Sun, Shadow, and Reflection in Euzkadi

Travel memoir


Dan Harvey Pedrick

(First published in Spanish in "Centauro" magazine, Mexico City, 1995, © 1993)

The Rain in Spain falls mainly on the Basque Country--a meteorological fact that little bothers the hordes of summering Europeans who traditionally flee the sweltering heat of such places as Madrid and Paris for the northern coast of Iberia. Often their destination is the city of San Sebastián and the sandy beaches lining the shores of its exquisite La Concha Bay. There, visitors find a respite in a land of timeless beauty, and are met by a people of indomitable character and charm. But the shadows presently emanating from this place of legendary natural splendour and timeworn elegance are more ominous than any caused by the frequent moist clouds rolling in off the Bay of Biscay. They are shadows of a still unresolved conflict a century and a half old, casting a pall of worry and consternation over the entire young democracy of Spain and part of neighbouring France as well as the new European Community.

Local lore has it that the modern pastime of devoting one's hours to worshipping sun, sand, and surf was invented here. The young Queen Isabel II, later driven from her throne amid accusations of being an incorrigible sybarite, took some of her first doses of pleasure in this way on the advice of her court physicians, beginning in 1845. Bathing in the sea was prescribed for the teen-aged monarch as a way to alleviate a bothersome skin condition. We might well presume that the treatment was a success, for soon the whole of aristocratic Europe was flocking to the very same stretch of sand to frolic where the young queen frolicked, and to build more than a few palaces.

The topless naiads on the same beaches today would be amused to consider what Queen Isabel and her contemporaries of like gender had to endure to avoid offending their society's image of female modesty. A huge, wheeled bathhouse was driven into the water carrying the determined bather inside. From her lumbering, ox-drawn boudoir, she would descend a small ladder into the sea-- virtually fully clothed still--before returning to its confines to be wheeled back up above the tide-mark. At one point the young queen tried a state-of-the-art steam driven model, but even this contraption was not enough to save her reputation. In 1868, Isabel II was obliged to move to the more permissive beaches of nearby Biarritz, but left the city of San Sebastián on a roll to tourism fame that would survive modern Europe's greatest cataclysms.

By 1890, San Sebastián was considered by the elite society of La belle epoch to be on a par with Monte Carlo. By then, the bitter memory of the century's early Peninsular War days that had seen the place sacked and burned by the British in 1813 was all but forgotten. During the period of 1914-1918, the city's Gran Casino was the scene of many a fortune won and lost in attempts to forget the horror of the Great War in progress only hundreds of miles away. In 1924, Francisco Franco's dictatorial precursor, General Primo de Rivera, scandalized by what he regarded as the growing and potentially contagious decadence of the town and its high- rolling denizens, decreed the closure of its famed gambling palaces.

Twelve years later, and less than a century after Isabel the Second's first trend-setting dip in the surf, the troubles in Spain broke out into full-scale civil war with the Basques ending up on the losing side. Franco chastised the Basque Country severely, allowing his Nazi supporters to utterly destroy the neighbouring city of Guernika in history's first aerial bombardment of a civilian population. But San Sabastián lucked out with only some minor skirmishes. Afterwards, the long days of Franco's absolute dictatorship saw the resort city once again promoted as a summer holiday destination, although in a mannner considerably more subdued in tone than in previous times. - -

Before the advent of tourism, vocations of a much more exciting nature had been the occupations of the industrious people of Spain's Basque provinces. Numerous Basques were counted among the mariners and conquistadors who opened up the lands of Spain's new American Empire. By the seventeenth century, sophisticated, educated, and ambitious Basques were moving into the conquered American territories in ever greater numbers to consolidate, administrate, and profit from the gains of their daring and flamboyant predecessors. Basques rose to many positions of authority and influence throughout the Spanish Empire, in government, church, and private enterprise--all of which were deeply intertwined.

No better example of Basque political skill and acumen can be found than in the way the people became associated with Castille and later, a united Spain. In the fourteenth century, the Basques comprised a group of sovereign feudal duchies with a common language, i.e., dialects of the idiom known as Euskera. In the innumerable wars of the period among the various kingdoms of northern Spain, a set of circumstances developed with the result that the mostly independent Basque territories (except Navarre) were voluntarily incorporated into the Castilian Kingdom of Enrique II in 1379.

The accord that accomplished this alliance delivered considerable benefit to both sides: Enrique got the loyalty and support of the fierce Basques who would act as a buffer between Castille and the rival kingdom of Navarre. The Basques got even more. Among other things, all of their ancient traditions and statutes, the Fueros, were to be respected as law. Indeed, that the king of Castille would defend these to the death was written right into the agreement and in such compelling terms that no Castilian monarch could even be crowned who had not first sworn to uphold the Fueros under the Sacred Oak of Guernika. But the real sweetheart clause for the Basques was the one which bestowed the rank of nobility on every last man jack of them of them (sorry, ladies). This distinction was granted partly owing to the Fueros, and partly in grateful recognition of the fact that--in the case of the provinces of Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya at least--they had never allowed themselves to be conquered by the dreaded Moors.

The fact of their noble status contributed greatly to the commercial successes of Basques in the seventeenth century. Their enhanced position in Spanish society fast-tracked them to positions of power and privilege not granted to the vast majority of citizens from other parts of Spain. For this reason, the plucky Basques were often regarded with unquiet jealousy and resentment by many other Spaniards. Like the Sephardic Jews of an earlier Spain, they got where they were going by their own natural talent and shrewd business sense. But unlike the ill-fated Sephardim, they were Christians of unquestionable piety, and so there was no basis for attacking them as heretics.

The Basques kept their part of the bargain with Castille and for nearly five centuries they remained loyal to the Castilian kings, making contributions of inestimable value to Spain's globe girdling imperial enterprises. What finally caused the relationship to unravel was the matter of just who the king of Castille (or queen, as it were) should be.

When King Fernando VII died in 1833, the controversial policy of denying women accession to the crown suddenly became the hot topic of the day. The dead king's brother Carlos decided he could not bear the thought of his toddling two-year old niece (the beach bunny Isabella II of later years) ruling the country. Invoking the principle of Salic Law (which upheld the idea that only males could rule), Carlos promptly declared himself the rightful heir to the throne and called upon his supporters to take up arms and make it so. The Basques, in a rare and fateful example of bad judgement and worse luck, supported Carlos in a series of conflicts known as the Carlist Wars, the last of which they lost along with their beloved Fueros in 1874.

In the bitterness left by this defeat, Basque nationalism seethed and swelled as the rest of Spain continued to drift--politically, economically, and socially--towards the chaos that finally overwhelmed it completely in the fourth decade of the twentieth century. After the bloodbath that was the Spanish Civil War and the utter defeat of all opposition forces to his takeover in 1939, Generalisimo Francisco Franco kept his hobnail boot planted firmly in the neck of this renascent bloom of Basque independence until his death in 1975.

This climate of repression spurred a small group of Basque university students in Bilbao to form a revolutionary cadre known as Euzkadi ta Askatasuna (Basque Homeland and Freedom). The party was founded on July 31, 1959, the saint's day of the patron of the Basque Country, Ignatius of Loyola. The cadre's leaders spent the first decade of their party's existence trying to avoid detection by Franco's ubiquitous secret police while refining a coherent ideology that defined their objectives and a strategy that could achieve their goals. By the long hot summer of 1968, when revolutionary fervor was boiling over in almost every university worthy of the name in the Western World, the phase of ideological debate for the cadre was concluded. From then on, ETA's chosen strategy would be armed struggle and the waging of revolutionary war.

First blood drawn by ETA was the successful attempt on the life of a hated Franco police inspector named Melitón Manzanas, in August. True to form, the response from the Francoist government was ferocious. The entire Basque Country was placed under a state of siege for many months, and thousands of Basques were jailed, tortured, exiled, and eventually sentenced to many years in prison. ETA was very nearly destroyed by this campaign, but managed to survive and regenerate itself enough to strike again in 1973, pulling off the stunning assassination of Spanish Premier Luis Carrero Blanco. Two more years of intense reprisals followed before the death of Franco set the stage for an entirely new direction in Spanish politics.

The post-Franco Spanish constitution of 1978 enshrined the principle of regional home rule through the institution of the Autonomous Community. These institutions were originally intended to correspond to the three historical regions of Spain that had enjoyed some sort of autonomy before the Civil War: Catalonia, Galicia, and Euzkadi (the Spanish Basque provinces). Nevertheless, soon after these first three regions acquired their own autonomous institutions, the leaders of Andalucía demanded and received a similar regime. More petitions followed from the rest of the country and by May of 1983, this system of autonomous communities covered Spain's entire mainland territory.

The rise of democracy in Spain was a surprise to many, especially promulgated as it was by none other than Franco protegé‚ Juan Carlos de Borbón, who, after the death of El Caudillo, became Spain's first king since his grandfather Alfonso XIII fled the country in 1933 in the turmoil preceeding the Civil War. That Juan Carlos was anything but Franco's own man was made abundantly clear to the astonished Basques when he made his oaths under the sacred oak tree of Guernika. At the same time he vowed to defend the principle of regional autonomy, although stopping well short of re-establishing the ancient Fueros.

In 1982, when some Francoist officers of the still hated Guardia Civil tried to pull a coup d'etat, the liberal king left no one in doubt as to his commitment to the principles of freedom and democracy. Taking to the airwaves, he rallied public opposition to the rebels, saving the fledgling democracy from a return to a police state. With the election of Felipe Gonzales in 1983, Spain's government became a socialist one and the old ETA revolutionary philosophy found itself increasingly co-opted and up-staged by the new policies coming out of Madrid. With this un- precendented and unexpected development, popular Basque support for ETA and its radical platform began to wane.

In a better world, interest in violent opposition to Madrid henceforth might have been seen by the radicals as no longer necessary. The surviving soldiers of ETA could have congratulated themselves on their victorious struggle, and the boundless energies and talents of the people of what is arguably Europe's oldest surviving culture could have gone on to concentrate without distraction on the pressing economic problems associated with a new world order and the challenging prospect of European unity. Such irrepressible idealism, inherent in the philosophy of socialism, may be what inspired the Gonzalez government to hold out the olive branch of reconciliation once more to the militant Basque nationalists after being returned for yet another term in the May 1993 elections.

The response of ETA to the Government's gesture was swift and cruel. In June, a car bomb in rush hour Madrid left eight people dead, including a young boy. A couple of weeks later, a prominent business executive from San Sebastián was kidnapped as he returned home to celebrate his child's birthday. Spanish police have blamed ETA for both actions--the first an unequivocal rejection of the principle of peaceful negotiation, and the second, according to many sources, an attempt to extort money--"war taxes", as they call it--from a community ever less inclined to offer voluntary financial support.

ETA has not denied the accusations. There is, however, a growing perception among many observers that the organization is in disarray, beset by internal rivalries and squabbling, and above all, desperately short of funds. Making matters worse for the terrorist group is the recent crackdown by the French government on Spanish Basque fugitives living within its borders. Lately the French have been rounding them up and delivering them wholesale to Spanish authorities. Previously the fugitives had enjoyed a safe haven in France, so long as they violated no French laws. Furthermore, it would seem that the business of promoting the notion of "Basque Homeland and Freedom" is, like so many other enterprises these days, beset by fierce competition. From the radical but legal party Herri Batasuna (accused by many moderates to be at worst the political wing of ETA and at best a shameless tacit supporter of ETA's terrorism which it refuses to publicy condemn), to the more conservative Basque National Party (PNV) and other business-oriented groups promoting Basque independence only within the context of constitutional reform, the people of Euzkadi have a potpourri of political groups with which to align themselves. But many Basques have simply grown tired of the whole confusing mess and would simply prefer to get on with business of living their lives in the peace that is still not quite within their grasp.

Although the Gonzalez government has certainly made some very substantial attempts to negotiate a solution to this problem, it also stands accused of serious human rights abuses regarding the six hundred or so ETA suspects it has detained over the years. Guaranteeing the humane treatment of these people as well as allowing them to be visited by family members could deprive ETA of yet another issue that can still rile the blood of many Basques, but on this the Spanish government has been slow to act. In the meantime, as long as political prisoners and acts of terrorism are used as bargaining chips in a game for political power between ETA and Madrid, the people of Euzkadi and of Spain will probably have to continue to endure the personal heartbreak and pain that these inhumane methods produce for some time to come. - - -

The summertime streets of San Sebastián (or Donostia as its natives call it) are rivalled only by the adjacent beaches for the level of sheer bustling human activity they support. Even at dawn or in the wee hours of the night, neither venue is ever completely without a population of individuals determinedly putting those features to their best use. The ancient cobblestone streets of the Old Town are daily thronged with pedestrians, to the exclusion of cars. Tourists, to be sure, swell the human tide considerably but never manage to squeeze the locals out of their customary runways. Hundreds of tiny bars and cafes spill out onto summer sidewalks where the daily flow of passers-by shuffles seats and tables in a continuous game of musical chairs.

Demographically, this panorama of humanity on the streets of San Sebastián is broad. Distinguished looking elderly gentlemen in oversize Basque berets non-chalantly rub elbows with young families and their small children, or even with green-haired kids sporting nose rings. Numerous street musicians, ranging from classical guitarists to Peruvian pipe bands, are eagerly patronized by young and old. Only the graffitti is monotonous: ETA, ETA, ETA.

The beaches are a festival of pleasure-seeking that would do Isabel II proud. The crowd consists of the same folks as are on the streets, only with less clothing. Sometimes on the finer days, the crush is so replete that it is all one can do to find enough room to spread a towel. Still it is friendly, comfortable, lovely.

The scale of La Concha Bay is small; the surf is gentle, the water warm. Framed by the city's ancient citadel on the east, and by Mount Igeldo on the western side, the waters can be easily traversed by a swimmer of moderate ability. Like the busy adjacent streets, the bay supports a bustling flow of traffic: a floating myriad of swimmers, kayakers, and windsurfers. In the mouth of the bay, the islet of St. Claire juts out of the azure sea like an emerald, fastened in its setting by a ring of frothy filigree. At low tide it barely retains its insularity, becoming accessible to waders.

Looking northeastward from atop the surrounding hills, one can, on any reasonably clear day, see well up along the French coast to Biarritz and beyond. Summer sunsets across the Bay of Biscay are a regular spectacle much enjoyed by the multitudes on the beach areas and their adjacent walkways. They are perhaps even better appreciated from the quiet heights of Mt. Igeldo, where the perspective of small nightly gatherings of young people is elevated even more, one supposes, by the blended smoke of kif and tobacco wafting on the evening air.

Amaia Zubillaga prefers the greater altitude and solitude of nearby Mount Ulia for relaxation and quiet reflection. "Not many people come up here because there's no bus service," she says. "The road is so narrow, it's rather dangerous, but the view is the best. I come up here whenever I can." Amaia speaks English with a New Jersey accent, the result of a year as an au pair girl with an American family. She was so determined in her effort to achieve fluency in English that she refused to date a young Cuban admirer she met there unless he addressed her exclusively in that tongue. He still writes, always in English. "I had all my high school in Euskera," twenty year old Amaia says. "We speak Spanish at home, and now I'm taking German classes three hours a day."

Amaia's successes in her pursuit of language mastery are remarkable, even among the natural linguists that are her fellow Europeans. But then, the Basques have traditionally been over- achievers who often go un-recognized for their feats. Take native son Juan Sebastián de Elcano, for example. I was always taught that Magellan was the first person to circumnavigate the globe, but here I learn that it was his first officer, de Elcano, who actually led the decimated Magellan expedition back to Spain against enormous odds. In the neighbouring seaside fishing village of Getaria, he is commemorated by a well worn stone in the floor of the local church where he was baptized. His bones, like those of many other intrepid Basque mariners, lie on the bottom of the sea.

A few valleys beyond Getaria, in Azpeitia, lie the bones of Saint Ignatius of Loyola, whose Jesuit order founded in 1540 has more than once been suppressed by papal authority. Now some recalcitrant Jesuits are inviting it again by suggesting publicly that artificial birth control should not be arbitrarily condemned.

Another un-sung Basque hero from San Sebastián was Catalina de Erauso, a pioneering transexual of the seventeenth century. At the age of fifteen she fled the local Dominican convent where she was about to take orders and made her way to the new world, convincing everyone she met along the way (including herself) that she was a man. After more than twenty years of playing "quién es más macho?" with sword and cape, she finally convinced Spanish authorities and even the Pope to sanction her outrageous lifestyle.

Later we come down from the quiet heights of Mount Ulia and walk through the streets of town to seek out a reasonably quiet cafe. "See that word?" Amaia points to a sign in Euskera over a shop. I look up but I can't even pronounce it on the first try. "Tchintchitola," says Amaia, rendering the harsh looking string of consonants into soft and sonorous onomatopeia, typifying the essential charm of the Basque language. "That means butterfly," she adds with a sympathetic smile at my perplexed expression.

Confounding to genealogists of linguistic families, Euskera is apparently unrelated to any other tongue. With roots much deeper than history, its origins are as obscure as the Basques themselves, whose occupancy of the region is evidenced to extend well back into neolithic times by the existence of a good many verifiably Basque stone artifacts. Certain Basque words even seem to date back to the stone age. The terms in Euskera for most sharp- edged instruments, for example, actually incorporate the prefix aitz, meaning stone. "Old words are wise words," goes a Basque proverb. Interestingly, there is no true word in Euskera for Heaven or Hell--or, for that matter, King or Queen--suggesting a people who are at heart pagans and democrats.

Similarly confounded are the rare foreigners who attempt to learn this formidable idiom. The greatest of the many difficulties they face is the existence of no less than eight different dialects. Of these the Middle Ages scholar Scaliger remarked, "They say they understand each other but I don't believe it!" A less frustrated French writer, Henri Gavel, described the Basque tongue in this century as, "...a very fine language... a very simple language, and one most suited to poetry."

The rich mythology of Euskal Herría (the entire Basque region of Spain and France) is as ancient as its speech. Dissolving back into the mists of time from the point where their known history leaves off, legends, tales, and fables use themes of magic, supernatural beings, and witchcraft to explain the Basque people to themselves. Much of this lore survives in the form of folk songs, often accompanied by the "txirula" (a sort of fife) and the drum.

A unique cultural tradition of the Basques is that of bertsos, a contest of words played with the same competitiveness and pitiless speed as their more well known game of handball. On the borderline between performing art and sport, this pastime serves to exercise and invigorate the mellifluent language of Euskera, while conditioning the minds of its respected practitioners (the bertsulariak) to maintain an extraordinary degree of alertness and readiness of wit. Essentially it is ritualized argument, conducted in melody and rhyme. It requires poetic talent, a sophisticated and subtle sense of humour, and the ability to think--sing!--on one's feet. In its most contentious forms it is a game played to win, with the vanquished left in devastation and the winners reaching for immortality. It is certainly amusing to imagine nations settling disputes in this disarming way, leaving dejected generals and politicians discomfited for want of one more line of good poetry.

The next day we go for a ride on "The Mole", the narrow gauge railway that runs between the French Basque town of Hendaye and the city of Bilbao on the Spanish coast. The line is so named because of the many long tunnels along its route. Emerging above ground in the towns of Pasajes and Irún, the Basque flag is much in evidence hanging from the windows and balconies of many working class apartments. The graffiti is even more copious here, screaming in-your-face of murder and revenge. The facial expressions of the local inhabitants are more serious, pained even. I wonder if this is a reaction from reading such grafitti or from creating it?

But in spite of the clearly evident tensions in the Basque Country, there is a widespread feeling of guarded optimism about the future--that the worst is past and the violence is winding down. "It will take some time yet," says local professor and historian Jos‚ Ignacio Tellechea, "as a new generation of people born in a democracy matures and decides what is really important. As that happens, peace will come."

I want to share Tellechea's optimistic vision of the future, but I wonder how much things depend on the currently diminishing wave of the prosperity that came after the death of Franco. The Basque Country, like the rest of Europe and the world, is currently awash in economic uncertainty, and its political future hangs in the balance. A recent hopeful sign, however, was seen on September 11, 1993, when approximately 80,000 people took to the streets of San Sebastián in the city's largest ever political demonstration to condemn the abduction of Julio Iglesias Zamora and other terrorist acts perpetrated by ETA. On October 29, following 117 days in captivity and a ransom payment to ETA of approximately 5 million dollars, Zamora was released unharmed and re-united with his family. The search for the kidnappers is continuing. - - - -

Leaving the steep green hills of Euskal Herría behind, we cross the Ebro into Castille and Leon on our way back to sultry Madrid. Physically, the borders of the Basque Country are unmistakable, marking the territory of an ancient realm which may have been invaded and occupied many times, but never conquered. I cannot shake the notion of just how much these Basques remind me of Tolkein's Elves: noble, musical, brave, beautiful; the oldest surviving culture in Europe; a language older than history. Their archeological heritage suggests they were once the neighbours of the Neanderthals. Survivors? They wrote the book. In stone.

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