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Friday, March 6, 2015

What's the Basque Country, Anyway?

This part of Europe is unique. The Basque people have lived here for thousands of years, but no one knows where they originally came from. They are a distinct ethnic group with their own language and customs. They’re strong and hardworking. When the Romans were conquering the world, the Basques had a "cordial relationship" with them.* There’s a stubborn, beautiful quality about Basque culture, and it seems as timeless as the mountains and the sea.

When Columbus sailed to the New World, he did it in Basque-built ships, manned by Basque crews. Even today, many Basques are fishermen and seamen.

When the Marquis de Lafayette left to join the Revolutionary War effort in America, he sailed from Pasajes San Juan, just across the seaport from our church. (It's the town in the photo above.)

Map from:

The Basque region is comprised of four provinces in Spain and three in France. The French Basques are mostly satisfied with being part of France, but some of the Spanish Basques dream of having their own independent country: a Basque Country for the Basque people. Even though there are many immigrants from other parts of Spain and all over the world here as well, this is still the Basque homeland, historically and ethnically.

In the poverty-stricken years following the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), especially in the 1950s, many Basques moved abroad. Some settled in the Americas, some in other parts of Europe, and some in Australia. Many made their living as shepherds. Now, quite a few have returned to retire comfortably in their homeland.

When the dictator Franco was in power (1939-1975), he tried to dilute the Basque people by moving factories and businesses north into the Basque region. This brought people from other parts of Spain here to find jobs.

The Franco years were extremely difficult for the Basques. It was forbidden to speak their language, Euskera, in public places. Franco moved Basque priests (very influential in their communities) to other parts of Spain. He made Basque shop owners prove political neutrality, or he destroyed their shops.

On April 26, 1937, German bombers, under Franco’s request to Hitler, bombed the small town of Guernica on market day. Over 1,600 people were killed, almost 900 wounded, and the village was destroyed. This unwarranted attack on innocent people exacerbated the ill will between the Basque people and the Franco administration. (Pablo Picasso’s famous painting “Guernica” depicts that bombing, capturing the shock, chaos, and death.)

As a result, the Basques became even more determined to band together.

When we arrived in Spain in the 1980s, we noticed some changes in the wind. Basque schools (ikastolas) were starting up, where grade school children were taught exclusively in Euskera. A new, unified Euskera called Batua became the standard Basque language. Even children in predominately Spanish schools were required to learn in Euskera as well as in Spanish. Basque-born adults studied their parents’ language in night academies. The Basque people were uniting.

Today, many job offers are for Basque-speaking people only. I believe I’m right that all public schools require their teachers to be bilingual (Spanish and Euskera). The Basque language is very different from Spanish. It’s not a dialect, and it’s not related to any other European tongue.

Many street signs are printed in Basque only, but some are in both Basque and Spanish. Especially when we first arrived, Basques painted over the Spanish words to leave the Basque, and later, we’d see a new sign. It would then get painted over in the same way.

Our first apartment was in a volatile city. There were street protests and skirmishes. On Thanksgiving Day, tear gas canisters went off underneath our balcony. We quickly learned where to drive to avoid burning tires and torched buses. We also listened when people said there would be trouble and stayed inside on strike days. Even though we’ve witnessed first hand some “interesting” occurrences, only once did we feel personally threatened or in danger. (We were on a street doing our shopping when rubber bullets from the police whizzed by--in the wrong place at the wrong time.)

Thankfully, things have calmed down since those early days.

We love living here and appreciate the beautiful mountains, seashores, and people. When we’re fortunate enough to hear a few words that we recognize strung together, we can even understand a few sentences in Euskera! (Everyone also speaks Spanish. We converse in Spanish, and our church services are in Spanish. Sometimes, you’ll meet up with a person who insists on speaking only in Basque, but usually we can gather enough of what they’re saying to answer intelligently in Spanish.)

The Basque culture has its own flag, food, customs, symbol, costumes, folk dances, musical instruments, folk music, and sports (feats of strength).

They even have their own “Santa Claus” named Olentzero. (He's a legendary charcoal maker, who brings gifts to the children. In our town, on Christmas Eve, Olentzero comes down from the mountain with a donkey laden with gifts. He wears a black beret and the traditional Basque farmer costume.)

Why did we move to the Basque Country? To share Jesus and to establish a new church. Our church recently celebrated its twentieth anniversary. We’re a multicultural, multiethnic church, including ethnic Basques.

We love the Basque Country. It’s our home.

For God so loved the world,
that he gave his only begotten Son,
that whosoever believeth in him should not perish,
but have everlasting life.
(John 3:16)

All photos by: anar



  1. I would love to visit southwestern France! I have never been to the Basque region, but I think it would be an interesting place to visit! Thanks for sharing about the lives of the folks there to whom you minister!

    1. Yes, Susan, it's beautiful and interesting. Thank you for your comment. May God bless you!

  2. Interesting! I had always wondered why people from the Basque region always said that instead of just saying they were from Spain - now I understand (I probably heard the distinction in a presentation from your husband at church years ago, but if so I had forgotten).

    1. Oh yes, anyone born here considers himself Basque, not Spanish, even if his passport is Spanish. We sometimes see signs that say in English, "Tourist, you are not in Spain. You are in the Basque Country." We love it, and it's our home. Thank you, Barbara, for your comment. God bless!


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