The Basque Country: A Cultural History

The Basque Country: A Cultural History

The Basque Country: A Cultural History

The Basque Country: A Cultural History

Synopsis

The Basque Country is a land of fascinating paradoxes and enigmas. Home to one of Europe's oldest peoples and most mysterious languages, with a living folklore rich in archaic rituals and dances, it also boasts a dynamic modern energy, with the reinvention of Bilbao creating a model for the twenty-first-century city.

In The Basque Country, Paddy Woodworth takes us on a sweeping tour of this enchanting land. We discover a small territory which abounds in big contrasts, ranging from moist green valleys to semi-desert badlands, from snowy sierras to sandy beaches, from harsh industrial landscapes to bucolic beech woods. The book reveals how this often idyllic scenery forms the backdrop for a land of ancient and modern culture, where Basque poets still compose spontaneous stanzas in public contests and where strange age-old sports--rock lifting, goose decapitation--are still held at fiestas. Likewise, the region has made important contributions to modern culture, through novelists like Bernardo Atxaga, sculptors like Eduardo Chillida, painters like Zuluoaga, and cineastes like Julio Medem. And of course Bilbao's flagship museum, the Guggenheim, designed by Frank O. Gehry, may be the best work of architecture of the last century.

Here then is a marvelous guide to the culture and landscape of one of the most intriguing places on Earth.

Excerpt

The Basque Country has had more than its fair share of stereotypes thrust upon it. The Basques have sometimes resisted this typecasting, but they have not been shy about making their own contributions, some as extravagant as any foreigner’s, to stock images of their homeland.

Even before Victor Hugo described the Basques as “the people who sing and dance at the foot of the Pyrenees”—a cliché which makes many Basques apoplectic today—the region had become a magnet for professional and amateur seekers after exotic folklore and unique customs. As “Europe’s aboriginals”, all things Basque were seized upon as ancient and original. Basque nationalism, a relatively recent invention, has avidly cultivated some of these stereotypes, stressing those aspects of culture which made the Basques distinct from the Spanish and the French.

However, archaeologists, anthropologists, folklorists and nationalists have not flourished here by accident. The Basque cultural landscape is fertile ground for their enterprises. The Basques are, indeed, one of the oldest, if not the oldest, European people. They have probably lived in their home place longer than other ethnic group on the continent. Their language, Euskera, is not only non-Indo-European, but it has no clear family relationship with any other tongue. And Basques, on both sides of the Pyrenees, have kept alive a vibrant tradition of folk costumes, folk dances, folk sports and folk music which few other European peoples can match. But some things which appear old turn out to be relatively recent innovations, and some things which appear to be quintessentially Basque have their origins elsewhere.

What makes the Basque Country really fascinating is that a traditional culture persists in a heterogeneous society which today exudes a dynamic, if confusing and sometimes dangerous, post-modern energy. The reinvention of Bilbao—a project led by Basque nationalists—has become a cosmopolitan model for the twenty-first-century city of . . .

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