Exploring cultures and communities – the slow way

The tiny village of Urzainki in the Basque Pyrenees is a mere fleck on the map. But it is a place with connections. Can it really be true that this one village has a link with an erstwhile Pope, an American President, the Bronte family and a South American political leader?

article summary —

Several mid to late nineteenth-century travellers compiled collections of the local tales recounted in the Basque villages in the valleys of the western Pyrenees. Many of these stories had common themes, focusing on the origin and legitimation of a community by recounting its history and thus confirming modern status. Karlos Zurutuza, a regular contributor to hidden europe and a Basque native speaker, has taken time out from his normal beat in the Caucasus and is just back from a long winter spent in Urzainki. It is a place that - if you believe the tale - should really be a wonder of the world.

Three-year-old Lakora rides her tricycle along Urzainki´s cobbled main street. Urzainki is a mere fleck on the map, a tiny village in the northern part of Spain's Navarre region. The temperature hovers around freezing and Lakora shoots up into the air at every bump on the rough road. But little does Lakora care about the discomfort. When she tires of the trike ride, she'll play on the brand new swings that have been placed by the side of the road in this Pyrenean mountain village.

"These are my swings," asserts Lakora with pride. With some measure of truth, for Lakora is the first child born in Urzainki for thirteen years. It is no easy task for Lakora's mother, Iratxe, to explain to her stubborn daughter that she might have to share the swings with other kids - it does happen at weekends when folk from further south venture up into the Erronkari ibaxa (the local Basque name for this mountain valley - the Roncal valley in English).

the bar

The Gazpar bar is a focal point for much of Urzainki life. It is on the main street. Inside the Gazpar, hanging on the wall, is a fading early photo of the village. A shot taken about a hundred years back. It shows a couple of almadieros, the local men who navigated the freezing and wild waters of the mountain rivers, piloting rafts full of valuable timber. Many of these men didn't even know how to swim but still they managed to steer their craft through turbulent waters right down to Zaragoza.

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Not content with the conventional maps of Europe and the Middle East, Karlos decided to hit the road and produce his own! He maps the contours of cultural life: Aromanians from Albania, Yezidies in northern Iraq, Armenian villages in Abkhazia and the Georgians in South Ossetia. These and a myriad of other isolated communities are the ‘pixels’ that Karlos plots on his ‘hi-res’ maps. Were it not for the magnetic effect that the mountains of Kurdistan have on him, he would gladly spend his entire life circumnavigating the Black Sea. He travels light, yet there is always space in his small backpack for two favourite books: Neil Ascherson’s The Black Sea and Jules Verne’s Keraban the Terrible. Karlos writes in Basque, Spanish and English. His work has been published in several newspapers and magazines. He can be contacted at kzurutuza@gmail.com.

This article was published in hidden europe 26.