THE BASQUE COUNTRY
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
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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