The most characteristic example of civil architecture in Euskadi is the farmhouse. They are found all over the region in the mountains, valleys, villages and cities. Dotted here and there, they are one of the most emblematic images of this land. The wood and stone buildings are sturdy attractive constructions that brighten up the countryside. Close to Zumarraga, in Ezkio we find Igartubeiti, a farmhouse built in the 16th century and in an excellent state of conservation. It is home to a museum which offers an explication of all the functions of these dwellings.
Here you can also learn how to press apples and dry grass, and learn about farm life four centuries ago, what the people ate and what they produced. Expert guides lead visitors on a surprising and interesting journey back in time. It offers an interesting testimony to the past of the Basque Country, as well as a good way to understand Basque society.
Basque pelota is a popular traditional sport from Euskal Herria. Some people even claim that tennis originated from this Basque game. Two players or two teams (of two players each) are needed to play. Players take it in turns to hit a ball against a wall called a frontón, to earn a point. In many cases the balls are still hand-made, using a core of boxwood wrapped with layers of rubber and wool, followed by an outer layer of leather. The International Federation of Basque Pelota determines the type of game depending on the type of court used and the speciality depending on the different tools and rules applied in the game. The great pelotaris or pelota players receive extraordinary recognition from society. Watching them play is quite a show and it is easy to understand the admiration they evoke. This is a tough sport requiring great dexterity. Although an ancient tradition, it is kept very alive and has even been exported to other places. Cesta punta, for example, is very popular in Miami.
Every Basque village has its own fronton court where the different specialities are played:
The variations played in the trinquet court are paleta-goma, played by men and women using a rubber ball, paleta cuero, played in singles and doubles using a leather ball, barehanded pelota, and xare (or share).
In 36-metre fronton, the variants played are short bat, paleta cuero and handball (singles and doubles). Paleta goma is also played using a solid rubber ball.
The 30-metre fronton is used for frontenis (men and women) and paleta goma. The 54-metre fronton (also called long fronton or Jai Alai) is used for cesta punta, played with a long curved basket. The Gernika Jai-Alai fronton, opened in 1963, has witnessed some great matches of cesta punta, barehanded pelota and long-bat. It is one of the three most important frontons in Euskadi for cesta punta. It can hold up to 1500 spectators and schedules festivals every Monday throughout the year. It holds classes to prepare the future pelotaris of the district.
Every year, on the first and second Sunday in September, one of the most spectacular rowing competitions in the world is held in Donostia in La Concha Bay: the legendary regatta of traineras, the typical rowing boat seen on the Cantabrian Coast. Some 100,000 people gather on the hills around the bay, Urgull and Igeldo, along Paseo Nuevo, the Quay and on the island, the beaches and in every possible type of craft to watch the regattas. The spectators themselves are a sight to see as the majority are dressed in the colours of their trainera as proof of unconditional support, painting the hills, beaches and streets green, red, blue, yellow... Together the colours of the participating teams make a very special rainbow. The atmosphere is unbeatable. Before the start, the Old Town of San Sebastián is a hive of activity with bets and predictions. Leisure and fishing boats arrive in the bay to cheer on the participants, and in tribute to their mammoth effort, they sound their sirens and wave flags. The view from Mount Urgull, the favourite spot, is impressive. Locals and visitors alike share the emotions of the moment. At twelve midday, the judge signals the start.
There are two heats of the eight best traineras, and the best four times from the first day go on to form part of the heat of honour; and lastly, the classic distance of three miles is divided into two lengths with only one turn. Lively cheers are audible from all around. My hair stands on end from the energy there. Twenty minutes of constant rowing on a fixed bench, meaning that it is the lower part of the body that does the work. The tension and concentration are extraordinary and can be felt in the atmosphere. From now on, the most important thing is to try to win the Bandera de La Concha (La Concha flag), the most sought-after trophy among the rowers, their Olympic gold medal. The flag is handmade by San Sebastián’s Itziar Alduntzin, who spent 8 years honing her skills at Maruja Carballo’s workshop in calle Etxaide. The best artisan tradition for the most important trophy. The La Concha regattas were first organised in 1879 and were born out of traditions of the Basque fishing culture. Whales were fished in abundance along these coasts.
Every time a whale was seen from the hills, the alarm was raised for the fishermen to go out. It became quite a sight, watching how all the boats struggled to be the first to reach the whale. This was the seed of the competition. From the first regatta, the popularity among the spectators has turned it into an undying tradition. At the end of the regattas on the second Sunday, the boats give the winning trainera the ceremonial seafaring salute. Following the award-giving ceremony, everyone heads off to another celebration, that of the exquisite Basque Country gastronomy and wine. A perfect end for a perfect day.
Without a doubt, the wood chopping competition is one of the most spectacular sports in the world and, naturally, it is the reigning sport in the rural areas of the Basque Country. The aizkolaris, as the hardened wood-cutters are known, require a rare strength, and have a halo of mystery and determination around them. Moreover, they need to be well-prepared, both physically and mentally. Once one of them has climbed onto the trunk, there is no chance of a rest, and stress is at a maximum. The origin of this popular sport dates back to the Middle Ages, when wood-cutters and charcoal burners placed bets against each other to see who could chop a tree trunk first. Over time, it became more established and in the 19th century the competition was incorporated into the popular celebrations. Although a predominantly masculine sport, in recent years there have been some women who have picked up an axe. These include Itziar Goenaga, from Azpeitia; Kristina Saralegi, from Leitza, and Maika Ariztegi, from Ituren. An epic entertaining event is always guaranteed.
A very ancient sport, stone-lifting, is carried out by the harrijasotzailes, men and women of extraordinary strength and tenacity. Traditionally, young people at the romerías (popular pilgrimages) and local celebrations would place bets as to who was able to lift the heaviest stone. At that time, any large stone would do. Then in the 20th century, the sport was regulated and the irregular-shaped stones that had been used until then were discarded in favour of four standard forms: cylindrical, cube-shaped, spherical or a rectangular parallelepiped. The most legendary stone-lifter was Victor Zabala, 'Arteondo', who practised this sport between 1919 and 1945.
However, the great athlete who has revolutionised the sport is the charismatic Iñaki Perurena, harrijasotzaile from Navarra and record holder, lifting a 100 kg stone 1000 times continuously for 5 hours and 4 minutes. He was also the first person to lift stones weighing up to 320 kilos. However, in 2001, Mikel Saralegi, like Perurena, also from Leiza, beat this record by lifting a stone weighing 329 kilos. Some women have also been attracted to the traditionally male-dominated sport including María José Sardón, whose record is a cylindrical stone weighing 131 kilos, and Miren Urkiola, who lifted a 120 kilo stone. The challenge continues as this sport is continuously evolving.
Without a doubt, dance is one of the deepest expressions of feeling and being of a nation. Basque dance, sober, beautiful, elegant and sometimes simply spectacular, says much about the spirit of its culture. The popular Aurresku, the most characteristic ceremonial dance of Euskadi, is cloaked with elegance and solemnity and used as a tribute. But broadly speaking, the dances can be divided into three groups, all of which go back in time. The romeria dances from the romerias in the rural areas invite pilgrims and visitors to take part. The sword dances, of a commemorative and honorific nature, in which the dantzaris pay their respect. Lastly, the dances at the end of the festivities are the dances, such as those of carnival, which celebrate the end of a specific period in the year and the start of something new; they are the most spectacular and showy. Linked to the festivities, both pagan and religious, their variety is synonymous with the wealth of tradition itself. The masquerades of Zuberoa between January and April are of amazing beauty.
During Carnival, it is possible to watch beautiful dances in Beskoitze, Uztaritze or Donapaleu, in Baja Navarra and Lapurdi or the elegant entourages of Corpus in Heleta, Iholdi, Armendaritze or Itsasu. The Corpus in Oñati, the ezpata-dantza of Zumarraga or the carnival dances of Lizartza are a marvellous sight in Gipuzkoa. In Bizkaia, the dantzari-dantza of the Duranguesado, the kaixarranka of Lekeitio or the ezpata-dantza of Markina-Xemein. While in Álava the dances of Elciego, the zortziko of Gasteiz or the chain dance of Yécora are of great interest and beauty. The dantza jauziak, a very simple form of Basque dancing, danced in a circle and very slowly, is a beautiful tranquillising sight to behold. Or the mutxikoak, a dance circle open to anyone who wishes to take part in good spirits. All these dances are more than present in the Euskal Herria festivities. So be sure to check beforehand and make the most of your trip combining it with another journey to the interior of the Basque culture through dance.