National Geographic : 1954 Feb
Life in the Land of the Basques When I first heard this frightful sound, late at night, I sprang out of bed and ran to the window. Outside, I saw only two Basques plodding home in the moonlight. Then, as I turned away, I heard the cry again. Beginning as a derisive laugh, it changed to a horse's shrill neigh, then to a wolf's howl, and ended like the expiring notes of a jackass's bray. Leaving St. Jean de Luz, we crossed a bridge over the Nivelle to Ciboure, which occupies one side of a little fishing harbor crowded with the green, blue, and red boats of the tuna and sardine fleets. Here again we met men with hair worn long, well greased, and often in ringlets, such as we had already seen in many parts of the Basque country. These dark-skinned people, called Cascarots, may have Gypsy blood. Some students believe them to be descendants of the Moors who conquered Spain. Pelota Shots Crack Like Rifle Fire In Urrugne, home of pelota champions, we saw an exciting demonstration of this old sport at the municipal frontdn, or court, which measured about 300 feet long, 60 feet wide, and 30 feet high. Something like a fast game of tennis, but physically far more demanding, pelota is a passion with the Basques. The pelota itself, the small, heavy ball that gives the game its name, is covered with goat's hide. A trifle smaller than a tennis ball, it weighs about seven ounces. It was first bounced on the pavement by the server, who then swept it up in his scoop and hurled it against the vertical wall. Taken by an oppo nent, it was returned like lightning, to be caught again by another and treated in the same manner. The first rally lasted more than a minute, until one side failed to redeliver. Served again, the ball this time struck below a black line drawn horizontally across the wall, some 36 inches above the ground. This counted a point to the server's opponents. Serves and returns of the ball cracked against the cement wall like rifle shots. The players wore white shirts, white linen trousers, and hemp-soled espadrilles, light shoes that may wear out during one game. Red and blue markings on shoulders or belts distinguish the teams. Pelota players are temperamental. After a bad stroke, one or two would lean with bowed head against the wall as if stricken to the heart. Some of the many mottoes and inscriptions that we saw written over the doors of old Basque houses offered other sidelights on the character of these people. I especially re member three. "The past has deceived me. The present torments me. The future frightens me," was one on a Cambo house dated 1707. Another read like a placard in a modern office: "Nothing is more burdensome to busy people than the visit of those who are not." The third was on the belfry of an old church at Sare: "All the hours shower blows on man. The last sends him to the tomb." On the road out of St. Pee sur Nivelle (page 175), we saw typical Basque farmhouses, with the stable in a prominent place at the center of the building. We passed old four-wheelers and tiny shays, drawn by a mule or a donkey. Horses were few, and not once did we see a tractor. It is hardly worth while to use tractors here, since the farms usually cover only 5 to 25 acres and rarely exceed 50. In any case, the ma chines would capsize along the steep valley slopes. Basques, some wearing crimson sashes, were busy scything the first crop of grass. Arthur was curious about the absence of cows in the pastures. I explained that French Basques frequently keep their cattle stabled except when taking them for a drink at the stream. The pastures are so small that grass is cut by hand, with tremendous labor, rather than risk any overgrazing. Workers Turn Soil in Unison More than once we saw whole families turning the soil with heavy two-pronged forks. Drawn up like soldiers on parade, the workers moved together in a straight line. They would lift their forks to shoulder height, then sud denly plunge them, all together, into the ground. At the inland river town of St. Jean Pied de Port we found children playing a game somewhat like old-fashioned hopscotch. On the local pelota court a number of squares were marked in chalk with a bird, a cow, a chistera, and a swastika. As a child hopped from one square to another, he tried to avoid the symbol. The game was won apparently by the player with the fewest penalties.