The Basques are Europe’s inscrutables. Centuries of scientists and scholars have been unable to unravel them. Some say they are Berbers, others that they descend from a small tribe in the Caucasus, but in truth no one has any idea. Their language bears no relation to any other in the world. The 19th-century abbot and scholar Pierre Diharce de Bidassouet declared it ‘the original language spoken by the Creator’. Instead of football pitches, villages have frontons, where they play pelota and the violently quick jai alai with a hook-shaped basket worn on the hand that can hurl a ball faster than 180 miles per hour. The Catholicism in areas surrounding the Basque region is replete with blinding gold-leaf altar pieces and rose-strewn virgins while here, according to literary critic VS Pritchett, it is so unadorned as to be almost Protestant. The Basques have no direct word for God, nor did they create kings, the early tribes having had juantxos, or landowners, instead. It is likely that they have been in their wooded corner of the Pyrenees since the Cro-Magnons displaced the Neanderthals, never finally subjugated by Romans, Moors, Charlemagne, Franco or anyone else. If occupied, they have never been assimilated.
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