Monday, June 09, 2008

Euskal Herria Beyond Iruñea

This article comes to us via North Shore News:

Beyond Pamplona

Jon Azpiri
North Shore News

Sunday, June 08, 2008

PAMPLONA, Spain: You can blame Ernest Hemingway. Thanks to his seminal 1926 novel The Sun Also Rises, the Fiesta de San Fermín in Pamplona has gone from a small local event to a worldwide phenomenon.

The book, which chronicles the exploits of so-called Lost Generation as they try to find themselves while travelling through Europe, has inspired countless young foreigners to take part in the Running of the Bulls, an adrenaline-filled and sometimes bloody rite of passage where revelers run alongside charging bulls down the narrow cobble-stoned streets of the Basque city.

Hemingway returned to Pamplona in 1959 and felt that it had become a victim of its own success. "I've written Pamplona once and for keeps," he wrote in a later book, The Dangerous Summer. "It is all there as it always was except forty thousand tourists have been added. There were not 20 tourists when I first went there nearly four decades ago. Now on some days they say there are close to a hundred thousand in the town.''

Indeed, Hemingway's writing helped draw untold thousands of visitors to the Basque city. His description of San Fermín makes it seem like a singular experience that can't be found anywhere else in the world. What most travellers to Pamplona never discover is that San Fermín is hardly unique. During the summer, there are numerous weekend festivals throughout the Basque Country bordering France that also feature all the music, wine, and machismo that made Pamplona famous.

For most young Basques, nightlife doesn't consist of hitting a local pub or nightclub. Instead, they head out to a nearby town for an all-night street party. The activity is so common that the Basques even have a word for it: gaupasa, which means to party until sunrise.

Most festivals in the Basque Country were originally intended as a celebration of a town's patron saint, although it's hard these days to find much in the way of pious spirituality. Instead, the festivals revolve around several days of music, dance, sports, and plenty of kalimotxo -- a Basque concoction that consists of equal parts red wine and Coca-Cola. There's plenty of food as well: groups of friends get together to cook large paellas that they share with passers-by along with homemade sangria, which is often served out of a large garbage can.

A couple of weeks after festivities wrap up in Pamplona, the Fiesta de la Madalena signals the start of the summer festival season in the Basque province of Vizcaya, located on the Bay of Biscay, 100 kilometres to the northwest. The festival revolves around the nearby island of Izaro, which was once the centre of a battle between the neighbouring towns of Bermeo and Mundaka. Both towns laid claim to the island and the dispute was settled in a typically Basque way: a boat race.

On July 22, 1919, the two towns held a regatta to decide which town would get the rights and since then the inhabitants of Bermeo have organized an annual a torch-lit convoy of boats there to commemorate their victory and re-stake their claim. Surprisingly, no one in the rival town of Mundaka is particularly broken up about the loss. This laid-back surfing town, with reputedly one of the longest left breaks in the world, parties just as hard as its former rival.

The nearby town of Elantxobe had nothing to do with the battle over Izaro, but celebrates its patron saint, María Magdalena, on the same day as the regatta; so they join in the party. Like most Basque festivals, Las Madalenas seems to take up every square inch of public space in Elantxobe, a fishing village precipitously located on a slope overlooking Cape Ogoño.

In the town harbour, rows of makeshift snack bars serve kalimotxo as well as chorizo, tortilla, and blood sausage, and there's plenty of entertainment ranging from punk rock to traditional Basque folk music complete with accordions, flutes, and tambourines. Others entertain themselves by watching inebriated party-goers trying to make their way down the town's steep cobble-stoned streets without falling on their faces.

A few weeks later, the town of Guernica (spelled Gernika in Basque), 14 km inland from Elantxobe has its Fiesta de Andra Mari. Guernica is considered to be the spiritual capital of the Basque people but is best-known world-wide as the target of a 1937 aerial attack by the Luftwaffe. This was the inspiration for Pablo Picasso's most famous work, Guernica, which has come to symbolize the horrors of armed conflict.

Walking through Guernica during its fiesta in August, it's now difficult to picture this sunny town as the location for one of the world's most notorious war crimes. The streets are lined with lively cafes and restaurants that brim over with patrons during the fiesta. The local jai alai court is also packed as fans watch the ancient Basque game where players hurl a rubber ball against a wall using a curved wicker basket attached to one hand. The tournament during Andra Mari is considered one of the world's best. At night, locals take to the town's windy streets in costumes for a night of Halloween-like festivities. The only image that most of the world has of Guernica is that of Picasso's stark black-and-white mural, but during the Fiesta of Andra Mari, you can't help but be overwhelmed by colour.

One of the biggest festivals to mark the end of summer is the Fiesta de San Antolín in Lekeitio, a fishing village 25 km northeast of Guernica near the Bay of Biscay. geographical hint. Like many other festivals, Lekeitio's September celebration features a strongman competition based on the Basque rural tradition. Contests consist of cutting tree trunks with crosscut saws, spinning around 360 kg horse carts, and a relay race where the runners carry 80 kg sacks of corn rather than a baton. There are also countless other competitions that involve lifting everything from boulders, anvils, and bales of hay.

On September 5, thousands of people gather around the waterfront to watch competitors as they hang off a dead goose while being dunked into the town harbour. A long rope is suspended from the harbourside to the mast of a boat, then teams of men in small rowboats position themselves beneath it and one designated person grabs the goose and jumps off the boat. Those at the harbour's edge then whip the rope up and down, repeatedly dunking the man into the water from a height of more than ten metres.

For those who think that hanging off a rope is hardly a substitute for the visceral thrills of Pamplona, there's always the Fiesta de San Roque in Deba, Gipuzkoa, a coastal town 20 km east of Lekeitio. The small seaside town is one of many outside Pamplona that also offer you the chance to get trampled by a bull in the middle of the street.

But one thing you won't have to worry about is getting trampled by other tourists. Like Pamplona during Hemingway's time, there likely won't be more than 20 foreigners in the entire town.

If you go:

The Basque Country is located in the Pyrenees Mountains that straddle the border of France and northern Spain. Bilbao, the largest city in the region, has daily flights from London and Madrid, or is a four-hour drive from the Spanish capital. Other festivals include:

Aste Nagusia -- Bilbao (August 16-24). The city shuts down for an entire week to celebrate "Big Week". As its name suggests, the festival offers everything a regular fiesta would but on a much larger scale with more than 100,000 revelers partying in the streets of the Basque country's largest city.

Tolosako Iñauteriak --Tolosa (April-May). Something like a Mardi Gras in reverse, this festival takes place 40 days after Easter. It even has its own "Fat Thursday" to kick off six days of intense partying, including a wild parade held on Sunday. The festival ends the following Tuesday with the Asteartita, or "Burial of the Sardine."

Barte Fiestain -- Larrea (July 4). While Americans celebrate their independence, this town in the province of Alava celebrates a loaf of bread. The festival revolves around the old legend of how a Larrea local sold the people from the neighbouring village of Ermua an image of St. Martin in ex-change for a loaf of bread known as a barte. During the festival, people from Larrea head to the church to visit St. Martin. After mass, they break bread with their neighbours and party until dawn.

Note: Iruñea is the Basque name for Pamplona, so, where it reads "Pamplona, Spain" it should read instead "Iruñea, Euskal Herria".

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