hidden europe 26

A Basque village: Urzainki connections

by Karlos Zurutuza


The tiny village of Urzainki in the Basque Pyrenees is a mere fleck on the map. But it is a place with connections. Can it really be true that this one village has a link with an erstwhile Pope, an American President, the Bronte family and a South American political leader?

Several mid to late nineteenth-century travellers compiled collections of the local tales recounted in the Basque villages in the valleys of the western Pyrenees. Many of these stories had common themes, focusing on the origin and legitimation of a community by recounting its history and thus confirming modern status. Karlos Zurutuza, a regular contributor to hidden europe and a Basque native speaker, has taken time out from his normal beat in the Caucasus and is just back from a long winter spent in Urzainki. It is a place that - if you believe the tale - should really be a wonder of the world.

Three-year-old Lakora rides her tricycle along Urzainki´s cobbled main street. Urzainki is a mere fleck on the map, a tiny village in the northern part of Spain's Navarre region. The temperature hovers around freezing and Lakora shoots up into the air at every bump on the rough road. But little does Lakora care about the discomfort. When she tires of the trike ride, she'll play on the brand new swings that have been placed by the side of the road in this Pyrenean mountain village.

"These are my swings," asserts Lakora with pride. With some measure of truth, for Lakora is the first child born in Urzainki for thirteen years. It is no easy task for Lakora's mother, Iratxe, to explain to her stubborn daughter that she might have to share the swings with other kids - it does happen at weekends when folk from further south venture up into the Erronkari ibaxa (the local Basque name for this mountain valley - the Roncal valley in English).

The bar

The Gazpar bar is a focal point for much of Urzainki life. It is on the main street. Inside the Gazpar, hanging on the wall, is a fading early photo of the village. A shot taken about a hundred years back. It shows a couple of almadieros, the local men who navigated the freezing and wild waters of the mountain rivers, piloting rafts full of valuable timber. Many of these men didn't even know how to swim but still they managed to steer their craft through turbulent waters right down to Zaragoza.

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