10 things you should know about the Basques

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1 The Basques form a small, stateless nation of three million people, whose seven historical territories cover more than 20,000sq km (8,000sq m) on the French and Spanish sides of the northwestern Pyrenees.

This is the Basque nationalist view, representing a little more than half the population. Basques whose first loyalty is to Spain (or to France) might put the same facts in a different way: the Basques form a regional culture, dominant in three Spanish provinces and, to a lesser extent, in three French provinces, and present only in parts of a fourth Spanish province, Navarre.

2 Today the Basques are probably best known internationally for the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao, designed by Frank Gehry and widely regarded as one of the signature buildings of the late 20th century. The Guggenheim symbolises the reinvention of Bilbao, from 19th-century "coketown" to 21st-century cosmopolitan metropolis of the arts and IT industries. Upmarket tourists and businesses are flooding in.

The Basques are also one of the oldest, if not the oldest, peoples in Europe. Their language, Euskera, bears no clear relationship to any other language in the world. They have lived in the same place for more than 2,000 years; some Basque nationalists claim that should read 10,000. They say that they are descendants of Cro-Magnon Man and that they are the only European people who continue to occupy the sites where they originally evolved.

The Basque word for "nine" is bederatzi. "Yes" is bai. "No" is ez. "I live in Bilbao" translates as "Ni Bilbon bizi naiz," literally "I Bilbao in to live am."

5 Many Basques move fluidly and comfortably between a rural culture of traditional folk dances in exotic costumes, archaic rural sports, such as rock-lifting and goose- decapitation, and a prosperous, cool and ultra-contemporary urban lifestyle.

6 At least one Basque passion crosses all political boundaries: an obsession with food and drink. The Basques boast that they have more Michelin stars per square kilometre than any other country. Tens of thousands of Basque men belong to gastronomic societies, where they cook elaborate meals for each other at least once a week. Women are generally excluded as members, though they may enter as guests. The men generally pay women to do the cleaning and the washing-up.

The Basque Country boasts a painted forest, a disappearing wave and some of the best cave paintings in the world. Within two hours' drive you can surf off sandy Atlantic beaches and wander badlands reminiscent of Arizona. In between you can meander through breast- shaped hills cloaked in bucolic beech forests, picnic in Elysian alpine meadows or climb snow-capped peaks of Himalayan harshness.

Eta, an armed group that fights for Basque independence, killed dictator Gen Franco's prime minister in the middle of Madrid in 1973. The assassination was so professional that many observers believed, wrongly, that Mossad, the KGB or the CIA (take your pick) was involved. When Spain became a democracy, in 1978, Eta continued to pursue independence, using increasingly indiscriminate terrorist tactics. The group has killed more than 700 people since then, many of them civilians, despite the unprecedented powers granted to a Basque regional government by Madrid. With the IRA ceasefire, Eta has become the last indigenous terrorist group operating in western Europe. Batasuna, a political party that refuses to condemn Eta's terrorism, was banned in 2002, despite gaining significant support in every previous election from up to 19 per cent of Basque voters.

Spanish governments have also run terrorist campaigns against Eta. Between 1983 and 1987, armed groups known as the Gal killed 29 people, many of them unconnected to the radicals. The Gal left bombs in the street and machine-gunned bars, in one case seriously wounding two little girls. A government minister and a general have been jailed, for short periods, for Gal-related crimes.

10 The Basques are said to ask themselves three questions every day: Who are we? Where do we come from? And the most important of all: Where are we going for dinner tonight? "

Where to stay and eat

Bixente Zulaika, who runs the restaurant and rents houses in Lastur, can be contacted at bzulaika@ euskalnet.net, 00-34-943- 199033 or 00-34-63- 6006823.

Bar-restaurante de Lastur/ Casas Rurales Elizondo, Plaza San Nikolas de Lastur, Itziar, 00-34-943-199082.

Maitane Beristain, who runs the hostel in Lastur, can be contacted at naparranekua@ hotmail.com, 0034-943- 199090 or 00-34-67-9928393.

Albergue Naparrenekua de Lastur, Plaza San Nikolas de Lastur, Itziar, 00-34-943- 199090, naparrenekua@ hotmail.com

Josu Zubikarai used to run a prestigious restaurant in Washington, the Alarbardero, where his guests included Al Gore and the Rolling Stones. He has returned to his family restaurant, the Burugorri, in Itziar, which serves first-class Basque meals. 8 Mutxiarte, Itziar, 00-34-943-199242, www.burugorri.com, itziartarra@hotmail.com.

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