Basque Culture: A Modern Mystery

May 6, 2013

No one knows from where they came. Their language has no origin. Their history wasn’t recorded until 1600.

They are the Basques.

The Basque homeland lies near the western Pyrenees Mountains, bordering France and Spain. It’s made up of the Spanish communities of the Basque Country and Navarra and the Northern Basque Country in France.

Because their language has no Latin ties, many believe the Basques could have been the first people in Europe.

“I don’t think it’s the first language, but I do think it’s one of the first languages,” said Oskar Garcia Elkans through a translator. Elkans is a devout Basque and native Pamplonian. He spells his name with a ‘k’ rather than the traditional ‘c’ because there is no c in Euskara, the Basque language.

The ancient Basques never had a king, president or dictator. Instead, they created a set of laws using a regional parliament and agreed to follow them.

“It was perfect anarchism,” said Tim Pinks, a frequent visitor to Pamplona and fan of Basque lore.

Living in the mountains and along the coast, the Basques have always had a place in industry. Many worked and continue to work in fishing and coal mining. Some of the most traditional Basque food is seafood. They’re also known for pinxtchos, appetizers served on toothpicks. One of the most popular pinxtchos combines salty anchovies, tart green olives and mild peppers, available at most Pamplona bars, like Café Sevilla in the Plaza del Castillo.

A sweet and burning berry-flavored liquor, called patxaran, is the drink of the Basques. Tasting like licorice with 25 percent alcohol, the blood red drink mimics absinthe. The origin of patxaran, much like the Basque people, is unknown.

“The history is not important,” Elkans said. “The taste is.”

Banging and piping booms in the distance along Estafeta Street in Pamplona. Though these bangs and whistles may sound like noise to some, it’s authentic Basque music, known as txalaparta. Shops in Pamplona sell CDs of the Basque music.

The Basques, like the Catalans, were overtaken by the Spanish and still feel more loyalty to their mountain heritage than the Spanish crown.

“You can’t suppress a culture,” said Ignacio Mendes, a reporter for El Diario Navarre. Mendes considers himself as a Spaniard and a Navarran and doesn’t identify as Basque.

Though the Catalans and the Spanish have similar roots, Basque is another beast. They are wildly free, like the mountains they come from. This quest for freedom has yet to be quenched, as many Basques want independence from Spain and France.

“It’s complicated,” Elkans said. “It will never happen because the Basque Country is in France and Spain.”

And as they fight to uphold a primitive culture and a dying language, the mountains tower in the distance, reminding them of where they came from.