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Basque Country in Spain and France

Basque Country, Spain

The Basques, united by language, cuisine, sports, and culture, share a coastal region that overlaps with southwest France and northern Spain. We visit resorty San Sebastián, the bombed-but-restored town of Guernica, and in France, endearing St-Jean-Pied-de-Port, and urban Bayonne.

Complete Video Script

When they drew the national borders of Europe, the Basque nation was left out. While you won't see this country on standard Europe maps, Basque people define their land like this, bounded by the Pyrenees Mountains and the Atlantic coast. We start in San Sebastián, tour Guernica and Bilbao, and finish in the French part of Basque Country, visiting Bayonne and St-Jean-de-Luz.

The independent-minded Basques are notorious for being headstrong. But, as a culturally and linguistically unique land surrounded by bigger and stronger nations, the Basques have learned to compromise while maintaining their identity.

Much unites the Spanish and French Basque regions: They share a striking Atlantic coastline with communities reaching far into the Pyrenees. They have the same flag, similar folk music and dance, and a common language, spoken by about half-a-million people. And both, after some struggles, have been integrated by their respective nations. The French Revolution quelled French Basque ideas of independence. And in the 20th century, Spain's General Franco attempted to tame his own separatist-minded Basques.

But in the last generation, things are improving. The long-suppressed Basque language is enjoying a resurgence. And, because the European Union is interested in helping small ethnic regions as well as big countries, the Basques are enjoying more autonomy.

So, just who are the Basques? Sure, you can still find a few beret-capped shepherds that fit the traditional cliché. But the vast majority of Basques are modern and relatively prosperous city dwellers. Widespread Spanish and French immigration has made it difficult to know who actually has Basque ethnic roots. Locals consider anyone who speaks the Basque language to be Basque.

If you know where to look, Basque customs are strong and lively…perhaps nowhere moreso than in one of their favorite sports, called jai alai. Players use a long wicker basket to whip a ball, smaller and far harder than a baseball, off walls at more than 150 miles per hour.

For less adrenalin but just as much Basque culture, there's the institution of the men's gastronomic club. These clubs are common throughout Basque Country and range from the more working class communal kitchen type of place to the fairly highbrow more exclusive version with extensive wine cellars, and gastronomic libraries.

The clubs serve several functions: Traditionally, Basque society is matrilineal — women run the show at home. These provide a men's night out. It's also a place where friends who've known each other since grade school can enjoy quality time together, speaking Basque, and savoring traditional ways in an ever faster world. And, it's a place where men cook together and celebrate the famed Basque culinary traditions.

While much of Basque region is in France, most of the land, industry, and people are in Spain. And many consider Spanish Basque culture to be feistier and more colorful than that of the more integrated French Basques.

The leading tourist destination in Spain's Basque Country is San Sebastián. Shimmering above its breathtaking bay, elegant and prosperous San Sebastián — or Donostia as locals call their town — is your best home base for exploring Basque Country.

With its romantic setting on the sea, lively Old Town, and its soaring statue of Christ gazing over the city, San Sebastián has a mini–Rio de Janeiro aura.

Wandering the streets, you see there's a political edge to the graffiti. This poster shows Basque separatists doing time in Spanish prisons for violent activities.

Certain pubs have separatist sympathies. You'll know by the photos of prisoners and political murals on the walls. While the struggle for Basque independence is in a relatively calm stage, with the vast majority opposing violent tactics, there are still underlying tensions between Spain and those among the Basques who aspire to more autonomy.

An hour's drive takes us to Guernica. The market town of Guernica has a workaday feel — typical of this region, which is one of Spain's most industrial.

Visiting its stately parliament building you sense the importance of this town to Basque culture. Historically, leaders would gather in the shade of an old oak tree. And this new oak tree — supposedly a descendant of the original one — reminds the Basque people of their unique clan traditions.

In the adjacent assembly chamber, historic portraits of Basque lords surround today's representatives. And high above, a medieval lord swears allegiance to the almost sacred book of Basque laws.

In the next room, a stained glass ceiling causes Basque hearts to stir. A sage leader standing under that venerated oak tree holds the "Old Law," which provided structure to Basque society for centuries. Around him are groups representing the traditional Basque livelihoods: sailors and fishermen, miners and steelworkers, and farmers. And it's all set in a classic Basque landscape.

While it does have deep-cultural roots, most people know Guernica for a horrific event in the years leading up to World War II.

Guernica was bombed flat in 1937. Because it was long the symbolic heart of Basque separatism, the city was a natural target for the dictator Franco in the Spanish Civil War. His ally, Hitler, wanted a chance to try out his latest technology in aerial bombardment. The result: the infamous bombing raid that Picasso immortalized in his epic work, Guernica.

Picasso's mural, considered by many to be the greatest antiwar work of art ever, tells the story. It was market day. The town was filled with farmers from the countryside. First, a single German warplane bombed bridges and roads leading out of the town. Then, more planes arrived. Three hours of relentless saturation bombing followed. People running through the streets were strafed with machine-gun fire. By sunset, the planes had left, leaving thousands of casualties and Guernica in rubble.

From here, we leave the coast, and head inland. Within an hour, we cross into the French part of Basque Country. Traditional village settings reflect the colors of the Basque flag — red and white buildings nestled in the green of the foothills of the Pyrenees. Spared the beach scene development of the coast, these villages offer a more rustic glimpse of Basque culture.

Compared to their neighbors across the border back in Spain, the French Basques seem more integrated into French culture. You hear the language less on this side of the border. But, still, this area blends the French and Basque influences into its own distinct style.

It seems that every small French Basque town has two things in common: a church and a court called a frontón. These courts, where Basque-style pelota (or handball) is enjoyed by experts and beginners alike, dominate town centers and add a unique ambience.

The inviting town of Espelette is worth a short stop. It's famous for its red peppers — with strands of them dangling like good-luck charms from many houses and storefronts.

Higher in the foothills of the Pyrenees is the town of St-Jean-Pied-de-Port. Like many of these villages, it's a hit with hikers. Most are simply on vacation, trekking between Basque villages or heading from the villages higher into the Pyrenees. But, since the Middle Ages, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port has been the historic departure point for pilgrims bound for Santiago de Compostela — 500 miles away in the northwest corner of Spain.

With its mix of day tripping families and determined pilgrims using the town as a spring board for the time-honored pilgrimage, St-Jean-Pied-de-Port has an endearing energy.

To feel the urban pulse of French Basque Country, visit Bayonne, back down on the Atlantic coast. In the town's old center, tall, slender buildings, decorated in Basque fashion with green and red shutters, tower above narrow streets.

Bayonne's cathedral, funded by its former whaling industry, stands bold and tall amid quaint lanes. We're here on a Sunday, when the streets are quiet, but surprises reward those who poke around. This group is celebrating its cultural roots. While we're in Basque Country, these dancers made it clear to us that rather than being Basque, they were of Gascony descent — from a time when the English ruled this bit of France. Just another reminder of the ethnic complexity of Europe.

For a dose of French Basque sporting culture we're checking out a jai alai match. While kids play on the village courts, the pros take the game to another level. And the audience takes the sport just as seriously. The mascot is cute, the crowd's revved up, the sport is lightning-fast, and the rocketing ball clearly holds everyone's attention.