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Basque Country's Wine and Golf

Jose Fernandes Basque in the Glory

Photo: Jose Fernandes

The Basques are Europe' s inscrutables. Some consider them Berbers, and others say they descend from a small tribe in the Caucasus, but in truth no one has any idea what their lineage is. In language, culture, customs and physique, they are bewilderingly distinct from their neighbors. Whereas Spain is a country of blinding gold-leaf altarpieces, the Basques' Catholicism, according to the writer V. S. Pritchett, is so unadorned as to be almost Protestant. It is likely they have been in their wooded corner of the Pyrenees since the Cro-Magnons displaced the Neanderthals, and they' ve remained unconquered by the Moors, Charlemagne, Franco or anyone else.

This uniqueness, of course, underlies the belief of many Basques that indeed they should have their own sovereignty. Basque country is today a semiautonomous region of northern Spain in the western Pyrenees Mountains and along the Bay of Biscay; it includes the cities of Bilbao and Pamplona as well as the Rioja wine district and many smaller towns. Historically and culturally, the region also extends into the southwestern corner of France. More than three million people live in the entire area, the vast majority of them on the Spanish side.

I first visited Basque country in the spring of 2000 with my wife and infant daughter. My wife was born in a Basque village called Lesaka and hadn' t seen it in twenty-one years. We were living in Valencia, and until then I had only ever known Mediterranean Spain. For her it was a homecoming; for me a revelation. Valencia is sweltering, dusty, baroque, noisily hedonistic, and full of fireworks, fiestas and politicians who get rich with suspicious rapidity; the streets, not the homes, form the center of life. Basque country, by contrast, is verdant, reserved and plain, with fresh Atlantic breezes, oak-covered mountains, musical streams and rivers rich in trout. Loyalty, rectitude and dignity are three of the principal virtues here. Its villages are immaculate, and flowers spill from the window ledges and balconies of their pitch-roofed, timber-fronted houses.

I returned years later to make a looping journey through the Basque country of France and Spain and to play some golf along the way. I started in the south, in La Rioja Alavesa, a dry place with long vistas and expansive vineyards, more like Castile than the green and mountainous land immediately to the north. The Argentine writer Alberto Manguel considers red " the emblematic color" of Basque country: " Blood seems to have touched everything: the earth, the houses, the faces, the rituals, the sunsets, the meat, the wine." Wine dominates life here, the grapes cared for as if they were children. There is a legend that the first vines were brought by a nephew of Noah, who planted them by the banks of the River Oja. The Romans knew of the Rioja vintages. As you drive around, you see entrances to estates whose names you' ve only seen before on menus: Muga, Cune, Ramón Bilbao, El Coto. Many of the bodegas are small and artisanal; others have spectacular architectural flourishes, such as Santiago Calatrava' s wavy-roofed bodega amid the vines at Ysios, or the one at Frank Gehry' s pink, gold and silver curvilinear Hotel Marqués de Riscal.

There was still enough light for a round of golf when I arrived in Rioja. I drove out of the Ebro Valley and into the Sierra de Cantabria mountains, the rust-colored terrain turning a vibrant green and the temperature, according to the indicator in my car, dropping twelve degrees Celsius in minutes. Passing grain-growing farms and pastureland, I eventually drove through the little village of Urturi, emerging on the other side to find the twenty-seven-hole Izki Golf Club. The Urturi course at Izki, designed by Seve Ballesteros, Spain' s aging lion of the links, is different in feel and history from any Spanish course I' ve played. It' s set in a vast, mountainous oak forest, far from any city, resort or development. Izki has a feeling of freshness from beginning to end, with some surprises—such as the lake next to the seventeenth—and at least one stunning view. This occurs after you descend the tiered landing areas of the peculiar thirteenth and then climb back up to the tee of the par-three fourteenth. You can look back across a valley of oaks to a range of mountain peaks and feel exhilaratingly alone.

That night I stayed in the medieval village of Laguardia. It is difficult to imagine how a place so ancient could also be so thriving, and due to the same source from which it has thrived for centuries: wine. The streets are narrow, but many of the houses have grand entrances bearing medieval crests. These homes typically have a bodega in the basement where wine is made or where txokos (pronounced " cho-kohs" ), the Basque all-male gastronomic societies, meet. Cars are not allowed beyond the village walls lest the extra stress collapse this intricate subterranean system, much of it linked by tunnels. I walked through the village, with its high density of bars, and listened to a small orchestra of woodwinds and brass play under the streetlights while children flitted to the melody and grandmothers danced cheek to cheek. Then I went into a bar that was owned, I learned, by the PNV, or Basque nationalist party. I tried to pronounce some of the slogans on the walls but couldn' t manage it. The Basque language, Euskera, as one writer once said, " looks as if it would feel in the mouth like bits of Brazil-nut shell."

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