Euskal Kazeta

What is the Basque Country?

Despite its name, the Basque Country is not a country at all. The Basque Country is a cultural region overlapping the western side of the border between France and Spain where the Basque people have lived for centuries. As a result, Basques have either French or Spanish citizenship. Basques refer to their homeland in their own language as Euskal Herria. They are considered the oldest people of Europe and their language, Euskara, has no known connections to any other languages.

Coat of Arms of Seven Historic Basque Provinces
Coat of Arms of Seven Historic Basque Provinces

The Basque Country does not have official borders. But if you ask Basques about the region, they often refer to Zazpiak Bat — seven provinces in one. This represents the area where the Basque language – Euskara – has been spoken, probably since prehistoric times. But while these seven historic provinces are frequently depicted in maps and literature, they are not one single geographic entity. Four of the traditional provinces are in Spain and three are in France. And the current political boundaries of the region are a complex amalgam of many different parts. In essence, they consist of two regional autonomous communities, Euskadi and Nafarroa, in Spain, and three historic Basque provinces in France that no longer exist and are part of a larger department, although Basques still commonly make references to them. There are five dialects of Euskara that roughly overlap the boundaries of the provinces. The main geographic features of Euskal Herria are the coastal region along the Bay of Biscay and the Pyrenees Mountains.

Along the Arrobi (Nive) River in Baiona - Bayonne.
Along the Arrobi (Nive) River in Baiona (Bayonne).

IPARRALDE– The French Basque Country
(Where possible, the Basque language version of place names are used first.)
In Basque, the French side is called Iparralde, or the north side. The three French Basque provinces, Lapurdi (Labourd in English), Behe-Nafarroa (Lower Navarre) and Zuberoa (Soule), are not officially recognized as political entities. If you put the names of these provinces into a search in Google Maps, the provinces will not appear. In France, the French Basque region is part of the Pyrenees-Atlantiques department, which includes the neighboring Bearn region. France refers to the French Basque Country or Pays Basque as a “cultural” region.

Playing txistera in the fronton of St. Jean de Luz

The three French Basque provinces did exist until the time of the French Revolution (1789), at which time France was divided into departments, similar to U.S. states. Recently, in 2017, a political entity, the Communaute Pay Basque, was created to give the French Basque region a stronger identity and it is headed by a president, who is located in the area’s largest city, Baiona (Bayonne).

Important cities of French Basque Country – Iparralde:
• Baiona, Lapurdi
• Biarritz, Lapurdi
• Donibane Lohitzun (St. Jean de Luz), Lapurdi
• Donibane-Garazi (St. Jean Pied de Port), Behe-Nafarroa
• Mauleon-Licharre, Zuberoa

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The seaside resort of Donosti or San Sebastian.

HEGOALDE – the Spanish Basque Country
In Basque, the Spanish side is referred to as Hegoalde, or the southern side of the Basque Country. Adding to the confusion of the identity of the Basque region is the existence of the officially-recognized Basque Autonomous Community – or Euskadi, for short.
Euskadi – The Basque Autonomous Community
Only three Spanish Basque provinces are recognized politically as Euskadi and when people talk about the Basques, they often mistakenly believe that these three provinces are the Basque Country. (Google Maps represents them this way.) However, Euskadi is separate from the province of Nafarroa (Navarre) which includes many Euskaldunak (Euskara-speaking people).

Created in 1979, Euskadi includes the provinces of Gipuzkoa (Guipuzcoa), Bizkaia (Biscaya) and Araba (Alaba). Euskadi is headed by a regional government located in Vitoria-Gasteiz, Araba and it has its own police force (Ertzaintza) and collects its own taxes. Euskara and Spanish are the official languages of Euskadi.

The first listing in Wikipedia for the Basque Country is defined as Euskadi, then the reader must click on a different entry “Basque Country (Greater Region)” to see the traditional Basque definition. Because Euskadi’s government collects taxes that can be spent locally, a great effort is made to allocate funds to promote the Basque language, culture and traditions. A Basque-language television station EITB and radio stations are supported by the government. Language programs are promoted as well. As a result, much of the preservation and promotion of the Basque culture in modern times can be attributed to Euskadi’s leadership.

The Guggenheim Museum in Bilbo

As part of the movement toward democracy after the death of Dictator Francisco Franco in 1975, Spain was divided into 17 autonomous communities, made up of smaller provinces, of which Euskadi is one. At the time, the people of Nafarroa were given the option to become part of Euskadi, but they voted to be a separate entity. They are also autonomous, with their own government, and collect taxes.

Euskara is only spoken in one part of Nafarroa – the northern sector closest to the border with Spain. The rural villages of the province’s northern section are strongly Basque. The very Basque city of Irunea-Pamplona, where the San Fermin festival and the running of the bulls takes place, is the capital of Nafarroa.

However, Nafarroa has historically been a separate politically entity (at one time the Kingdom of Navarre) from the rest of the Spanish Basque region, and in earlier times was much stronger. The province is larger than the other Basque provinces and has much more cultural diversity. In the rural flatlands south of Pamplona, the population lost the Basque language and culture a long time ago. This sector is much more conservative, both politically and socially. All these factors played in to the province’s majority vote against being part of Euskadi and continued refusal to participate in Basque projects.

Euskadi Coat of Arms

Nevertheless, hope springs eternal, as they say. The Spanish Constitution includes a special allowance for Nafarroa to join Euskadi if it chooses. In fact, the Coat of Arms of Euskadi includes a space for Nafarroa. Created in 1936 and representing the four Spanish Basque provinces (Laurak Bat), the coat of arms included chains symbolizing Nafarroa and was adopted by Euskadi’s government in 1978. A lawsuit by the government of Nafarroa led to the elimination of the chains in 1986, but the fourth representative red sector remains.

La Rioja
La Rioja is an adjacent autonomous community like Euskadi and Nafarroa, but Rioja is also a designated wine-making region along the Ebro River with a distinct appellation. Part of the grape-growing region overlaps the province of Araba — Arabako Errioxa (Rioja Alavesa) and many high-quality wines are produced there. Part of the Rioja region also overlaps Nafarroa (Rioja Oriental).

Important cities of Spanish Basque Cuntry – Hegoalde:
• Donostia (San Sebastian), Gipuzkoa
• Bilbo, Bizkaia
• Vitoria-Gasteiz, Alaba
• Iruñea-Pamplona, Nafarroa

Basque Country Location and Provinces in Europe Map.svg
Zazpiak Bat – the seven (provincess) in one.
Map author Gabriel Trisca, available under Wikipedia license.

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What is the Basque Country?