The Basque Country or Euskal Herria (land of the Basque language), as the three million Basques call their nation, straddles the French-Spanish border along the western Pyrenees. Through the centuries, waves of Romans, Visigoths, Arabs, French and Spanish overran the country. But the Basques endured, often taking their traditions to the hills and forests for safekeeping.
The Basque Country covers a surface area of 20,664 square kilometres at the western end of the Pyrenees. Today it consists of seven herrialdes, or districts which, for political and administrative purposes, form part of two different European countries: Araba, Bizkaia, Gipuzkoa and Nafarroa are in Spain, and Lapurdi, Zuberoa and Benafarroa are in France.
The Basques have lived uninterruptedly in this small region since the beginnings of recorded time. By maintaining their age-old cultural traditions, and keeping their historic identity alive, the Basques provide a link with man’s distant past. Euskara, the Basque language, is probably the oldest surviving language in Europe.
Three of the Basque Country’s seven historic territories, Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, in the north of Spain, covering a total surface area of 7,233 square kilometres, are grouped together to form a political unit known as EUSKADI, or the Autonomous Community of the Basque Country. At present, more than 2.1 million people live in the Spanish side of Basque Country, giving a figure of around 300 inhabitants per square kilometre, higher than the EC average. Most people live in the larger urban areas in the northern zone.
In line with its traditions and rights, the Basque Country is a type of confederation in which each of the three Historic Territories, Araba, Bizkaia and Gipuzkoa, has its own administration, known as the Diputación Foral, or Provincial Council, and its legislative body, the Juntas Generales, or General Assembly. Vitoria-Gasteiz is the capital of Araba (Alava in Spanish), Bilbao the capital of Bizkaia (Vizcaya) and San Sebastián the capital of Gipuzkoa (Guipúzcoa).
Over the centuries, the Basques have produced a number of great men who have left their mark on history: men like Juan Sebastian Elcano, first man to sail around the world between 1519 and 1521; Urdaneta and Legazpi, pioneers of the Pacific route between Mexico and the Philippines; Juan de Garay, founder of Buenos Aires; Simon Bolivar, liberator of much of colonial South America; Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits; and Francisco of Vitoria, one of the forefathers of international law, and the Navarran Francisco de Javier.
Like their more famous counterparts, many other Basques, often simple fishermen, left traces of themselves and their work in far-flung places like Newfoundland and Canada, and discovered fishing-grounds off Greenland, Iceland and Spitzberg, possibly before Columbus ‘officially’ discovered the American continent.
A profound respect for traditional values is an essential feature of life in the Basque Country. The Basques have maintained strong links with their immediate environment, the sea and the soil. The two elements have played an important role in shaping the Basque way of life, their distinctive culture and their sports and games.
Set in one of the world’s more temperate zones, the Basque Country has a wonderfully mild climate with few extremes of temperature or weather conditions when the seasons change. The climate, the influence of the sea, and an attractive mixture of villages, mountains, hills and abundant greenery, all make the Basque Country a place of natural surprises.
Plentiful rain waters a naturally fertile terrain spread out on either side of the western prolongation of the Pyrenees, which divides the Basque Country into two different microclimates and social areas.The more northerly microclimate is a thin stretch of land overlooking the Bay of Biscay. This part of the Basque Country has long been witness to the arduous, fruitful and at times dangerous relationship between man and the sea. It has also helped to shape some major cities and towns, giving rise to much business, industrial and financial activity. The southern half of the Basque Country has a Mediterranean microclimate: the rains drain off into the Ebro river after fertilising an area full of wide open spaces. The area as a whole, much less affected by urban development, is more agricultural than the northern part; smaller, more isolated villages abound.
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