A Land Apart: Trekking Basque Country
by Yvonne Michie Horn
When I think of the Pyrénées, I hear bells — a cacophony of near and distant tinkling and muted clangs. Flocks of shaggy sheep floating like moths against grassy slopes; herds of pale, beautiful cows known as the Blondes des Pyrénées; elusive pottoks, the ancient horse breed unique to pays basque — all wear bells. Clinking, clanging, tinkling. No two tuned quite alike.
In Colorful Company
As remote as this rugged barrier between southwestern France and northeastern Spain appears, it is one of the most tramped-across mountain barriers on Earth. Roman legions, medieval pilgrims, refugees from both fascist Spain and occupied France — not to mention generations of smugglers — have traversed the Pyrénées. Measuring barely 100 miles by 100 miles, the Pyrénées straddle the French/ Spanish border where they meet the Cantabrian sea, encompassing three French regions (pays basque) and four Spanish provinces (pais vasco).
The bells, however, provide accompaniment for the most enduring passage of all — the seasonal migration of flocks, herds and people from the valleys below into high mountain pastures. And so it has been in the land of the Basques for, some say, 5,000 years.
On a recent eight-day walking trip with Country Walkers, a Vermont-based touring company, I explored the ancient region “one step at a time” (the company’s motto). Crossing and re-crossing the French-Spanish border, I delighted in the culture, vistas, and villages as I sauntered in the company of bells, the cuckoo’s call and butterflies known as the “Amanda’s blue.”
Not Exactly Roughing It
Though author Hilaire Belloc, who walked the passes in 1909, recommended espadrilles, a water bottle, a compass and a blanket as the only Pyrénean essentials, my own trek would be couched in luxury. No need for a blanket when descending to a fine country inn for the night. As for espadrilles, I blessed my sturdy, water-proof boots daily.
We were a group of 12, representing the far-flung edges of the United States — New York, Florida, Texas, California. Our adventure began in Sare, a tiny, picturesque French Basque village, where we gathered in the shade of a chestnut tree. There, Alberto Santana, a professor of medieval architecture at the Universidad Nacional de Bergara in Bilbao, Spain, spread out maps outlining our trek into “Fabled Basque Country.” Second in command was Kepa Eizagirre, also from Bilbao.
Together they presented a quintessentially Basque balance: Alberto is slender, dark-haired, irrepressibly and irreverently witty, knowledgeable about every cultural, historical, architectural, botanical, archeological and geographical detail along the way; and Kepa is a young man with eyes as gentle as his soul, steeped in mysticism.
A Powerful People
The Basque people add significantly to the intrigue of this area. When Romans burst into the north of the Iberian Peninsula in the first century ad, they told of a people who had lived there “since the dawn of time.” Peaceable but obstinate, the Basques have since been considered an anthropological enigma.
Today, those people refer to themselves as Euskaldunak, or “Speakers of the Euskera,” a language that defies linguists’ attempts to link it with any other known language. Looking in print like a typing exercise gone awry, the tongue uses Latin and Celtic words that could only have entered the language before 800 bc. The language (and the only reliable definition of a Basque is someone who speaks it) is fiercely protected, and remains a symbol of the Basque cultural independence.
Our trekking route was not a continuous path; instead, we hopscotched via bus to paths that immersed us in the natural beauty for which the area is renowned. Walking high ridges overlooking cuplike valleys, we gazed down at clusters of whitewashed, red- or green-shuttered farmhouses so typically French Basque.
Scenes of Spain
On the Spanish side, we followed dirt trails through fields of buttercups, calendula and red poppies into the vineyards of Rioja, and dipped into Hemingway country, one day walking the street route of Pamplona’s running of the bulls.
Hemingway loomed large in our exploration of the Spanish region, since the writer was an unabashed fan of Basque country. In Bur-guete, a Spanish village where the author frequently arrived with rod and reel to flyfish local streams, Alberto arranged for a meal described in The Sun Also Rises — a simple vegetable soup followed by pink — fleshed trout draped with a thin slice of smoked ham.
Footsteps of Fame
We’d arrived at Burguete via a stretch of the Camino de Santiago de Compostela, a long-distance path trod for 1,000 years by millions of pilgrims enroute to Spain’s Compostela, where, according to legend, miraculous Christian remains had been found. Leaving from St. Jean-Pied-de-Port, an important medieval staging post for the journey into Spain via Ibaneta Pass, we found the path still heavily walked today.
With thunder rumbling among the mountains in the distance, we climbed into steep limestone outcroppings interspersed with grassy, thyme-dotted turf. Centuries dissolved into oneness as we asked those met along the way the ageless questions, “How far have you come today?” “Where are you from?”
Cresting Ibaneta Pass, we descended dramatically through a deep beech forest into Spain, our boots rejoicing on a trampoline of hundreds of years of fallen leaves. Ahead lay the true pilgrim’s goal for the day — the Augustine abbey at Roncesvalles — where travelers have been blessed and offered shelter since 1219. We, however, were but pilgrims for a day, with yet another charming hotel and the promise of our Hemingway- inspired meal awaiting us nearby.
Ah — the food. Basques on both sides of the Pyrénées, who include many fishermen, farmers, shepherds and winemakers, have always eaten well from a larder born of mountains, sea, and fertile valleys. Among the delicacies were chipirones en su tinta (baby squid in their own ink); menestra (tender young vegetables — tiny green beans, miniature artichoke globes, nutty fava beans — in a succulent broth, topped with a slice of ham); at least a dozen versions of brebis (golden sheep’s-milk cheese); wondrous arrays of pinhos (Basque for tapas); and piles of white asparagus, springtime-fresh from the fields.
Lunch came from the daypacks on our backs, sack repasts readied by the kitchens of our small hotels to be unwrapped at the first pangs of lunchtime hunger. One day, we lunched in a circle of dolmens, using the ancient stones placed by the shadowy ancestors of to-day’s Basques as back rests. On our final day, on a top-of-the-world peak in Artikutza National Park, we feasted with views of the Cantabrian Sea and the distant mountains as our backdrop. Arranged on a tablecloth, an array of smoked sausages and hams, cheeses, fruits, breads, salads, and olives of every persuasion were washed down with throat-aimed squirts of red wine from Alberto’s bota.
Imagining myself back in Basque country, I am supine, my head resting on a bed of thyme. My eyes are closed, accentuating the gentle sounds of the mountains in my mind. Bells. Close and distant. Clinking, clanging, tinkling. No two tuned quite alike.
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