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Spanish Language and Walking Holiday in the Basque Country

Veronica Yuill (aka minou)

Overview and Introduction

View of the Basque PyreneesAt the end of our three-month stay in the Spanish Basque country, we spent a week on a Pyrenean Experience walking and Spanish language course (it certainly would have been more useful at the beginning, but that’s how things panned out!). Georgina Howard has been running these holidays for the last 12 years, and we first went on one two years ago, staying in a large Basque farmhouse near Elizondo. Since then she has switched venues and now runs the holidays from her home in the tiny mountain hamlet of Ameztia. Guests stay with her neighbours Pili and Josean in a beautiful restored Basque farmhouse.

The basic program is walking in the mornings, lunch, a siesta, language lessons, then dinner, with one day left free to explore the area independently (most people choose to go to nearby San Sebastian by bus or taxi). Groups are small, never more than about eight, and Georgina is an expert at making everyone feel comfortable and tailoring itineraries and activities to suit the group. These holidays are particularly well-suited to people traveling alone; no single supplement, and it is a brilliant way of meeting congenial, like-minded people. By definition, people who come on these holidays are generally curious about and open to other cultures.

Note, Georgina aims for a true house-party atmosphere, so this is not a suitable holiday for those who expect hotel-style services, room service, en-suite bathrooms, swimming pool, satellite TV and the like. It is genuinely like staying in a friend's home, albeit a large and comfortable one.

For city dwellers, Ameztia may be a bit of a shock. It's remote. From the village of Ituren you drive up about five kilometres of steep, winding mountain road, dodging the odd flock of sheep or herd of wild ponies, and then turn onto a bumpy farm track for the last 100 metres to Lezko Borda. No popping into the village for a quick drink or to hit the shops! Noise pollution consists of the shrieking of the neighbour's peacocks, the clanking of cowbells, and the occasional passing tractor. The house is spacious and welcoming, and everything is provided; you truly can go through the entire week without spending any money except on the odd beer at a bar during walks.

Our intermediate-level group consisted of five people: us (a couple), two friends traveling together, and a single woman. We all hit it off really well; one of the pleasures of the week was simply chatting with other people about all manner of subjects, from gardening to food to politics. In Spanish of course :) Well, mostly. On the intermediate course, the house rule (not strictly policed!) is to speak Spanish from the start of the morning walk till the end of the afternoon class, but most evenings by mutual consent we all ended up simply sitting round the dinner table chatting as best we could in Spanish to Pili and Josean, who are great conversationalists. This certainly helped our learning; by the end of the week I was much better at understanding people, even if my speaking was still riddled with errors.

Forget images of classrooms and rote learning; here learning is completely integrated into the experience. Each day we would set out with Georgina and our teacher Alicia on a gentle walk in the beautiful Basque countryside, learning naturally by conversing about what we saw, and enjoying anecdotes and snippets of historical information from Georgina, who is a fount of knowledge about the area and passionate about Basque life and culture. Looking at a thing while learning the word for it really does help fix it in your mind. I admit that sometimes we had to stop walking because we were laughing too much (I remember a particularly saucy anecdote in which Georgina, describing a heraldic shield with a mermaid holding a mirror in one hand and a comb in the other to a group of Spanish tourists, unfortunately confused the word for comb with one for a part of male anatomy, to the great astonishment of her listeners). Another advantage of walking and learning is that if you just aren't feeling up to conversing, for whatever reason, you can dawdle along at the back admiring the scenery, and catch up when you are ready to take part again.

Walking and Learning

We'd already discovered that the large-scale walking maps of this area are very poor. Tracks marked on these often don't exist in reality, while most paths that do exist aren't on the maps and aren't waymarked. Over the years Georgina has developed an in-depth knowledge of unmarked tracks and paths, and we went on some beautiful walks we'd never have found without her, discovering a silent, sleeping Basque palace hidden in the woods, visiting a working watermill used to grind corn, eating lunch in a secret garden with a sublime view over the Baztan valley, and witnessing a Basque country wedding complete with bride arriving in an ox-cart preceded by her small sisters playing accordions.

Part of the experience is also to learn about the culture and customs of Basque rural life. At the beginning of the week Georgina gave us all a list of questions about life in Ameztia, the idea being that we would discover the answers during the week. But this is in no sense an exam. It was quite natural to learn while visiting her neighbour Sagrario and tasting her home-made cheese that the worst day of the year for Sagrario is the matanza (the pig-killing) – "So much work, and blood everywhere," sighed Sagrario wearily. You might also be lucky enough to meet an unemployed smuggler, a female lumberjack and cross-country champion, or the local gravedigger and justice of the peace.

I have to say that the reason the Basque country is so green and lush is because it rains a lot. We were lucky and had beautiful sunny weather, with only one brief downpour. But you should come equipped for wet weather and muddy walks! An essential Basque accessory, carried by almost all locals, is a sturdy umbrella that can double as a walking stick.

Pheasant and Bluebells

The view from Georgina's terrace

After the morning walk each day, we either returned to the house for lunch on the terrace with Josean and Pili, or ate out in a bar or restaurant – on our final day we picnicked in beautiful sunshine on Georgina's own terrace with its incomparable view. Then we usually had about an hour free before our two-hour Spanish lesson. Larger groups may be split up, but the five of us were all at a similar level so we had just one class. Alicia is a delightful teacher, using all sorts of different activities to make the lessons enjoyable. During our morning walks she would write down new or unusual words and expressions in her notebook and then go over them at the beginning of the lesson – a really good way of reinforcing our informal learning. This was mixed with more formal grammar, exercises, and games. We could have done homework outside class if we'd had a mind to, but we were enjoying ourselves so much we didn't have time!

After the lessons, we'd saunter down to the large living room and relax with a glass of wine before dinner, cooked by Pili and Josean, who would always sit down with us and chat about any topic under the sun. By the end of the week you really do feel like friends of the family.

Basically I can't recommend these holidays too highly for gregarious slow travelers interested in learning about the culture of a little-known and misunderstood corner of Spain, and improving their language skills. We felt much more confident in our Spanish speaking after our week in an informal, supportive atmosphere where everyone makes mistakes and you don't need to feel embarrassed about your own! If you don’t feel like learning Spanish, Georgina also offers Basque culture and walking holidays without the lessons. The landscape, the culture, the language, the people ... I have left a little bit of my heart in the Basque country, and will certainly be back.

Veronica Yuill lives in southern France and blogs about food at La Recette du Jour, when not actually cooking or developing websites for clients, most of them in the vacation rental business.

© Veronica Yuill, 2010

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