Spain – Across The Basque Provinces

IT did not seem to me historically respectful to take leave of Spain without having made a pilgrimage to the shrine of Santiago. A dauntless friend crossed the sea to bear me company. Hygienic pilgrim that she is, she came equipped not with cockle shells and sandal shoon, but with sleeping bags, coffee, and cereals. Many a morning, in traversing those northern provinces, where the scenery was better than the breakfast, we blessed her boxes of “grape nuts,” and many a night, doomed to penitential beds, we were thankful to intrench ourselves against the stings and arrows of outrageous insects in those spacious linen bags, that gather close about the neck, or, when dangers thicken, above the head, leaving only a loophole for the breath.

Our point of departure was that city of nature’s fancy-work, San Sebastian. Then, in the early half of July, it was all alive with expectancy, looking every day for the coming of the Court. It is reputed to be the cleanest town of the Peninsula, and is, in truth, as bright as a wave-washed pebble. Nevertheless, it is a favorite waltz hall of the fleas, which shamelessly obtrude themselves even into conversation.

The chief summer industry of San Sebastian is sea-bathing. The soldiers begin it at six o’clock in the morning, marching by regiments down to the Concha, clearing for action, and striking out into the gentle surf, all in simultaneous obedience to successive words of command. Some two hours later teams of oxen draw scores of jaunty bathing cars down near the white lip of this opalescent shell of water, and there the long day through all ages, sizes, and ranks of humanity sport in the curling foam or swim far out into the sparkling bay.

San Sebastian is the capital of Guipuzcoa, one of the three Basque provinces. These lie among the Cantabrian mountains, and are delightfully picturesque with wheat-growing valleys and well-wooded heights. As the train wandered on, in its pensive Spanish fashion, we found ourselves now in Scotland, in a beautiful waste of heather and gorse, now amid the English ivy and hawthorn, hearing the song of the English robin, and now in our own New England, with the hilly reaches of apple orchards and the fields upon fields of tasselled Indian maize.

The Basques are a thrifty folk, and have cultivated their scant acres to the utmost. The valleys are planted with corn, the lower hills are ridged and terraced for a variety of crops. Above are walnuts and chestnuts, and the flintiest summits serve for pasturage. It was curious to see men at work on those steep slopes that had been scooped out into a succession of narrow shelves, and more strange yet to catch glimpses of peasants ploughing the very mountain top, picturesque figures against the sky.

The reaping is of the cleanest. The harvest fields have a neat, scoured look, as if the women had been over them with scrubbing brushes. Yet this utilitarian soil admits of oaks and beeches, ferns and clover, morning glories, dandelions, pimpernel, and daisies.

All that sunny morning the train swung us blithely on from one charm of the eyes to another—from a ruined watch-tower, where red-handed Carlists had crouched, to a bright-kerchiefed maiden singing amid her beehives; from a range of abrupt peaks, cleft by deep gorges, to sycamore-shaded by-ways and poplar-bordered streams ; from a village graveyard, the pathetic little parallelogram enclosed in high gray walls and dim with cypress shadows, to a tumbling, madcap torrent spanned by a time-gnawed Roman arch. Shooting the heart of some black hill, the train would run out on a mere ledge above a valley hamlet, and from pure inquisitiveness, apparently, ramble all around the circle, peering down from every point of view on the cluster of great, patriarchal houses, some-times of timber and plaster, more often of stone, where whole clans dwell together under the same red-tiled roof. Queer old houses these, occasionally topped with blue chimneys, and now and then with a fantastic coat of arms sculptured over the door, or a fresco of saints and devils blazoned all across the front. Sometimes freshly whitewashed, these Basque houses have more often a weather-worn, dingy look, but, how-ever black the timbers, lines of clean linen flutter airily from roofs and balconies.

They are a decent, self-respecting, prosperous people, these Basque mountaineers, of whose history my companion told me stirring tales. They are supposed, though not without dispute, to be the oldest race in Europe, descendants of those original Iberians whom the westward-trooping Aryans drove into the fastnesses of the Pyrenees. They have their own language, of Asiatic type. They themselves believe that it was spoken in the Garden of Eden. There are some twenty-five dialects of the Vascuense, and it is so difficult for foreigners that even George Borrow spoke it “with considerable hesitation,” and one exhausted student, abandoning the struggle, declared that the words were all ” written Solomon and pronounced Nebuchadnezzar.” The Basques attribute their hardy virtues to the crabbedness of their speech, telling how the devil, after slaving over their vocabulary for seven years, had succeeded in learning only three words, and threw up his lesson in a pet, so that to this day he remains unable to meddle with their peasant piety. What little literature there is in the Basque language is naturally of the popular cast — hero songs, dancing songs, dirges, hymns, and folk-lore.

The Basques are noted for their passionate love of liberty. The sturdy peasant is lord of his own rugged farm, and insists on tilling it in his own primitive way, breaking the soil with rude mattock more often than with plough. An English engineer, laying a railroad through Alava, tried his best to make his men abandon their slow, laborious method of carrying the earth in baskets on their heads. He finally had all the baskets removed by night, and wheelbarrows left in their places. But the unalterable Basques set the loaded wheelbarrows on their heads, and staggered about beneath these awkward burdens until, for very shame, he had to give them back their baskets.

The peasant drives over the mountain roads in a ponderous ox-cart, with two clumsy disks of wood for wheels. The platform is wrought of rough-hewn beams, five or seven, the middle one running forward to serve as pole. All the structure, except the iron tires and nails, is of wood, and the solid wooden wheels, as the massive axle to which they are riveted turns over and over, make a most horrible squeaking. It is a sound dear to the peasantry, for they believe the oxen like it, and, moreover, that it frightens away the devil ; but once upon a time a town of advanced views voted a fine of five dollars for any man who should bring this musical abomination within its limits. Thereupon a freeborn Basque rose with the dawn, selected his best carved oaken yoke, draped the red-stained sheepskin a trifle more carefully than usual above the patient eyes of his great smooth oxen, and took his way, “squeakitysqueak, squeakity-squeak,” straight to the door of the Ayuntamiento, city hall, where he paid his twenty-five pesetas, and then devoted the rest of the day to driving all about the streets, squeaking out his money’s worth. This is no servile temper, and it was not until our own generation that the dearly cherished liberties of the Basques were wrested away.

These warders of the Pyrenees, for the Basques of Navarre and those now known as French Basques must not be forgot-ten, did good service in helping the Visigoths beat back the northward-pressing Moors and the southward-pressing Franks; but when the Basque provinces of Spain were incorporated with Leon and Navarre, and later with Castile, the mountaineers stood stubbornly for their fueros, or peculiar rights.

My comrade’s lecture had reached this point, when, finding ourselves at Amorebieta, in the Province of Vizcaya, or Biscay, we suddenly descended from the train, and handed our bags to an honest Basque porter, who deposited them on the floor of an open waiting room, in full reach of an honest Basque population. For ourselves, we turned our faces toward the centre of Vizcayan glory, the famous Tree of Guernica. We entered a rustic train, that seemed entirely undecided which way to go. The station agent blew a little tin horn, green meadows and wattled fences began to glide past the car windows, and the interrupted discourse was resumed.

The lawmakers of Vizcaya were duly chosen by their fellow-nobles, for every Basque held the rank of hidalgo, or “son of somebody.” The deputies met every two years in the village of Guernica, sitting on stone benches in the open air beneath the sacred oak, and there elected the Senores de Vizcaya. Even the kings of Spain were allowed no grander title, but had to come to the Tree of Guernica, at first in per-son, later by deputy, and there swear to observe the fueros. To this green shadow came the peasant from his lonely farmhouse, high on the mountainside, to answer before his peers to such charges as might be brought against him; for within the sanctuary of his home the law could lay no hand on him or his.

It was the Carlist wars that changed all this. The fueros, of which a list dating from 1342 is still extant, granted the Basque provinces a Republican Constitution that almost realized an ideal democracy, with immunity from taxes save for their own needs, and from military service beyond their own boundaries. But when the dynastic strife broke out, the Basques put on the white cap of Don Carlos and bore the brunt of the conflict. We had already passed through Vergara, where, in 1839, Espartero ended the first Carlist war by a treaty which compelled the Basques to lay down their arms. But the cost of this rebellion was paid in blood. Their political status was practically unaffected. At the close of the second Carlist war, in 1876, Alfonso XII signalized his victory by meting out to them a terrible punishment, abrogating the precious fueros that the Tree of Guernica had guarded for so many centuries. The Government imposed, moreover, its salt and tobacco monopolies, and made the Basques subject to military conscription. At every station we saw Spain’s Vizcayan soldiers, red-capped and red-trousered, with blue-belted frock coats, under which beat hearts of doubtful loyalty. The son of Alfonso XII will have to reckon with the Basques, when the third Carlist war shall be declared, but it may be doubted whether the fueros, which Don Carlos, of course, promises to restore, will ever come home to nest again in the Guernica Oak.

My erudite fellow-vagabond was just pointing out the typical shape of the Basque head, with its broad forehead, long, narrowing face, curved nose, and pointed chin, when we reached Guernica. Such a sweet and tranquil village as it is, set in the beauty of the hills, with the dignity and pathos of its history pervading every hushed, old-fashioned street ! The guide, whom two affable ladies, sharers of our carriage in the little picnic train, had taken pains to look up for us at the station, was not, we judged, a favorable specimen of the haughty Basque hidalgo. He was a dull, mumbling, slouchy lad, who sunk his voice to an awed whisper as we passed the escutcheon-carved palace of a count. But he led us by pleasant ways to the modern Casa de juntas, or Senate House, where we were shown the assembly room, with its altar for mass, the library and other apartments, together with the portraits of the twenty-six first Senores de Vizcaya, from Lope the Pirate, who forced back the invading Galicians in 84o, to the Infante Don Juan, under whom the Basque provinces were finally incorporated with Castile.

Close by the Casa de juntas, which stands in a dreamy bit of park as fresh and trim as an English cathedral close, rises a pillared portico. There, where brown-eyed little Basque girls, their brown braids blowing in the breeze, were dangling green figs above their laughing mouths, used to sit, on those seven stone seats, the grave Basque fathers, making laws, meting out judgment, and regulating all the affairs of this simple mountain republic. The portico, bearing as joint devices the lion and castle of Spain and the three wolves of Vizcaya, was formerly enveloped in the leafy shadow of the Sacred Tree; but what rises behind it now is only the gaunt stem of a patriarchal oak, a very Abraham of plants, all enclosed in glass, as if embalmed in its casket. Before the portico, however, grows a lusty scion, for the Tree of Guernica is of unbroken lineage, shoots being always cherished to succeed in case the centuried predecessor fail.

In presence of this despoiled old trunk, majestic with memories, we felt an honest awe and longed to give it adequate salute. My comrade levelled her kodak and took front views, back views, and side views with such spend-thrift enthusiasm that the custodian, deeply impressed, presented her with a dried leaf from the junior, cunningly pricked out so as to suggest the figure of the tree. The national song of the Basques, a matter of some dozen stanzas, written principally in ” j’s,” ” rr’s,” and ” tz’s,” takes its theme, if one may trust the Castilian translation, from this symbolic oak.

The historian wished to do nothing more in Guernica but sit and gaze forever on that spectral trunk, but the reminder that piety was a hardly less marked Basque characteristic than political independence, finally induced her to follow our guide to the church. A Basque church has its distinctive features, including a belfry, a lofty, plain interior, with galleries, and often a votive ship, gayly painted and fully rigged, suspended from the ceiling. The lad bore himself with simple-minded devotion, offering us on stubby finger tips the holy water and making due obeisance before each gilded shrine.

But my attention was soon fascinated by a foot-square relief on a blue ground of Santiago —

” Good Saint James upon the milkwhite steed, Who leaves his bliss to fight for chosen Spain.”

I had hardly anticipated such a stalwart, vigorous, not to say violent saint, with his white horse galloping, his gold-sandalled feet gripping the great stirrups, his gold-fringed, crimson robe and azure mantle streaming on the wind, his terrible sword glittering high in air. This was clearly not a person to be trifled with, and I looked about for the historian to tell her that we must be pressing forward on our pilgrimage. But she had stolen out, every sympathetic Basque image of the sculptured doorway conspiring to keep a stony silence and conceal her flight, and had sped back to the Tree of Guernica, from whose contemplation she was torn away only by a fairy-tale of supper.

Of the several Basque churches which we visited, including the bridal church of Louis XIV, far-famed San Juan de Luz, whose sides and west end are portioned off by three tiers of galleries, fairest in memory is the sixteenth-century church of Begona in Bilbao. It abounds, as coast churches should, in suggestions of that mighty, mysterious neighbor, at once so cruel and so beneficent, the sea. In-stead of votive ships, the walls are hung with paintings of vessels in scenes of appalling peril. One is scudding madly before a tropical gale ; one has her rigging ragged by hurricane and her decks lashed with tempest ; one, careened upon her side, lies at the mercy of the billows, which are sweeping over her and tumbling her crew like ninepins into the deep. But the presence of the pictures, bold dashes of the modern brush amid dim old paintings of saints and martyrs, tells that Our Lady of Begona succored her sailors in distress, who, on their safe return, came hither to offer thanks for their preservation and to leave these mementos of their danger and her efficient aid.

“Is your Virgin so very powerful ? ” we asked of a chorister boy while he drew the cords to part the curtains that screened the jewelled image throned in a recess above the high altar.

” I should rather think she was,” answered the little fellow in a glow. “Why, let me tell you ! Robbers, the ac-cursed ones, came here on a dark midnight to steal her precious stones. They entered by a window, those sons of wretched mothers, and put up a long ladder against the altar wall. The wickedest of them all, senoras, he climbed the ladder and raised his hand to take Our Lady’s crown. And in that instant the great bells overhead began to ring, and all the bells of all Bilbao pealed with them, and the people waked and came running to the rescue of Our Lady, and the robbers were put to death.”

Our expression did not quite satisfy his boyish ardor, and he ‘pointed convincingly toward a handsome silver plaque. “And this, too, witnesses Our Lady’s power. It was given in memory of the cholera time, when people were dying like flies in all the towns about. But after Our Lady was carried in procession through the streets of Bilbao, not one died here, except a sinful man who would not turn his head to look upon her.”

” That is a painting of the procession, the large picture over there on the wall ? ”

” No, no, senoras. That picture commemorates another of Our Lady’s wonderful deeds. The floods were threatening the city, but Our Lady, with many censers and candles, was borne down to the river bank, and she ordered the water to go back, and it obeyed her, and all the town was saved.”

We retreated to the cloisters, from which one has a superb view of the valley of the Nervion, for Our Lady of Begona dwells high upon a hilltop. Only the afternoon before we had been in serene Guernica, a strange contrast to this mining capital of Vizcaya, this bustling, noisy, iron-grimed Bilbao, in which the Basques take such delight. It is not a city to gratify the mere tourist, who expects the people of the lands through which he is pleased to pass to devote themselves to looking picturesque. But even Spain is something more than food for the kodak, and this sooty atmosphere of smelting works and factories, traffic and commerce, means life to Spanish lungs. It is little to my credit that I took more interest in the fact that Bilbao used to supply Shakespeare’s cronies with rapiers, under the name of ” bilboes,” than in statistics regarding those millions of tons of ore which its iron mines are now annually exporting to Great Britain. The many English in Bilbao, miners and artisans, with the influence they shed around them, make the streets rougher and uglier than in purely Spanish towns. On the other hand, they bring a spirit of religious independence, so that it is not strange to find the Spanish Protestants of Bilbao a numerous and vigorous body, counting as, a pronounced element in the community.

From the idle peace of the Begona cloisters, as from the old-time world, we looked long on this Spanish city of today, seething with manifold activities. We seemed to understand how, to the middle-class Spaniard, hemmed in by all this mediaeval encumbrance of barracks, cathedrals, castles, and thrones, such cities as Bilbao and Barcelona, pulsing with industrial energy and enterprise, are ” more beautiful than Beauty’s self.” The Basques, like the Catalans, take readily to business. They set their mountain cascades to turning mill-wheels, they canal their little Nervion till it can give passage to ships of four thousand tons burden, they paint the night with the flare of mighty furnaces. Every year they are building more wharves, more railroads, more electric tram-ways, and they are so prodigiously proud of their new iron bridge, with its flying ferry, which whisks passengers over from Portugalete to Las Arenas at the rate of two hundred a minute, that they stamp it on their characteristic jewelry. That cunning Eibar work of the Basque provinces displays again and again, on locket, bracelet, brooch, this incongruous design of the Puente Vizcaya beaten on chased steel in gold.

We looked regretfully out over those significant reaches of land which we would have liked to explore to the last hearthstone. The Basque provinces ! We had not even set foot in Vitoria, the capital of Alava, where is preserved the grim old machete by which Basque governors were sworn into office. “May my head be cut off with this knife,” ran the oath, “if I do not defend the fueros of my fatherland.”

And we longed to attend one of the peasant festivals, to see the lads play pelota and the lasses step Basque dances to the music of the village pipers, to hear the wild old marches and battle tunes that have roused the Roman and the Moor to arms. The mystery plays of the Basques were famous once, and although these naive dramas are now mainly confined to Christmas and Easter, who could say that we might not chance on some saint-day fragment ? There was soon to take place, too, in one of the Vizcayan hamlets a “blessing of the fields,” a processional harvest rite of pagan antiquity, formerly universal in Spain, but now confined to a few rural districts. We had a hundred reasons for lingering — but what are reasons ? Pilgrims of St. James must put fresh peas in their shoes and be off for Compostela.