Peace at Last?

Home to glittering beaches, robust wines, piquant foods and Bilbao’s sparkling new Guggenheim Museum, the Basque Country of northern Spain has been riven by separatist violence for decades. Though political tensions linger, terrorists agreed to a cease-fire this past March. Will it mean peace at last?

In San Sebastián (where condos dot the beach), a real-estate boom reflects a region betting on long-term stability. (Christopher Anderson)
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Nowhere are the benefits of waning tension more evident than in San Sebastián, a cosmopolitan seaside resort that comfortably straddles the Basque and Spanish worlds. Twelve miles west of the French border, along a rugged, horseshoe-shaped bay facing the Bay of Biscay, San Sebastián was a Basque fishing and trading town until the mid-19th century; in 1845 Spanish queen Isabel II, stricken with a skin ailment, came to bathe in the Bay of Concha on her doctor's orders. Aristocrats from Madrid and Barcelona followed, throwing up beachfront cabanas and Belle Epoque villas, wedding-cake structures adorned with turrets and spires. Along the Rio Urumea, a tidal river that empties into the Bay of Concha and divides the city in two, I strolled the Paseo de Francia—a faux stretch of the Ile St. Louis, with a Seine-like promenade.

San Sebastián itself has been the scene of political violence: in 1995, an ETA gunman walked into a downtown bar and shot dead one of the city's most popular politicians, Gregorio Ordoñez. Six years later, thousands marched silently through the streets to protest the murder of newspaper executive Santiago Oleaga Elejabarrieta. But there hasn't been a shooting or bombing here in years. Real estate is booming, with two-bedroom condominiums facing the sea fetching up to a million euros.

I went to lunch in the affluent Gros neighborhood with Gabriella Ranelli and her husband, Aitor Aguirre, a 39-year-old former professional player of pelota, similar to the sport better known in the United States as jai alai, the indoor game played with a hard rubber ball and gloves with basket-like extensions. (Pelota is the most popular sport in Basque Country.) We stopped by Aloña Berri, a pintxos bar known for its exquisite food miniatures, and ordered plates of Chipiron en Equilibria, a tiny square of rice infused with squid broth, served with sugar crystals spun around a wooden stick that spears a baby squid. Sophisticated establishments like this one have transformed San Sebastián into one of the culinary centers of Western Europe. Aguirre told me that these days the city is dedicated far more to the pursuit of good times than political agitation. "The roots of the Basque problems are in the provinces, where Basque culture is strongest, the language is spoken all the time and people feel that their identity is more threatened," he added. "Here, on the coast, with the cosmopolitan influence, we don't feel it as much."

Still, San Sebastián remains distinctly Basque. About 40 percent of its population speaks Basque; identification with Spain is not strong. Here, separatist politics still stir emotions. Spanish director Julio Medem's documentary La Pelota Vasca (The Basque Ball), featuring interviews with 70 Basques about the conflict, created a furor at the 2003 San Sebastián film festival. And memories of Franco's brutalities are etched into the city's psyche. The palace, where Franco vacationed for 35 years, has been shuttered since his death in November 1975; the city still debates whether to turn it into a museum, a hotel or a memorial to his victims.

One rainy afternoon, after taking in an exhibition of Russian paintings at Bilbao's Guggenheim Museum, I made the 30-minute drive to Gernika, set in a narrow riverine valley in Vizcaya Province. Gernika is the spiritual capital of the Basques, whose ancient culture and language, some believe, date back several thousand years. From medieval times, Castilian monarchs met here, beneath a sacred oak, to guarantee the Basques their traditional rights, or fueros, including special tax status and exemption from serving in the Castilian army. But in 1876, at the end of the second Carlist War in Spain, these guarantees were finally abrogated, and the Basques' dreams of autonomy or independence from Spain were indefinitely deferred.

I parked my car at the edge of town and walked to the main square, the site of the Gernika Peace Museum, which commemorates the event that has come to define the town. When the Spanish Civil War broke out in 1936, the Basques allied themselves with the Republican government, or Loyalists, against the fascists, led by Franco. On April 26, 1937, the Italian and German Air Forces, on Franco's orders, carpet-bombed and strafed Gernika, killing at least 250 people, an event immortalized by Picasso's painting named for the town. (The artist used an alternate spelling.) "Gernika is seared into the heart of every Basque," I was told by Ana Teresa Núñez Monasterio, an archivist at the city's new Peace Museum, which features multimedia displays chronicling the bombing.

Franco's fascist forces defeated the Loyalists in 1939; from then on, the dictator waged a relentless campaign to erase Basque identity. He drove the leadership into exile, banned the Basque flag and traditional dancing, and made even speaking Basque punishable by a prison term. Some families reverted to speaking Spanish, even in the privacy of their homes; others taught the language to their children in secret, or sent them to clandestine schools, or ikastola. Children caught speaking Basque in regular schools were punished; teachers would pass a steel ring from one student caught speaking Basque to the next; the last one to hold the ring each day would be whipped. Margarita Otaegui Arizmendi, the director of the language center at the Deusto University in San Sebastián, recalls, "Franco was very successful in instilling fear. A lot of the children grew up without a knowledge of Basque—we call them ‘the generation of silence.'"

After Franco's death, King Juan Carlos took power and legalized the Basque language; in 1979, he granted autonomy to the three Spanish Basque provinces, Alava, Guipúzcoa and Vizcaya. (Basque separatists also regard the Spanish province of Navarra as part of their homeland.) In 1980, a Basque parliament elected a president and established a capital at Vitoria-Gasteiz, beginning a new era. But ETA, founded by a small group of revolutionaries in 1959, has never given up its goal—full independence for the Spanish Basque provinces and unification with the three Basque-speaking provinces on the French side (where the nationalist movement is less fervent). For many Spanish Basques, the goal of independence has come to seem meaningless. "There's a whole generation of people under the age of 30 who have no memories of Franco," a Basque journalist told me. "We have prosperity, we have autonomy, we're pretty well off on all counts."

The journey from San Sebastián to Ordizia takes only 30 minutes by road through rugged hills cloaked in forests of oak, apple and pine, but it bridges a gap as wide as that between, say, Washington, D.C. and Appalachia. It had been raining nonstop for three days when I set out; the mist shrouding the slopes and red-tile-roofed villages conveyed a sense of a world cut off from Europe. Located in the highlands of Guipúzcoa, regarded as the most "Basque" of the three provinces, Ordizia is a town of 9,500 that was founded in the 13th century. When I arrived, crowds were flocking to the market in the town square, beneath an Athenian arcade-style roof supported by a dozen Corinthian columns. Elderly men wearing traditional wide, black berets, known as txapelas, browsed through piles of fresh produce, wheels of Idiazabal sheep cheese, olives and chorizo sausages. Outside rose green hills covered by concrete high-rises; Franco had ordered them built in the 1960s and packed them with workers from the rest of Spain—a strategy, many in Ordizia say, intended to weaken Basque identity.

With almost no unemployment and fertile highlands, Ordizia is one of the wealthiest corners of Spain. Yet almost everybody here has been touched by violence: there is the Basque policeman, posted out of town, who keeps his job secret from his neighbors for fear of being killed, the stationery store owner whose daughter, a convicted ETA bomb-maker, languishes in a Spanish prison hundreds of miles away. In a seedy bar clubhouse in one of the high-rises on the outskirts of town, I met Iñaki Dubreuil Churruca, a Socialist town councilman: in 2001, he narrowly escaped a car bomb explosion that killed two bystanders. I asked him how many people from Ordizia had been murdered by ETA, and he and a friend began counting, rattling off a dozen or so names: "Isidro, Ima, Javier, Yoye....We knew them all," he said.

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

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