“Basque” in the culture of Northern Spain on our new 4-night land extension in Bilbao and San Sebastian.

Originating in Northern Spain and Southern France, the Basque people comprise one of the oldest ethnic groups in Europe, dating as far back as 5,000 years. Centuries ago they were seafarers and farmers, believed in fascinating mythology, and spoke a unique language called Euskara, mysteriously unrelated to any other languages of Europe. Today, Euskara is spoken by less than 1/3 of Basque people, yet much of their culture and traditions still thrive.

Food is King in Basque Country

The hills are alive with grapes that produce txakoli, a dry and sparkling white wine. Poured from green bottles, often from great heights that emphasize its effervescence, txakoli is most popularly paired with pintxos (Basque tapas) in the bars of San Sebastián, Spain. These tiny finger foods, historically served with a slice of bread, are the essence of Basque cuisine with both traditional options like tortilla de patatas (potato and onion omelette) and mini haute cuisine experiments. The chefs who create them are typically competitive in nature, making nearly every bite at every pintxos bar (traditionally visited on a crawl) a mouthwatering experience. And then there are the sagardotegi (Basque cider houses), where cider flows powerfully from giant barrels and a multi-course set menu generally consists of a cod fish, a giant steak, and walnuts with local cheese and quince paste. Cider season only lasts from January through April or May, but if your cruise is in early spring, the lively sagardotegi are great fun to work in to your land extension in Northern Spain!

Shape Shifters and Goddesses

Though Basque mythology was largely overtaken by Christianity, some Basques still believe in the legends of the “old country,” in which Lurra (the Earth) is the center of the universe. Some of the most important mythological characters are Ama Lurra (Mother Earth), the goddess Eguzi Amandrea (Grandmother Sun) and Ilargi Amandrea (Grandmother Moon). Mari is the Mother Goddess of Old Europe and personifies natural phenomena as well as all the animals. Other mythological characters include Olentzaro, a charcoal maker who, much like Santa, delivers presents to children on Christmas by way of their chimneys; Sorgin, a wicked witch who can shapeshift into animals; and Lamia, a beautiful mermaid-like creature.

Sports and Leisure

If the culture thus far sounds exotic, you’ll recognize this next centuries-old Basque tradition, held annually about an hour south of San Sebastián in Pamplona: the running of the bulls. A weeklong celebration honoring St. Fermin, Pamplona’s patron saint, this festival has attracted hundreds of thousands of thrill seekers who want to be a part of the dangerous spectacle. The practice began simply as a way to herd bulls from their corral to the bullfighting ring but was later adopted into the festivities of St. Fermin’s festival, which today includes a pyrotechnic rocket launch known as txupinazo, processions, a noisemaking event called El Struendo (The Roar), a parade, and traditional Basque sports including aizkolaris (wood chopping) and harri-jasotze (stone lifting). Pelota (Basque hand ball) is perhaps the most competitive activity among the Basque people today and creativity flows at bertsolaris, improvisational Basque musical poetry slams.