A journey into the origins of Biscay
The culture, traditions and customs that have existed in Bilbao Biscay since immemorial times have never been cast aside in a corner as if they were mere reminiscences of who we once were. Quite the contrary, people all over the region have always kept them very much alive.
Forged through the centuries, along the coast of the Cantabrian Sea and amidst summits of mountains and valleys, the identity of the Basque people has never ceased to be present in the everyday life of Biscayan towns and cities.
We have been capable of combining innovation and tradition, of looking towards the future without losing the connection with our roots.
Certainly, one of our deepest roots, one that is shared by all the people in the Basque Country, is the Basque language. Although its origin is unknown, there are theories about it to suit all tastes, some even claiming that the language spoken in the biblical Tower of Babel was no other than Basque. Given that the language was orally passed down for millennia, there are several varieties coexisting at present, each of them spoken in a different area.
Despite all the difficulties the Basque language has run into, including a ban imposed in the middle of the 20th century that forbade people from speaking or teaching it, it has managed to survive. Nowadays, it is in constant development as it is spoken in streets, schools, and universities, while its use is promoted by the local media as well as in private companies and other institutions of Bilbao Biscay. It is undoubtedly the best tool to express the way we perceive the world around us. ‘Kaixo’, ‘agur’, ‘mesedez’, ‘eskerrik asko’, ‘bai’ and ‘ez’ (meaning ‘hi’, ‘bye’, ‘please’, ‘thanks’, ‘yes’ and ‘no’ respectively) are some of the Basque words any visitor will end up using during their stay in Bilbao Biscay, although it is highly likely they will learn a fair a few more.
Another interesting way to find out more about the Basque language is attending bertso saioak. In these gatherings, our bertsolaris improvise and sing verses about the topics they are given, using very specific metrics and rhymes and trying to move the audience with a mixture of poetry, up-to-date news, comedy and sensitivity. This deep-rooted tradition can spontaneously be started either in taverns or around the table at lunchtime or dinnertime. Bertso saioak can also be included in the programmes of the festivities celebrated in our towns or enjoyed thanks to the different championships organised in the region.
Traditional sports equally reflect our Basque identity. Herri kirolak, our local rural sports, have their origin in the daily work that used to be carried out at the baserris (our traditional homes) situated in inland Biscay. People began challenging one another to know who was better or faster at completing everyday tasks, and this is how disciplines such as aizkolaritza (woodchopping), harri jasotzea (stone lifting), sokatira (tug of war), sega (scything) or barrena (drilling holes into a rock using a long metal pole) were born. Apart from having their own championships, regular folk sports exhibitions are held, and several competitions are also organised during local festivals.
Anywhere along the Biscayan coast, it is commonplace to see rowers training in their traineras, traditional boats propelled by oars. In the past, inshore vessels had ‘races’ between them on their way back to land after their day out at sea, competing to be the first to reach the coast, sell the fish, and therefore get the best prices. Since there is nothing people in Bilbao Biscay like more than a good challenge, this fight among fishermen was eventually turned into a sport. Nowadays, whenever there is a competition, there are always crowds of supporters gathered alongside the coast watching them.
Also forming part of the essence of Bilbao Biscay is Basque pilota. This sport is played in two-walled courts called frontones. Every village here has at least one. Probably, the most well-known modality of this sport is hand pilota. To score points, players must hit a wooden ball covered with leather against a wall, with their bare hands, in such a way that their opponents are unable to hit it back before it bounces twice on the floor. Other modalities include pala and jai alai, where players use bats and hand-held wicker baskets, what implies that the ball goes much faster. The sound of the ball against the wall and the speed reached by it, together with the great skill displayed by players in any of the versions of the game, make pilota a very exciting sport both for playing and watching.
To give some colour to the Basque folklore, we have spectacular traditional dances, or euskal dantzak. Their music and movements have been handed down for generations, filling the squares in our villages with people during festivities or whenever any of their performances are held. Dantzari-dantza from Durangaldea, kaixarranka from Lekeitio or ezpata-dantza from Markina-Xemein are some of the most significative ones, although aurresku is perhaps the most recognisable of them. The agurra, its greeting part, is always performed at events and celebrations to pay homage to the guests of honour.
Apart from all this, every town and corner in Bilbao Biscay have their own different traditions and customs, which reflect not only our character but also the heritage our ancestors left us. A clear example of this heritage are the Montes Bocineros, five strategically located summits from which people were called to attend the meetings held in Gernika back in the day, now symbols of the freedoms of the Basque society. The ascent to the cross at the top of Mount Gorbeia (the highest point in Biscay at 1,481 metres over sea level) on New Year’s Day is just as symbolic.
As for more unusual traditions, during the ‘madalenas’ festivities in Bermeo, a roof tile is thrown to the sea to commemorate the day the town managed to take the island of Izaro, in the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, from the town of Mundaka (although the story varies depending on the place it is told). The salve de los txikiteros takes place in the Old Town in Bilbao during the festivities dedicated to our amatxu or Virgin of Begoña, highly revered by Biscayan people. On 11 October 1964, instead of going on the customary pilgrimage to visit Her, a group of txikiteros decided to stop drinking txikitos and eating pintxos for a moment to sing the ‘Salve Regina’, gathered at the only point in the Siete Calles from where you can see the basilica, and then they went back to their poteo (drinking wine from bar to bar). At present, people continue doing so, with the only difference that now, on that very spot, we can find a sculpture of the Virgin of Begoña, the only in which she can be seen holding a txikito glass in her hand.