Bayonne, French Basque Country

Oct 01, 2017 - National Geographic Orion


Today was our first port-of-call in the Basque Country. The Basques have three provinces in France and four in Spain, so that Basque separatists have long used the slogan:  4 + 3 = 1.  If any county in Europe deserves independence it is surely the Basques. Their language is unique in Europe in being not only non Indo-European (the great arc of related languages that stretch from the southern tip of India to the west coast of Ireland that are ultimately derived from a proto-Indo European language closely related to Sanskrit) but also of unknown origin. The Finno-Ugritic group of languages—Hungarian, Estonian, Finnish and Saami—are non Indo-European languages, but linguists know that this group of languages intruded into Europe from central Asia. No one to this day has found any other language related to Basque. A common theory is that Basque is the aboriginal language of Europe, the language of the hunter gatherers before the first farming peoples arrived in the Neolithic period speaking the Indo-European dialects. A further fascinating difference between the Basques and their neighbours (who all speak Romance languages deriving from Latin) is that they have a different predominant blood group from the rest of Europe, O Rhesus Negative. Recent genetic work suggests that this gave the Basques an in-built biological tendency to inter-marry to protect the quality of their offspring, thus preserving the culture over time.

We arrived in Bayonne, which is known for several things: the invention of its eponymous bayonet, Bayonne ham, and chocolate. Bayonne saw some of the first imports of chocolate from the New World into the Old and artisan chocolate makers abound in the region, one of which we visited today. A tour into the Basque countryside saw us visit the picturesque village of Aïnhoa, with its seventeenth-century church of Our Lady of the Assumption and its wide central street, the latter forming part of the historical camino route to Santiago de Compostella. Espelette, also part of our tour, is internationally famous for its paprika production. We had cider and Bayonne ham at a traditional Basque farmhouse, preserved in seventeenth-century style complete with period furnishings. The owner explained the spiritual importance of the Basque house (etxe) to Basque society before serving us delicious homemade cider, Bayonne ham, and sheep’s cheese. 

Those who cycled or walked in Bayonne visited a city with many handsome buildings, including the Cathedral of Saint Catherine that has a stained glass window with one of the earliest representations of a central rudder in European art (another Basque invention). The Basques have always been great seafarers. One Basque word, at least, has gone into English: the word harpoon from the whaling industry. The outer walls of the town, as in many other ports along the French coast, were constructed by the great seventeenth-century French military engineer Vauban.

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About the Author

David Barnes

Expedition Leader

David studied history at the University of York in England and theology at the University of Wales.  Research in the field of religious history (at Cardiff) followed on naturally.  He has spent most of his professional life teaching history, most recently in adult education departments within the University of Wales where he has taught a wide variety of courses pertinent to the wider Atlantic world.  In 1988, he made his first lecture-tour of the U.S. for the English Speaking Union. He has published extensively on Welsh history and topography–his most recent book being the Companion Guide to Wales (2005)–and is a frequent contributor of articles and reviews to Welsh cultural and literary journals.  In the1990s, David was active in the field of international education, traveling worldwide and spending a year in the U.S. (in Atlanta and New York City).  He speaks English and French in addition to his native Welsh.

About the Photographer

Steve Morello

Naturalist/Certified Photo Instructor

Steve Morello has had a long and colorful career in the natural history world. Born in New Jersey he was lucky to be able to summer on the shores of Cape Cod. Whether it was exploring the tidal pools, snorkeling along the beach, or hiking in the dunes, it all came together to instill in him a deep connection to the natural world. It was no surprise that he would return to the Cape as a whale researcher in his adult years. It was on the Cape that Steve first became involved in guiding, and for 15 years acted as naturalist on whale watching boats in the Gulf of Maine. Steve worked with groups creating environmental education material for school programs and soon found another one of his passions, photography.

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