National Geographic : 1954 Feb
The National Geographic Magazine Soon we were winding upward into the heart of the lovely Bidassoa Valley. Along the way we were halted three times by armed frontier guards, who looked inside the car for contraband, then politely waved us on. Each guard was accompanied by a Spanish customs officer, for smuggling is engaged in by many Basques on both sides of the frontier. They do not regard evading customs as a crime, unless it is accompanied by violence. In the days when they enjoyed local auton omy, smuggling was unnecessary. Now they take delight in "fooling the foreigners.'' Pamplona spreads out on a rocky peninsula overlooking the River Arga and a highly culti vated plain. Beyond is a backdrop of wild mountains and deep valleys, in one of which St. Francis Xavier was born. This section has rich agricultural resources that provide a solid basis for prosperity and development. Its excellent agricultural col lege now sponsors up-to-date methods for crop and stock raising. Fighting Bulls Loosed in Streets Once a year, on July 7, during the Feast of San Fermin, fighting bulls, which are to ap pear in the bull ring later, are set free in the streets of Pamplona to run after would-be matadors. In a wild stampede of man and beast, even women may be knocked down and trampled (page 180). Boards protect some shop fronts, but many merchants merely trust that the mass of struggling humanity will make its own wall between charging bull and store windows. We drove to Irurzun on an excellent high way, then mounted steadily by a rough, zig zag road toward Huici. Thence we descended in corkscrew fashion to Leiza, centered in a beautiful wooded region (page 185). It was Sunday morning when we pulled up before the pelota court in the Plaza del Tercio de San Miguel. The little town of 1,600 people seemed almost deserted. A few late worshipers were climbing the slope leading to a blue-gray church, and one small boy was practicing with a ball in a corner of the pelota court. As we drove on into Zaldivia, we were met by a parish priest, who showed us a string of shaggy mountain ponies tethered to a hitch ing rail outside a general store. Delighted children ran their hands over the smooth polish of our parked car. One small boy wanted to bet me that he could reach the top of a neighboring mountain in an hour and a half, and return in another hour. I estimated the peak was at least two miles away, but, knowing the agility of Basque children, I begged off from the bet. This caused an uproar, momentarily quelled when I gave the boy a bag of candies. Unfortunately, as the other children crowded around, he dropped the bag: it burst, scattering its contents in the dust. A wild scramble ensued. By the time the sweets had been retrieved, most of the contestants bore scars of battle. Near Azpeitia, in Guipuzcoa, we stopped at the famous Monastery of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The saint was born in this Prov ince, a fact that I was constantly reminded of when I met local Basques: one in every three seemed to bear his Christian name. The monastery's gigantic stairway, statues, columns, and a cupola some 180 feet high present a profusion of bronze, granite, onyx, and alabaster. One chapel is all onyx, with an altar of gold and steel. Our looping mountain-to-sea route now led us again to the Bay at San SebastiAn. Like Biarritz on the French side of Eskual-Herria, it has become a cosmopolitan seaside resort (page 178). Lafayette Sailed from Pasajes Its neighbor Pasajes holds a warm Basque American memory. From this port Lafayette sailed in 1777 for America to aid the cause of the revolution that would give birth to a new nation. Driving west, beyond Usurbil, we almost came to the end of all our travels. As we rounded a curve, we were startled to see, not 30 yards ahead, a huge felled tree crashing straight for the road. Arthur braked the car so sharply that it spun completely around. Three Basque lumberjacks appeared. Learning we were unhurt, they pointed across the road where, all but hidden by weeds, was a red warning flag we had not seen. Apologies followed, but the road was so nar row that we had to drive all the way back to Usurbil to find space to turn around. It was stifling hot when we arrived in Orio, a fishing port of sad old houses with narrow iron balconies coated with rust. An odor of fish pervaded the streets. Women sat knitting in dark doorways or leaned out of windows to hang up their wash.