasso's famous painting of the same title.
The Basque Autonomous Government surrendered to Franco in 1937 and remained under his rule until his death in 1975. During this long period of cultural oppression, an even more vehement nationalism brewed surreptitiously, fueled by a strong resentment of the corrupt dictatorship. It was then that the new separatist movement, Basque Country and Freedom (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna), better known by its Basque initials ETA, was formed.
Between 1979 and 1983, the Spanish government granted the Basque Autonomous Community limited self-governing powers including its own elected parliament and control over taxation. These were part of the self-rule "package" the Spanish government agreed to hand over to the Basques, but twenty-five years later, Madrid has yet to deliver other promised powers that formed part of the agreement. As a result, ETA carries out car-bombings and other attacks on Spain's capital, while the Spanish central government represses (often violently) even the most peaceful of protests carried out by non-militant Basque separatists.
Despite the unresolved political issues that shape much of the Basque identity, Basque Country (or País Vasco, as it is referred to in Spain) is still a safe and beautiful travel destination. The staggering natural beauty of the Pyranees mountains and the coastline of the Bay of Biscay, countless festivals unique to Basque tradition, and the new Guggenheim museum in Bilbao (Basque Country's capitol city) are among the reasons that visitors are now flocking to the region. For more information on visiting País Vasco, see http://www.basquecountry-tourism.com/cult_fiestas.php
- Ingrid Feeney