The Basque Country
Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 24th July, 2013
The Basque Country is a land of mountains and valleys — and the sea. The early 16th century Basque navigator Juan Sebastián de Elcano accompanied the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan on his historic sail westwards in search of the East Indies, and unlike Magellan, he survived. The Basques are among the oldest, if not the very oldest, peoples of Europe and their language is unlike any other. Of course it was suppressed under General Franco and for decades Basque separatists — mainly in Spain, but with a few allies in the smaller Basque lands of France — have agitated for independence, sometimes violently. It was while Franco was in decline, in 1975, that the Irish writer and specialist on Spain, Paddy Woodworth, first set foot in Euskal Herria — the land of the Basques. But he became fascinated and over the next 30 years and more penetrated the Basque lands and mentality more than most foreign observers. One result is his book The Basque Country (Signal, 2007), which is far more than just a guidebook or even a cultural history. It is a song of one man’s love for a tiny corner of Europe that has been often misunderstood. Paddy is a canny and opinionated (in the best sense of the world) companion, who relishes the Basque love of food and drink (wine and cider), the echoes of pre-Christian rituals and beliefs and the magic realism of some of its literature and folklore. He bemoans the noisiness of post-modern life in village bars, while at the same time — in a major, central chapter — celebrating aspects of the post-modern transformation of Bilbao (the “Guggenheim Effect”). While decrying the carnage of ETA’s terror campaign, as well as the torture and killings of Basque activists by various Spanish regimes, he remains neutral in his position regarding Basque separatism, at the same time drawing some interesting comparisons with Northern Ireland. Above all, he invites the reader to celebrate an land and its people before they irrevocably change, just as the whales that used to swim off the coast have disappeared and many species of fish have been driven to the verge of extinction.