A unique and original culture


Basque is spoken on both sides of the Western Pyrenees, and is therefore to be found in both Spain and France. Basque, or Euskera is the co-official language – with Spanish – of the Basque Autonomous Community, or Euskadi, formed by the provinces of Álava (Araba), Gipuzkoa and Bizkaia.

The Etxepare Institute, dependent upon the Basque Government and responsible for promoting and disseminating the Basque language and culture across the world, explains the following about the origin of Euskera:

“Euskera is a genetically isolated language: i.e. it does not belong to a known linguistic family. Nor is the origin of the language clear. The first texts written in Euskera date from the 16th century, although as far back as the 10th century songs, expressions and words can be found in other languages. However, the first book written in Basque is Linguae Vasconum Primitiae, written by Bernard Dechepare in 1545. In 1571 Joannes Leiçarraga translated the New Testament into Basque. Since then, literary tradition in Basque has continued in the different dialects of the language, and this tradition was furthered with the creation, in 1968, of the regulations for standardising the language, issued by Euskaltzaindia, the Royal Academy of the Basque Language”.

San Sebastián is the Basque capital with the highest number of Basque speakers and largest percentage of bilinguals. According to the last survey carried out by the Basque Government, a third of its population is bilingual, in other words, they regularly speak in either of the two languages.

The Basque language forms the nucleus of an original, special, different and interesting culture. It is a popular culture, where the participation of people has always been one of the main ingredients. Coloured with strains of tradition and folklore, the Basque culture encompasses unique and unusual disciplines still practiced today:



Pelota Vasca

Different pelota games were played as far back as Roman times. Their main characteristic was that the opponents stood facing one another and the material of the balls used meant that they hardly had any bounce to them.

Once rubber was introduced to their composition, the balls had more of a bounce and could be played off a wall. Hence the birth of Basque pelota.

The creative ideas of the pelota players led to the introduction of new materials and playing courts:

Types of pelota courts

  • Left wall pelota court
    This is the installation par excellence of professional competition. The main features of this kind of pelota court are a front wall (frontis) and another on the left–hand side. Professional courts are also closed in and are often covered (many of the pelota courts in villages and neighbourhoods don't have these characteristics).

  • Trinquete
    This kind of pelota court is a legacy of the “jeu de paume” played in France and is therefore more common in the French Basque Country. Given their varying architectural characteristics, the different courts are used for different kinds of game: red, tejadillo, xare...

  • Open pelota court
    The most simple of all courts, consisting of a wall and unlimited playing space.

Game modes

    • Hand Pelota
      This is the most common mode as it only takes a ball and a wall to play. Each ball or pelota is unique. Hence, one of the most interesting moments in the professional pelota formalities is when the opponents are presented with a selection of balls from which they choose the ones that best suit their game: faster, slower...

    • Pala
      In several modes palas or bats of different sizes are used to hit the ball. The size of the wooden bat depends on the kind of ball used and the court played. All bats are made in wood.

    • Chistera
      Cesta punta (“jai-alai” in Basque, and in English) is the best known mode outside the Basque Country. It was introduced by the pelota-players who emigrated to other countries: Miami, the Philippines, South America... However, there are other modes where the chistera or basket-glove is used: joko garbi and remonte. In these modes the player cannot stop the pelota (unlike cesta punta). Instead, they have to catch the pelota in the basket and throw it again in a single movement.

    • Xare
      Popular in the French Basque Country, xare is a loosely woven racket that catches the ball rather than hitting it. When throwing the ball it is the wrist movement that lends speed and effect to the pelota.



Reagatas de La ConchaRegattas in La Concha

Fishing boat races take their origins from two sources: on the one hand coastal fishing, and on the other the towing of big ships.
Fishing of this kind required strong individuals capable of rowing for hours until reaching the fishing grounds, hauling the fish onto the boats, and returning to port with their catch. The races were born from the competition and bets between different teams of oarsmen.

As for the towing, in ports of difficult access, such as those of Bilbao and Pasajes, the big ships were pulled into place by longboats. Having sighted ships heading for the port from lookout points, the boats would compete to see who could reach the ship first and get paid for their work.

Today these races have become a professional sport with its own championships. The best known and most popular competition is the Regata de La Concha, held in San Sebastián. Organised for the first time in 1879 as another feature on the local summer calendar of festivities, its enormous success convinced the City Council to include the event in later programmes. Today it is a hugely colourful event followed by thousands of people.



Basque rural sport, or herri kirolak is the term used to describe the sports traditionally practiced in the rural areas of the Basque Country. Most of these sports take their origin from work in these rural areas. Neighbours or the inhabitants of a village would compete to see who was best at their jobs, and the competitions eventually turned into sports. Thus, for example, the chopping of tree trunks for firewood led to the aizkolaris or wood-choppers; while the moving of huge rocks for use in construction led to stone-lifting (the people who practice the sport are called harrijasotzailes in Basque) and the pulling of enormous stones by oxen (idi probak), etc.



Like in many other cultures, dance has always played a hugely important part in Basque social and religious life. Many of the dances still performed at popular festivities have been in continuous existence for over 400 years. There are endless individual and group dances, and every popular celebration and festivity usually has its own typical version.



Bertsolarismo, the improvisation of Basque verse, is one of the most peculiar disciplines in the Basque culture. A bertso involves improvising verse, in song, to a set rhyme and melody. It requires bertsolaris to have large amounts of imagination, oral skill and mental agility. Bertsolari competitions are still organised today throughout the Basque Country, mainly in popular festivities, cider houses, etc. There are even bertsolari schools that have produced a new generation of improvisers who achieve tremendous standards of quality and popularity.