The Basque Country, Euskadi as it is known in the native tongue, was, until the acceleration of the Catalan separatist movement, the most independent-minded of the Spanish regions. Of late calls for a total break have become more muted, and the armed activities of the paramilitary ETA have ceased, but a staunch feeling of pride and distance from much of the rest of the country is still keenly felt in the region.
The Basques can make claims to justify their status as a distinct people as far back as anyone in Europe. Their origins remain the subject of great conjecture, but the most popular theories point towards them being the survivors of the stone-age humans inhabiting the peninsula, having emerged from caves in the North at the end of the last Ice Age. Evidence that has been used to support this theory over the years includes skull structure and blood type, and most recently DNA analysis points towards a distinct heritage dating back thousands of years.
And then there is their mystifying language, Euskara, a unique tongue with only two-hundred-thousand words but twelve cases and almost two-hundred suffixes, and no relation to any other European language to be found (though Hungarian shows some structural similarities). In Spain, especially in the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country, Euskadi, which has invested in public educational campaigns, the future for the language is bright, with the vast majority of children bilingual. In France, however, the future is more uncertain.
The Basques always retained some form of autonomy. They were never overcome by the Moors, and even after being subsumed into Castilla they were special granted privileges that stretched to taxation and conscription. The state started to eye greater control during the nineteenth century, when the Basque country became an industrial hub and source of greater income, and after backing the losing side in a series of uprisings known as the Carlist Wars, their historic privileges were revoked.
It was at this point that fostering resentment really develop into a call for separatism, with Sabino Arana emerging as the father of the modern nationalist movement. He founded the Basque Nationalist Party, gave the nation a name (Euskadi), wrote a national anthem, and helped design a national flag. The PNV achieved electoral successes in the early twentieth century, before the Civil War and a backlash against regional identities under Franco’s rule. The Basques were particularly harshly treated, and the resistance group ETA, whose Basque name translates as “Euskadi and Freedom,” formed to ultimately implement a bloody bombing campaign from the late sixties, reaching a pinnacle when it blew up a car carrying Franco’s anointed successor in Madrid.
Since the return to democracy, and the hardening international attitude towards terrorism, the military campaign is over, and though a split from Spain is still on the agenda it does not seem to be the priority it once was. The region is doing pretty well as it is. It is a region that has historically been among the most industrialized in Spain, and per capita GDP remains the highest in the country. But it has diversified significantly, and Bilbao was the first of the ‘minor’ cities of Spain to kick off the trend for a landmark infrastructure project with their Gugenheim Museum. Unlike many of Spains white elephants it remains a project of which the locals are proud.
Gerographically the territory is as green as neighbouring Cantabria and Asturias, but somehow on seems built on a larger scale, with the slopes longer and steeper. Driving around the interior it is seems a wonder that anyone managed to settle on these steep slopes at all. The Basques are known for their gastronomy too, and the region has spawned some of the best chefs in the world. For a region with such an extensive coastline it is hardly a surprise that the specialities are seafood, and San Sebastian in particular is renowned for the Basque version of tapas, pintxos.