SPAIN: AT BREAKING POINT? A political and economic analysis for 2013 IBERIANS OF THE YEAR: The most influential people and groups of 2012


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Retreading a Basque past in three dimensions

Journalist and author Paddy Woodworth returns to the Basque Country in a different role.


“Anyone who approaches the Basques without prejudices will find them of great interest, not as an exception among the other races in the world, but as a living museum of man’s history, where one can understand and see what remains of an ancient Europe, now disappeared from other regions, but which is still alive in this peaceful corner of the Pyrenees.”

So wrote British author Rodney Gallop, in his 1930 study of the Basque Country. In the eight decades since, much may have changed in the region, but its allure for foreign intellectuals has refused to dim, with the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Orson Welles and American writer Mark Kurlansky, all falling under its spell.

Irish writer Paddy Woodworth is firmly in this tradition. He has visited and covered the region as a journalist since the mid-seventies. A former editor at The Irish Times, he has written two acclaimed books on this corner of Western Europe: Dirty War, Clean Hands, an account of GAL, the government-sponsored death squads that sought to wipe out ETA; and The Basque Country: A Cultural History, an overview of the region, from its literature and gastronomy to the violence that continues to cast a shadow over it.

Woodworth has now embarked on another project bringing him back to the Basque Country: organizing and guiding tours which attempt to give visitors more than the usual outsider’s glimpse of the region.

“What I found exciting is the idea of taking people to places that you love and attempting to interpret them,” Woodworth tells Iberosphere. “To an extent that’s what you do when you’re writing, but the idea of doing it in three dimensions seemed very attractive.”

The tours will show travellers many of the traditions commonly associated with the Basques, such as dancing, the running of bulls and, of course, cuisine. The visits include the Navarran town of Lesaka, the Pyrenean village of Etxelar, known for its “solar” headstones, and Sare in France, the cradle of Basque literature. In the evenings, Woodworth will draw on his knowledge of the area to deliver historical talks to the visitors, while his partner in the venture, Jon Warren, will organise the gastronomic side of the tour.

“I’m fascinated by the areas where people step out of the stereotypes and that’s what I’d like to do with the whole tour – whatever people think about the Basque Country when they arrive, that will be challenged in many ways,” Woodworth says.

Perhaps partly because this part of Spain is less known to the outside world than the more obvious tourist hotbeds such as Andalusia or the east coast, it retains an aura of mystery and is often romanticised by outsiders, who might idealise everything from its architecture to its armed conflict. Woodworth knows the draw as well as anyone.

“It is a very romantic place and some of its traditions are indeed very extraordinary and it has preserved its traditions better than other places in Iberia,” he says. “If you move south from the Basque Country into Castille you will find that yes, there are still village fiestas but they are not celebrated with the elaborate attention to detail of the tradition that almost every Basque village seems to have. And the fact that this non-Indo-European language was plonked down in the middle of Europe, the idea that Basques might have been in their own place for longer than any other ethnic group in Europe – those ideas may be open to challenge but they are fascinating and they certainly excite people.”

A region’s dark side

And yet, casting a shadow over the beauty of the Basque Country’s towns and landscapes and the richness of its culture is the reality of ETA’s ongoing campaign for independence. That campaign has been relatively muted in recent months, with no successful attacks and plenty of arrests, but violence and political division are still an ongoing undercurrent to life here.

Woodworth insists he won’t attempt to shield visitors from this element of Basque history, which he himself is so familiar with, although he is all too aware of the potential pitfalls of trying to explain it.

“It’s very difficult to make any statement about the Basque Country – even where it is geographically – without appearing to come down on one side or another of a very deep political divide. What I’ve tried to do as a writer is to understand, rather than take sides. I’ve tried to understand both sides of that divide and make both of them transparent to the reader.”

And of course, fathoming the truth about the Basques and their remarkable land is a task that remains as challenging today as it was when Gallop first set foot there.

For more information about Paddy Woodworth and Jon Warren’s tours of the Basque Country:


Published: May 3 2010
Category: Culture
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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