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Posted by on Dec 12, 2012 in Basque Country, Blog | 19 comments

10 Things You May Not Know About Basques and Basque Country

10 Things You May Not Know About Basques and Basque Country

My move from Andalucía to País Vasco has been a complete 180. Not only did I trade in year-round sunshine for chilly, wet weather, but I went from a place that speaks a heavily accented form of Spanish (Andalú) to a region where many don’t even speak Spanish (they speak Basque)! Since I’ve visited Basque Country before, I was prepared for the differences–and have only become more enamored with the Basque history and culture; there’s really nothing quite like it!

Here are some things I’ve learned as a result of my time in Basque Country:

  1. The Basque language is Euskara and it is the oldest European language. Along with Spanish, it is the co-official language of Basque Country and Navarre. It’s unrelated to any other language in the world–known as a language isolate and is traced back to a language spoken 20,000 years ago in Europe. Euskara is now seeing a huge revival after it was outlawed by Franco during his dictatorship.
  2. Basques have their own version of Santa Claus, called Olentzero; a giant Basque wearing a txapela (beret) on his head bearing gifts on Christmas Day. Families leave him wine instead of milk and cookies and he doesn’t live in the north pole; but rather the mountains of Basque Country.
  3. Basque Country is both French and Spanish, and neither at the same time. Though this is a politically charged topic, many Basques identify more with being Basque than with being Spanish (or French.) The Basque people are really their own people, as DNA analysis projects have proven their genetic makeup to have different traits than their non-Basque neighbors. Basque Country includes three provinces in Spain and two in France, while many consider Navarre a part of Euskadi as well (though other disagree.)
  4. All traffic signs (and many more including signs in the grocery store, restaurants, etc.) are in both Spanish and Euskara. More often than not, Euskara is listed first.
  5. Basque has it’s own typeface; seen on restaurant signs, shops, hotels and more around the region.
  6. Athletic Bilbao, the first division football (soccer) team reigning from the Vizcayan capital doesn’t allow non-Basques to play on its team. Also, the team has never been relegated to second division. In Spain’s first division, the top three bottom teams are sent to play in second division, while the top three teams of second division are moved up. They hold this title with only F.C. Barcelona and Real Madrid.
  7. According to Food & Wine: “Statistics show that the Basques spend more than twice as much of their disposable income on food as we do in the United States, and they probably spend a greater percentage of their time on cooking and eating too.” I certainly believe that–this is  a region united as much by Basque pride as it is by gastronomy.
  8. A txoko is a Basque cooking society–a member’s only club where, traditionally only men, gather together to cook, sing, socialize and experiment with food. These days, women are allowed to enter, but depending on the society, they may or may not be welcome in the kitchen. Txokos were especially popular during Franco’s dictatorship when they became the only place where Basques could speak Euskara without fear of being prosecuted.
  9. Guernica, a town in Vizcaya, was bombed by German and Italian fighter pilots during the Spanish Civil War–who were given the “ok” from Franco. The point? To demoralize the Basque people, who opposed the Nationalist forces. The former Basque capital was bombed for over three hours, on a market day, when surrounding villages would come to sell their products–on a day Franco knew the most people, mostly women and children, would be in town.
  10. Basque cuisine is regarded by many to be one of the best in the world. It focuses on fresh, local products that are in season and rather than use elaborate spices to mask the flavors, they utilize techniques to draw out the flavors of the food. San Sebastián, is a Basque city with some of the most Michelin stars worldwide, thanks to inventive chefs like Arzak.

What’s your favorite fact from this list?


  1. The blog looks great, Christine!

    I’m completely enthralled and fascinated by Basque Country, mostly because of you, and I absolutely love these posts. Thank you :)

  2. I’m very jealous of your move, Christine! I love the Basque Country and thought I knew a lot about it, but never knew about its relationship with Navarre or anything about Atletico Bilbao! Interesting stuff :)
    Caitlyn recently posted…Hanging out with Charlemagne in AachenMy Profile

  3. Great post Christine. I’ve been dying to visit the Basque region for a long time. My brother’s quick trip there this past July convinced me even more. And now that I see several of your points focus on food, I’m more than ready.

    I’d say for me, the most surprising of your 10 Things is that they have their own typeface. That’s great!



  4. So interesting, Christine. I have been fascinated by Basque culture and history for a couple of years now and would love to visit one day. :-) My favorite fact is that they leave wine for Santa instead of milk and cookies. :-)
    Krista recently posted…I want to ‘Go with Oh’ to ViennaMy Profile

  5. I love this idea of leaving wine for Santa – something tells me US Santa wouldn’t mind! Basque country can also be created for adding the only pepper really used in French cuisine – espelette

  6. Number 9, although I half-knew it, was my favourite fact. Love Mark Kurlanksy’s book. You should also check out the novel Guernica by another American author, Dave Boling. Why they haven’t made that into a film yet, I don’t know.
    Matthew Hirtes recently posted…San Andres: Northern ExposureMy Profile

  7. I really enjoyed driving through the Basque country a couple of years ago on my way to the ferry at Bilbao, reminded me of a mixture of so many different places – so much more like Northern Europe with all the greenery and hills, also very Spanish, but simultaneousy distinctively different. Look forward to going back and spending more time there next year!
    Maya recently posted…Christmas Comes But Once a Year (And I’m Fine With That!)My Profile

    • It’s hard to pinpoint it, but it’s true that it’s a very different feel from the rest of Spain!

  8. Agur! My name is Maite and I just found your blog and felt very identified with you somehow. I’m Venezuelan, but my mother was from Bilbao and my father from Caracas, now I’ve been living in Barcelona Spain for the last 6 years. Talking about shock culture between being from south america raised by a basque and living with catalans in spain, Im learning ow to adapt every day , called globalization

    :) thanks for sharing

    • Oh, wow! My dad is from Mexico and my mom is American, and now I’m living in Basque Country :) I hope your adaptation to the Spanish lifestyle is going smoothly–Barcelona has got to be an exciting place to call home!


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