Monthly Archives: December 2013

From a People Old as Time: Inside the Musee Basque

23 December 2013

The Basques are the most ancient people in Europe; their language still unrelated to all others.

The Basques are the most ancient people in Europe; their language unrelated to all others.

Housed in the Maison Dagourette, a quayside mansion in the fervently Basque district of Petit Bayonne in southwestern France, the Musee Basque has become one of the finest ethnographic museums in the world.

The museum houses a variety of collections—including special rooms on the history of Bayonne and its connections to the sea. Bayonne is the cultural and commercial center of the French Basque region. Set on a pair of rivers just inland from the Atlantic, Bayonne has long been home to piratical and legitimate sea trade. Evidence of both endeavors is amply provided in the Musée Basque. Besides scale models of the city in 1805 and numerous ship artifacts (both miniature and full-size), the Bayonne History section utilizes video to great effect—at certain locations the visitor watches a soundless screen that shifts from scenes of the present to those of the past and even blends the two to evoke the passage of time and the endurance—or obliteration—of landmarks and lifestyles.

But it is beyond these, in the Basque culture rooms, that the museum really shines. One section, organized around the almost-mystical Basque concept of exte, or “home,” walks the visitor inside the house gates and down under heavy wood-beamed ceilings through the rooms and furniture that typify the Basques. Distant music plays; a storyteller’s voice recites hearthside tales . . . It might almost be time for supper around one of the great carved wooden tables.

There are also key cultural accoutrements on display, cleverly lit and majestically displayed—strange musical instruments, ceremonial costumes, collections of the walking/sword sticks called makhilas which are family heirlooms. It is said that a Basque would no more part with his makhila than he would sell his mother.

Depending on one’s interest, there are many other sections in the museum to explore as well: farming, maritime activity, mourning in the Basque country, the role of the Separdic Jewish community in Bayonne life.

One skylit room features a collection of flat stone tomb markers, often incised with symbols of the Christian era or the peculiarly Basque laubura, which looks something like a wavy cross with the wooden heads of golf clubs attached to each end.

The traditional laubura design is woven into this ubiquitous Basque scarf on sale in the gift shop.

The traditional laubura design is woven into this ubiquitous Basque scarf.

If your feet tire, sit down and watch the slide shows and videos of traditional village dances. What is most astonishing about them is the traditional festival clothing and dance styles of the men. Hulking fishermen and shepherds prance and mince with intricate foot patterns while wearing frilly tutu-like skirts, wild hats and tights. There is one especially notable figure—an apparently standard man-horse costume which appears frequently—where the participant appears to be wearing a wide oval lampshade around his waist and a very unfortunately-placed skinny wooden horse head sticking out of the front from his groin.

Sports fans will gravitate towards the pelota wing. Here, the Basque love of the game—or games, really, as pelota has at least a dozen variants—is displayed in paintings, sculpture, and artifacts. Even to a non-participant, the pelota area resonates with cultural identity. Some of the paintings feature individual players—often pre-20th century, including some with hair down to the middle of their back and a priest in full cassock. Other paintings are of village scenes such as a procession from the church, or a wedding, or farmers at harvest. In all these communal scenes there are games of pelota going on in the background, like an eternal backdrop to the everyday.


The artifacts in the Musee Basque dwell heavily on traditional Basque life, like this exquisite wrought-iron gateway that honors the sport of pelota.

The artifacts in the Musee Basque dwell heavily on traditional Basque life, like this exquisite wrought-iron gateway that honors the sport of pelota.

The feel is akin to that of the Baseball Hall of Fame. This sensation is heightened by the game-tested artifacts. Blackened balls (slightly smaller than a baseball, but with the same raised seams and leather covers) are inscribed “Ainhoa 50, Bilbao 23, 1888 Border Championship,” and the like. The development of the lachua (a leather scooped-shaped glove which is worn on one arm), is traced from crude calf-skin mitts, to tightly woven rawhide, from flat to curved, and on up to examples of lightweight metal mesh design. Scoreboards, softball-sized balls, an entire career’s collection of lachua belonging to one of pelota’s famous early 20th century players . . . the Hall of Fame motif rolls on.

Whether in sports or celebrations, music or art, the museum makes its point: We are Basques. These—the ballgames, the costumes, the cozy hearth of home—are what bind us together. We are too old a people to ever lose our way.


Hiking the Mississippi River Road

11 December 2013

Saint Paul is first and foremost a river town. The Mississippi makes a great S curve through the western and southern stretches, isolating the West Side on its bluff and clutching the rest of the city in its sinuous curl. From our house, walking four miles in any of three directions (west, south or east) brings you to the river banks.

Yes, long stretches of those banks are shared with Minneapolis, but the enduring Twin Cities rivalry compels me to thumb my nose in that direction. Thus, for our purposes, the first evidence of civilization along the banks comes in the form of a sign: “SAINT PAUL/the Capital City/Desnoyer Park.” As we cross from Mill City to Capital City, another sign, embedded in a cut limestone wall, reads grandiloquently “Mississippi River Boulevard Parkway, Saint Paul, Minnesota.” To me, it’ll always be East River Road.

I looked back one final time at the bleak landscape behind me—the sterile towers, the fug of grain still clinging to the old mill sites, the sad diminished status of a city that was not the capital (yes, Minneapolis, I’m looking at you)—then turned and strode forward, keeping to the heights above the mighty river. Below was a hidden pathway along the river flats to Meeker Island, but this would end before the Marshall Avenue bridge. My destination lay far beyond.

Away from the river, an imposing string of stone houses—Georgian, Tudor, some Spanish touches—drowsed behind picture windows. Below on the right the river swooped beneath the line of trees that edge the bluff. Stretches of black iron fence outlined a decorative border and wooden benches set away from the path were aimed towards chosen views; home to amiable dalliances and half-dozing reminiscences. A memorial tablet here, a dip under the bridge there, and I was onto a long, rising stretch towards the Victorian mansions of Summit Avenue.

The hiker’s experience depends on weather and time of year. On fine weekends in summer, the path is thick with baby strollers, joggers, bikers and random sun-struck visitors being promenaded by hosts intent on correcting their flyover misconceptions. Pick a weekday at twilight, and the winding stones offer a day’s-end retreat for locals, grabbing an evening stroll before dinner. In December, the trees have been stripped bare, dark against the greying sky, and there’s a whip to the air. Far below the ice-chunked river still moves, but not for long. Only the occasional fresh air fiend or die-hard runner passes, bundled against the wind.

. . . Later, after circumventing the deep ravine west of Cretin Avenue, moving at cross purposes to the silent troops of University of St. Thomas students texting their way to class, I plunged on again, passing a beacon in the shape of a stone cross at the end of Summit Avenue, set on a promontory looking west across the river. I was in full stride now, with the pavement slapping the bottom of my boots, and the line of trees muting the sunlight slanting across my path.

Others had joined my perambulations—dog owners, ancient sun seekers, pairs of power walkers content to flail their arms high and exercise their lungs. Harsh Russian consonants came from an old couple seated on a park bench. Below us on the river, a barge moved downstream.

St. Mary’s Chapel and the St. Paul Seminary buildings fell away on my left. Daylight was fading. My path bent and curved along the bluffs. Over another ravine; past another memorial, this one recalling a drive-by shooting whose impact I remembered sadly: “Just a kid growing up.” South of St. Clair I passed the Temple of Aaron, with silent statues remembering lost loved ones set in the parkland opposite.

The road, the river, the path—all began to wind more and more. At Highland Parkway urban reality imposed itself again, in the form of the misplaced 740 Tower, the Ford Parkway bridge and, just beyond it, the empty remains of the now-shuttered Ford Plant. Not far beyond it is an overlook, and around a deep U-bowl ravine, the first of two access roads down to the legendary Hidden Falls.

Here we shall halt, where hikers face a vital decision: stay along the bluff all the way to Prior, where the second Hidden Falls access road descends opposite the Korean-congregant St. Andrew Kim Catholic Church, or face the fact that it’s the river’s edge one wants, and drop down immediately? That upper stretch has some of the highest bluff views available, and an almost palpable quiet, deep into the far reaches of Highland Park. But if it’s sanctuary one wants, better to descend to the river’s edge and double back north to Hidden Falls, or onwards, south and east past the Marina and into the watery marshes of Crosby Park and its cross-hatched forest trails.

Ah, but what of the rumors of a fort? Another river? Or even a long, bending watery curl that leads on to mighty bridges and landscapes heretofore un-described? Might the marble palace of the Central Library truly be accessed from the river side? It will take another journey to find out. . . .

The High Bridge links the West Side with the rest of St. Paul.

The High Bridge links the West Side with the rest of St. Paul.

Despite repeated attempts, I have never completed a river hike to the end of Saint Paul, though I have reached the end of the blue metal railing that extends east from downtown and stood gazing upon the glowing spires of the water treatment plant below Mounds Park.