Just back from a trip to the Spanish Pyrenees, staying in a village high in the mountains where I endeavoured to improve my Spanish and conquer my fear of the subjunctive in the company of 5 other like-minded people! My once good grasp of the language was getting rusty and when I read about a course in the Basque area (Navarre), I signed up. The Pyrennean Experience promised mountain walks, good company, magnificent scenery and total immersion in the language and it delivered on all counts.
Our home for the period was in a farmhouse in the hamlet of Ameztia, 4km from the quintessentially Basque village of Ituren in the valley of Baztan nestled in the foothills of the Spanish Pyrenees. It was about an hour from the smart city of San Sebastian, approximately the same from Bilbao, and Biarritz on the French side was only 90 minutes away.
Located on a hill encircled by white-washed villages and ringed by mountain ridges, there was nothing near the farmhouse to distract from the learning process or the bonding of the six mature students, two teachers, and the owner and organizer of the Pyrenean Experience, Georgina.
What was a distraction was the constantly changing scenery, the glow of the bracken, the shadows on the beech and chestnut woods, and the intense green of the surrounding fields cropped to a velvety smoothness by flocks of sheep, the muffled sound of whose bells was the only sound to punctuate the silence of the valley.
To describe the views from the house as stunning is an understatement. From dawn till dusk the changing views from the terrace of my room were a constant delight. In the early morning, clouds nestled in the valleys below the mountains as the rising sun edged the clouds pink and the warmth of the red tiled roof attracted the house cats to snooze there for most of the day. In the evenings we watched the distant mountains darken and eagles wheeling in slow motion in the sky above.
Those nights looking out on the mountains and watching the birds overhead made it all too possible to believe in the Basque myths, a belief that helps keep alive the tradition of appeasing witches. Most of the houses in the vicinity will have pinned to their door one of the symbols said to repel witches (see image below).
Belief in witches in the villages of Navarre has existed for many years. Once socially functional, a means of explaining why strange things occurred, acting to discourage undesirable behaviour and used as a form of social control, it has a long history. Douglas Gifford in his book Witchcraft and the Problem of Evil in a Basque Village (1979) tells us that the phrase ‘bad neighbours‘ (malos vecinos) in the Basque region was synonymous with ‘bruja’, meaning ‘witch’, a belief that seems to have followed on from the witch hunts in the area during the Inquisition and from the 17th century influx of refugees from France who brought stories of the witches’ Sabbath and devil worship.
Back to the mountains! Daily circular walks were guided by Georgina, sometimes accompanied by one of the teachers, but we spoke Spanish at all times – an essential part of the teaching. The walks were graded from moderate to intermediate level, from lazy walks from village to village to high level ridge walks at over 1,000 metres. To walk in this virtually unexplored medieval landscape of the Basque Pyrenees is humbling: it is both beautiful and awe-inspiring, the hospitality of the people is unbelievable, and the flora will have you reaching for your camera every few minutes.
Ituren, the nearest inhabited spot, is a delightful village with a school, 2 bars, 3 restaurants, a village shop, a butcher, a chemist and a hairdresser. Hand-made bracken stacks along the road are a feature of the area as are the dry-stone walls which enclose the fields.
There was a wine tasting one evening, courtesy of a Navarre wine producer, an informal musical evening by a professional guitarist, and lots of late night conversations over unlimited bottles of wine.
Trips to other villages were made, visits to neighbouring farmhouses where we ate home-made cheese and drank home-made cider (the local tipple), and delightful lunches were laid on in outlying villages to coincide with walks and sight-seeing.
Meals were taken together, breakfasts being a ‘help yourself to whatever you want from the kitchen when you get up’, and Begoña, our cook, produced meals that satisfied everyone and even let us help sometimes!
The Basque area has been side-lined for decades and starved of budgets to promote itself. The dairy cattle industry has collapsed, as it has in a lot of other countries, and the farmers have now turned to sheep farming to survive. Artisans, artists, millers, and Michelin-recommended restaurants struggle to make a living because the world is hardly aware of the existence of this region of peace and tranquility with scenery to rival anything that Europe has to offer. Nearby San Sebastian hosts world-renowned restaurants, Bilbao has the Guggenheim Museum, and Biarritz has trendy shops so the area really offers everything.
What will take me back to that area again will be the sense of time-unchanging, the slow tempo of life, a dozen or more children coming together to play on the community Pelota Court, and above all, the silence of the mountains, the only sound the distant bells of the sheep in the fields or the horses coming home from the fields.
My Pyrenean Experience was a house-party like no other I’ve experienced, a room with a view to die for, and the chance to walk on paths only traversed by animals and a few intrepid humans. What more is needed to heal the soul?
Check out the website to get an idea of what’s on offer. The photographs tell the whole story. If you like walking in the mountains, you’ll love this. No need to learn Spanish, you can just go for the walking, the camaraderie and a Spanish experience you won’t forget. www.pyreneanexperience.com Tel: 34 6507 13759