Gernika is intimately connected with the true nature of Bilbao Biscay. Situated at the core of the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve, the town is home to the Tree of Gernika and the Casa de Juntas, symbols of the Basque freedoms. At least from the 14th century onwards, the Tree of Gernika has been witness to the meetings of one of the earliest parliaments in Europe.

The representatives of the Biscayan citizens gathered there to discuss the ‘fueros’–the laws that were to be adopted in the Lordship of Biscay. They were called upon to attend the meetings with horns blown from the ‘montes bocineros’, five strategically placed mountains: Mount Kolitza in Enkarterri; Mount Ganekogorta in Bilbao; Mount Gorbeia in Arratia-Nervión; Mount Oiz in Durangaldea, Lea Artibai and Urdaibai; and Mount Sollube, in Bermeo, Urdaibai and the Asua Valley.

Today like yesterday, the neoclassical Casa de Juntas houses the General Assemblies of Biscay, while the Tree of Gernika, direct descendant of the oldest known oak tree, keeps presiding many of the major political events not only in the region but in the Basque Country, including the inaugurations of the Presidents of the Basque Government.

There are two other Assembly Houses in Biscay, also seats of local government: the Casa de Juntas de Gerediaga in Abadiño and the Casa de Juntas de Avellaneda in Sopuerta. In the former, the representatives of Durangaldea got together to deal with regional government issues and the delegates that would take part in the Assemblies of Gernika were appointed. The Campa Foral and the stones the meeting attendees used as seats lie next to the churches of San Salvador and San Clemente. In the latter, the representatives of the councils of Enkarterri met until the beginning of the 19th century. The building has now been remodelled to house the Encartaciones Museum, which offers a journey through the history of the region and exhibits pieces whose origin ranges from prehistoric times to the mid-nineteenth century.

Biscayan traditional sports are also an important part of our essence. The traineras that dodge the waves in estuaries and bays, the aizkolaris who skilfully saw chunks of wood or chop them with their axes, the harrijasotzailes who amaze us with an impressive combination of strength and balance, the sokatira in which teamwork is key, or the barrenadores who are expert at making holes with iron poles–they are all sports derived from the different tasks that were carried out at sea, in the countryside and in the mines, competitions fostered by the love for challenges that characterises us.

Pelota is, without any doubt, the king of traditional sports in Biscay. All the towns and villages in the region without exception have at least one fronton, the court in which some of its modalities are played. The most famous of them is hand-pelota, where players have to hit a ball made of wood, wool and leather with their bare hands, against the surface over a line painted on the wall. Professional matches in Biscay are remarkable sport events. Supporters cheer in the stands while the ‘pelotaris' fight to score points and the sound of the ball hitting violently against the wall can be heard in the background. It is truly spectacular.

The Basque language, spoken by the Basque people for thousands of years, is also one of our identity marks. Even though the origin of this Pre-Indo-European language is remote and unknown, it is still present in our streets. This living language continues evolving and adapting to new social needs, but it has managed to keep its peculiarities and the strong connection with the area in which it is spoken–so much so that different regions of Biscay have developed their own features and expressions, which greatly enriches the linguistic heritage of Bilbao Biscay.

The liveliness of the Basque language in present-day Biscay is evidenced in the bertsolarismo, the art of improvising verses. Whether at informal gatherings or in championships, ‘bertsolaris’ compose their lines following well-defined rules of metric and rhythm on the basis of the topics suggested at that moment. This tradition has been touching its audience for ages, sometimes encouraging reflection, and sometimes making us laugh heartily.

Mythology has a place in our daily lives too. Almost everywhere in the region we can find indications of the presence of mythological creatures. Mari is a mother goddess who inhabits both Mount Anboto, in Urkiola Natural Park, and the Supelegor Cave in Zeanuri, in the heart of Gorbeia Natural Park. Basajaun is a giant that lives deep in the woods. Galtxagorris are small gnome-like creatures that often show up in Kortezubi, near the prehistoric Santimamiñe Cave in the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve. Lamias are half women and half ducks or fish that dwell near the sea, in towns like Elantxobe or in more remote places such as well-hidden streams.

Two other legendary characters people in Bilbao Biscay are fond of are Olentzero and Mari Domingi. They live together in Izenaduba, in a fairy-tale farmhouse where all Basque mythological creatures meet up to make the youngest ones happy. On December 24 each year Olentzero and Mari Domingi leave their house in the company of the always loyal ‘galtxagorris’ and parade through the towns and villages of Biscay in colourful and lively celebrations, filling the streets with music and traditional songs. They cannot stay until late, though, since they only have one night to hand out thousands of presents and bring joy to all Biscayan families.

Another well-established Christmas tradition is Santo Tomás Market, held every 21st of December. This festivity is celebrated across the length and breadth of Biscay, but it reaches its highest expression in Bilbao. The Paseo del Arenal and the Plaza Nueva in Casco Viejo are filled with stalls selling the best produce from our ‘baserris’, the key ingredients to make our typical Christmas recipes. Capons, vegetables, legumes, chestnuts, doughnuts, honey, Idiazabal cheese, Karrantza cheese, and handicrafts–the best of the rural world can be found in the Biscayan capital on that day.

Apart from all that, given that the sight of so many delicacies is capable of whetting anyone’s appetite, Santo Tomás Market features plenty of stalls where you can have ‘talos’ with chorizo, which is a must-eat food available at almost every local fair. ‘Talos’ taste even better when accompanied with cider, sold by local growers and brewers, or ‘txakoli’ wine served cool. To round off the day, there is nothing like walking along the Christmas stalls that are set up all over the city, or going to the Convento de la Encarnación in Atxuri to get some of the sweets made in the convents of the region.

Another event that clearly exemplifies the Biscayan identity is the Durangoko Azoka. Since the fair was first held in 1965, it has been the perfect place to discover the work of Basque publishers and record labels. The place gives writers and musicians the chance to meet their readers and listeners. During the first days of December, Durango is a meeting place for Basque culture lovers and provides a vast cultural offer to all kinds of audiences.

  • Basque people have strong ties to the land and the sea – the two elements that have forged their unique identity, based on strongly held customs and traditions, an out-of-this-world cuisine, a series of traditional rural sports and the rhythm of folk dance and music.

    Above all, Basque people have their own language, Basque or Euskera, whose sounds are embellished through the art of bertsolaritza (oral poetry recitals).