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The Basque people are the oldest traceable ethnic group in Europe. Their language, Euskera (also spelled Euskara, Uskara, or Eskuara, depending on the dialect), predates any of the commonly spoken Romance languages; its origins, like those of the Basque race itself, are lost in obscurity. There are many competing theories. One is that the Basques are descended from the original Iberians, who lived in Spain before the arrival of the Celts some 3,500 years ago. Conqueror after conqueror, Roman to Visigoth to Moor, may have driven these people into the Pyrenees, where they stayed and carved out a life for themselves -- filled with tradition and customs practiced to this day.

The region is called Euskadi, which in Basque means "collection of Basques." In a very narrow sense it refers to three provinces of Spain: Guipúzcoa (whose capital, San Sebastián, the number-one sightseeing destination in Euskadi, features La Concha, one of Spain's best-loved stretches of sand); Viscaya (whose capital is the industrial city of Bilbao); and Alava (with its capital at Vitoria). But to Basque nationalists who dream of forging a new nation that will one day unite all the Basque lands, Euskadi also refers to the northern part of Navarre and three provinces in France, including the famed resort of Biarritz.

The three Spanish Basque provinces occupy the eastern part of the Cantabrian Mountains, between the Pyrenees and the valley of the Nervión. They maintained a large degree of independence until the 19th century, when they finally gave in to control from Castile, which continued to recognize their ancient rights and privileges until 1876.

Geographically, the Basque country straddles the western foothills of the Pyrenees, so the Basque people live in both France and Spain -- but mostly in the latter. During the Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Basques were on the Republican side defeated by Franco. Oppression during the Franco years has led to deep-seated resentment against the policies of Madrid. The Basque separatist movement, ETA (Euskadi ta Askatasuna, or Basque Nation and Liberty) and the French organization Enbata (Ocean Wind) engaged unsuccessfully in guerrilla activity in 1968 to secure a united Basque state.

Many Basque nationalists still fervently wish that the Basque people could be united into one autonomous state instead of being divided between France and Spain.

The riddle of the Basque language has puzzled linguists and ethnologists for years; its grammar, syntax, and vocabulary are unrelated to those of any other European language. Although on the wane since the beginning of this century, the Basque language is now enjoying a modest renaissance; it's taught in schools, and autonomous TV stations in the region broadcast in the language.

Basques wear a boina, a beret of red, blue, or white wool as a badge of pride and a political statement. You may see nationalist graffiti as you travel, slogans such as EUSKADI TA ASKATASUNA (Basque Nation and Liberty). Although the separatist movement is still simmering, you'll find most of the people friendly and welcoming. Politics rarely intrude on vacationers in this beautiful corner of Spain.