In an age of peak global homogeneity, when every city district aspires to be Williamsburg in Brooklyn, when we don’t even bother to pack phrase books on our travels anymore, when distinct cultures are vanishing, there is something invigorating – disorientating, even – about arriving in the Basque Country.
Here, locals jabber in an ancient language, Euskera, which you won’t even faintly understand and that could be mistaken for choking rather than speaking. The people look different, with strong jaws, marker-pen eyebrows and disconcertingly long earlobes.
Their land, situated around the elbow crook of the Bay of Biscay, seems too pornographically lush to be Spain, less prissy than France.
Spend time here and differences multiply, not diminish. The Basques have their own sports or at least take a perverse, antediluvian approach to the ones that the rest of the world plays. Some wear wool berets, spun thin and wide like a roti, though the suspicion is these people are either police officers or American tourists. The region has a signature folk typeface, inspired by old tombstones, with a distinctive capstone above the As. Their delicacies – squid in ink, baby eels that look like earthworms – are acquired tastes for even some intrepid gourmands. They are ornery, contrapuntal people, proud that while they’ve been defeated, they have never been entirely conquered.
It feels like this Basqueland, or Euskadi as they know it, should be protected. But the area, home to not quite three million people and occupying a space scarcely bigger than Northern Ireland across Spain and France, is doing well enough on its own.
Two of the world’s 10 best restaurants are here; the tiny region has the same number in the top 40 – five – as France. Athletic Club Bilbao, a football team that only selects players born or raised locally, finished fourth last season in La Liga, behind the two Madrids and Barcelona. Bilbao might be the only city on the planet to have pulled off “the Bilbao Effect”: regeneration through architecture.
While the rest of Spain is crumbling economically, unemployment in the Basque Country, which raises and administers its own taxes, is roughly half the rest of the country.
Average earnings are far higher. The flashy second homes that sprung up in the boom and now lie vacant were never built in these parts. This is the hard-won experience that comes from being the original Europeans; a claim the Basques make and anthropological evidence supports.
“I want to tell you a story from 2,000 years ago,” says Andoni Luis Aduriz, the chef of Mugaritz in the hills behind San Sebastián, which placed sixth in the most recent World’s 50 Best Restaurants list. “Back then the most important empire was the Romans: it was not just an empire of politics, economics and the military, but also culture and religion. Like today, the United States. But imagine a big, powerful Roman general arrives here and someone tells him: ‘See these guys living in the forest? They are Basque. In 2,000 years, they will still talk in their language, but yours will have gone.’”
Andoni laughs, but he is not joking entirely. “In 2,000 years, English will have disappeared, but the Basque people will still talk Euskera,” he goes on. “It’s already happened before, it could happen again. Do you understand? The world is incredible.”
"Many people have died playing cesta punta,” says Luis Urtubi, the president of the magnificent Frontón in Guernica, the spiritual capital of the Basque people.
“Before players wore helmets, it was like bullfighting. But it’s still dangerous. My friend, his son, the ball was deflected and it caught him between the legs. You should have seen it: one of his balls was that big.” Urtubi winces, before tracing the outline of a grapefruit. “Very nasty.”
Cesta punta, also called jai alai, might just be the most exciting sport you’ve never seen. It is a game of serene elegance: matches are either singles or doubles and players traditionally wear pristine white uniforms with either a blue or red sash through their belt loops. Equipment is a scooped reed basket, the cesta, a stylised precursor of those ball-flingers carried by dog walkers, though each takes almost a week to make by hand and can cost £500. Worn on the right hand, every swing has the languid refinement of Roger Federer’s backhand.
But it is the sport’s brutal ferocity and power that really resonates. Cesta punta is the world’s fastest ballgame: the pelota, a rubber ball wrapped in goatskin and as hard as a cricket ball, can be flung at speeds of 190mph, twice the velocity of a delivery by England paceman James Anderson. That would shatter bulletproof glass.
Cesta punta was invented in the 1850s on the French side of the Basque Country and it is actually one of the less esoteric pastimes of these people.
Grass cutting, wagon lifting and sheep fighting have all been known to draw raucous crowds. And there have been moments when cesta punta looked like it might tip over into the mainstream. In the early 20th century, there were frontóns (courts), in every continent on Earth, and it was especially popular in America. In an episode of Mad Men set in 1963, a rich client of Sterling Cooper believes he can make a fortune starting a jai alai league. Paul Newman and Jayne Mansfield were seen at matches. It also featured in Miami Vice in 1986, in which a pelota killed a man.
Cesta punta is more of a niche concern these days. On a recent Sunday morning, I find two amateur matches being played in Guernica, a market town made famous by Picasso’s harrowing depiction of its bombing during the Spanish Civil War by German and Italian aircraft backing General Franco’s fascists.
The building, tatty brick on the outside, has two dozen people inside, all intimates of the competitors. Still the grandeur of the Frontón is unmistakable: designed in 1962 by Basque architect Secundino Zuazo, it is a cathedral of concrete and glass that can hold a congregation of 1,500. The front wall, frontis, and the back, rebote, are blocks of granite, one of the few materials that can absorb the battering of the ball; the floor is marble. Close your eyes and the only sounds are the swish of the cesta and the “pock” of the ball rebounding off the rockface. Spectators become the fourth wall, shielded by a net, in case of a stray projectile.
A decade ago, Guernica’s iconic Frontón was going to be turned into apartments, but it was saved and is now protected. For the sport’s admirers, cesta punta is integral to being Basque. Even if the arena is only full once a year, for a charity match in the summer, it remains a defiant symbol of the nationalist spirit. After his match, a narrow defeat, I ask Markel Urtubi, a 22-year-old teacher, why he plays the sport.
“First, I love the game,” he replies. “But also we are very proud to be Basque. Until now we were often oppressed by the Spanish government. They didn’t want our culture to be ours, they wanted their Spanish culture everywhere. Our language, our schools, our sport, how we dress, these are important parts of what it means to be Basque. Old people die and if young people are not interested, it’s going to disappear. And we don’t want that to happen. Cesta punta is one of those things.”
Paul Newman was a cesta punta fan
Some history might help here.
We first hear of the Basques in 218BC – though they seem to have been around for a while before then – when the Romans cross the Pyrenees on their conquest of Iberia. They initially resist the Romans but ultimately are overwhelmed; somehow, however, the Basques cut a deal to accept Roman subjugation, but also maintain a degree of autonomy, especially over their language, culture and legal system. This pattern recurs throughout history. A similar agreement is struck when the territory is subsumed by Spain in the aftermath of the French Revolution.
The bleakest period for the Basques comes with Franco’s dictatorship from 1936 until 1975. Euskera is forbidden and the Basques are told they have to “speak Christian”. In response, a group of nationalists form ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna or Euskadi and Liberty) in 1959. Originally, it is imagined as an intellectual movement with the goal to promote the outlawed Basque language, but the group carries out their first planned assassination in 1968 and are responsible for 829 deaths until they renounce violence in 2011.
ETA’s demise has corresponded with a surge in popular nationalism in recent times and a campaign to negotiate Basque independence from Spain. There are local elections in May and the only question is whether the dominant party will be PNV (the Basque Nationalist Party) or the more extreme left-wing separatists of Euskal Herria Bildu (Basque Country Unite).
The number of people speaking Euskera is growing fast – from 650,000 at the turn of the century to more than 800,000 today – especially among young folk. The action from our own in-out referendum last year in Scotland was lived, breathed and finally mourned round here, too.
Back in Guernica, cesta punta limps on. “It’s been around for more than 150 years, so I think we’ll survive,” says Jon Ituarte, a professional player in America in the Eighties. “This is a bad period right now, but Basque people invented this sport and if we let this die, we let part of culture die. It’d be like if cricket died in England.”
Ituarte looks up at the vast vaulted ceiling, winter sun streaking through the windows. “But this place is protected now, they can’t touch it. This is our sanctuary. This is our church.”
There’s a very different vibe on Sunday afternoon as 40,000-plus candy-striped fans stream into San Mamés, home of Athletic Club Bilbao.
Today’s opponents today are Málaga, one of those cosmopolitan teams that are the template for all football clubs these days: goalkeeper from Cameroon, captain from Brazil, maybe one or two local boys. Athletic, meanwhile, field an 11 all of whom can trace their heritage to the Basque Country. It’s a policy the club has had for more than a century and it has served them well: Athletic, along with Real Madrid and Barcelona, are the only clubs never to have been relegated from La Liga.
The statistic becomes even more anomalous when you list some of the current Basque players who don’t turn out for Athletic Bilbao: Xabi Alonso and Asier Illarramendi, both at Real Madrid, Bayern Munich’s Javi Martínez, Fernando Llorente at Juventus, Chelsea’s César Azpilicueta and their most recent departure Ander Herrera, who joined Manchester United back in the summer for £29m.
Any attempt at an explanation immediately unravels into multiple strands. There is Athletic’s cantera, the youth academy system, which is a prolific production line for talent only matched perhaps by Barcelona. Innate physical characteristics of the Basques might contribute: their men, thought to be direct descendants of Cro-Magnons, are typically stockier and more resilient than the French or Spanish archetypes.
The intimidating San Mamés, the oldest and most decrepit stadium in the league until it was recently given a £160m makeover and shifted 50m, also plays its part. When Athletic are doing badly, attendances rise as Bilbainos rally round struggling players. Invariably, any explanation for Bilbao’s enduring success contains the words “Basque spirit”.
“There’s nothing different about Athletic apart from their pride,” says Gaizka Mendieta, the Spanish international who was born in Bilbao to Basque parents and is now a La Liga analyst on Sky Sports. “For a player, to play for the club you always supported, in the city where you live, it’s so special. And for the fans the same: we love to see players staying in a club, like Stevie G at Liverpool or Xavi or Iniesta at Barca. I know in Bilbao city they are happy to be that way.”
After a top four La Liga finish last season, Athletic is finding it harder going this campaign and presently sit in mid-table. The creativity of Ander Herrera has been missed and no one has come through from the cantera yet to replace him.
Against the skilled and exotic Málaga, Athletic score first, concede an equaliser and then hang on for a draw. The result is a testament of Basque bloody-mindedness: a band of Steven Gerrards determined that the club will not be relegated for the first time on their watch. Their resilience proves that money still isn’t everything in modern football and that sometimes limitations can make you stronger.
Early on in Mugaritz’s life, an influential critic came to review the restaurant. His verdict was damning: the food was dull. “Insípidos, insípidos, insípidos,” repeats Andoni Luis Aduriz, 15 years later.
“In the kitchen, whenever you talk about food, the most important thing is flavour. Wherever you are in the world, whatever you are eating, flavour is the first thing you notice. And suddenly this journalist appears and says that our food has no flavour. It was like someone was stabbing me again and again with a knife.”
Andoni was furious but he considered the judgment and came to a surprising conclusion: the critic was right. Not only was Mugaritz’s food bland, he decided, but all Basque food was bland.
The most popular fish in the region, hake, tastes of very little. Baby eels – in Euskera they’re txitxardina (“wormlike”) – demand to be cooked live, or imminently after death, because it is their texture that is crucial rather than their flavour. Beloved of all pulses in these parts are sweet peas shaped like tears called guisantes de lágrima, but their taste is delicate, almost imperceptible. Again and again, insípidos, insípidos, insípidos!
“But what all these products did have,” says Andoni, his eyes gleaming, “was texture. Texture! So that is what Mugaritz had to concentrate on. And from there we make a revolution.”
Andoni, 42, one of the younger elite chefs in the region, makes an insightful point. I’ve been coming to the Basque Country for over 15 years, mostly as an excuse to eat there. San Sebastián, a city with the same population as Peterborough, has restaurants with 15 Michelin stars between them. (It has other things Peterborough doesn't, too, notably one of the great urban beaches; although, to be fair, it doesn’t have a greyhound track.)
But what was mind-blowing about the restaurants I visited was never the flavour of the dishes, but the inventiveness of the methods used to create them. At Asador Etxebarri, in the hamlet of Axpe, the chef Bittor Arguinzoniz, previously a lumberjack and an electrician, cooks everything over wood coals. Even its ice cream is infused with smoke.
The most celebrated dish at Mugaritz is called “Edible Stones”. But what your brain insists is a grey-purple lump of volcanic rock is actually a potato dusted with kaolin paste and glazed in a low oven like a piece of pottery. It is telling, and very Basque, that the surprise is a humble tuber rather than foie gras or lobster. “It is a declaration of intentions: that somebody can touch your heart with a potato,” says Andoni. “You can’t ask for anything else in life.”
Much as Athletic Bilbao seems to build strength by denying itself access to stronger, more talented players, so Basque chefs make a virtue of living in a place with mostly unexceptional ingredients. Where then does this creativity come from?
Andoni goes silent for a moment and then starts talking about his childhood in the last years of Franco’s dictatorship. All of the chefs around here endured something similar: banned from speaking Euskera, unable to draw on traditions that stretch back millennia.
“What happens to a community that for 40 years were forbidden from expressing themselves?” asks Andoni. “When you open that, a lot of expression comes out.” He makes a noise of a river bursting its banks. “We saw that in music, literature, art and we saw it in Basque food, too. From 1975 to now, it never stops.”
Bibao's Guggenheim museum
On the last day of my trip, I visit the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
When it first went up in 1997, the building, designed by Frank Gehry and plated in titanium scales, was described by the architecture critic in The New York Times as “voluptuous” and “the reincarnation of Marilyn Monroe”. Others said it resembled an artichoke.
Today it looks like Brazilian footballer Neymar’s haircut: golden, shimmering, lots of odd angles. Love or hate it, this is a compelling building.
When the museum opened, it hoped for 500,000 visitors a year. In the first 12 months, 1.3m came and around a million more have followed every year since. Local tax spent on the project, believed to be £40 for each citizen, was repaid within four years.
“Since the very beginning, a lot of people were critical of the project,” remembers Petra Joos, deputy director at the Bilbao Guggenheim. “People in Spain, but here in the Basque Country especially so. They would say that this was a franchise coming to the Basque Country, it was American, it was coming from outside. It was too expensive, it would never work.”
So why has it?
“It was the right moment,” says Joos simply. “And also it is Gehry’s best building.”
This impression – of irascible Basques railing against the arrival of the fancy American art gallery – fits with a popular stereotype of these people: xenophobic, maybe even a little misanthropic. The Basque Country will invariably, inevitably, be linked with the word “separatist”, due to the actions of ETA over half a century. And the Bilbao Guggenheim remains a divisive structure locally even today. You’ll hear that this industrial port city, built on the export of iron ore, has betrayed its working-class roots or that visitors only come to the Guggenheim and leave the rest of this manicured, soulless city like a ghost town.
These whinges miss the point. Basqueland is an incomprehensible place with an incomprehensible language that has way too many high-score Scrabble letters, but the people here don’t think they are better than anyone else, just different.
These singularities lead to some unexpected and incongruous results, of which the Bilbao Guggenheim is an excellent example. When the Guggenheim Foundation announced that it wanted to expand in the Nineties, it sat down with Tokyo, Osaka, Moscow, Vienna, Graz and Salzburg. The investment required terrified everyone and all those cities shuffled away.
Only then did the Guggenheim enter negotiations with Bilbao. Only the oddball Basques were fully committed to the gamble.
And what sums up the Basque Country better than doing something no one else wants to, that most people consider unhinged, but doing it with a spirit and pride that demands the rest of the world sit up and take notice?