Arriving in the Basque Country, I realise that I know nothing about their culture other than they speak a different language. Luckily, in Bayonne, there is a Basque Museum which seems the perfect opportunity to do a little research before I travel further into the region.
The Basque Museum is like Dr Who’s Tardis. Situated in Petit Bayonne, on the east bank of the River Nive, it is a cavernous 16th century house with well laid out displays of Basque life. There’s a lot of heavy, dark wood furniture, colourful costumes and naval exhibits, but I am more interested in the food.
It doesn’t surprise me that the Basques are good farmers. Cattle are used to plough the fields, sheep are reared for their wool and the milk from both is used to produce cheese. Ham traditionally comes from the black pigs and migrating birds are trapped in nets or knocked out mid-flight with table-tennis shaped wooden bats. Cider is also produced from the apples and matured in barrels of oak felled in the local forests. I am surprised to find how popular chocolate is here. First mentioned in 1670 as being imported from Mexico, the area in now awash with chocolatiers. I find another Mexican import a few days later in the mountain village of Espelette, where chilli is grown and used in a variety of products such mustard, jam, biscuits, liqueurs and, of course, chocolate.
Basque culture reminds me a lot of Scotland and Ireland. Their music is based on drums and pipes, while their dancing is quite balletic with their feet moving as fast as a production of Riverdance. They also have dancing akin to traditional English Morris dancing with smacking sticks and waving ribbons. In sport, as well, they have feat of strength, not unlike the Scottish highland games, with tug-of-war, weightlifting and chopping through tree trunks.
And then there is Pelota – the national game. It is a complicated and dangerous sport and I find out more after a visit to the Museum of Pelota in St Pee-sur-Nivelle. There are several types of court of varying length. The smallest indoor court is very similar to that of real tennis at Hampton Court Palace, while the outdoor court is a huge marked area in front of a large arch-shaped wall. Teams of two or three play each other using a variety of bats/gloves and a hard ball made of wool and leather. The way in which the leather is stitched is similar to a baseball ball. I was unable to watch a live game but videos in the museum certainly created the excitement of a local contest. Unfortunately, despite all my attempts to educate myself, I still don’t have a clue about the rules and have no idea who is winning.