The Scots toss their cabers, the Japanese sumo-wrestle, but to exercise mind and body, the Basques lift huge stones they find lying around their rugged and beautiful countryside. Or throw axes. Or chop wood. Maybe they do it to let off steam — no honestly, Love, I was so angry I could have lifted a large stone up and down repeatedly in front of a crowd.
Now, the Basques are the friendliest people you could meet, I swear, but most of them also look dangerously healthy and tough. Hey, some of the thirteen-year olds around here I would give a wide berth to, just in case, and there are gangs of wiry, sport-crazy pensioners running along the promenade opposite the Guggenheim Museum you wouldn’t mess with either.
Primitive fun, this stone-lifting and wood-chopping, dating back to the days when the Basque homeland was a tough place of mountain, sea, wood, stone and metal. Nature’s blessings were all taken and incorporated into daily activities of quarrying, stonemasonry, forestry, fishing, iron and steel production, except that the Basques went that little bit further, and began using the natural surroundings to make their own fun, as your parents might say about the 1930s. One of the Basques’ favourite pastimes, too, either alone, with friends or as part of a school trip or whatever, is a mountain excursion, which kind of brings all this wood-stone-nature stuff together all in one.
Stone-lifting is one of the many fascinating, extremely visual Basque rural sports — they call it herri kirolak in Basque, a wonderful language full of z-s, k-s and tx-s, which resembles Spanish or French not at all. Actually, these days the stones they lift in the village square competitions or as part of a fiesta programme just about anywhere in the country are not the original raw hunks of rock anymore, but have been honed down into more practical-shaped obloids with the weight in kilograms written on them in red. Modern harrijasotzaileak — at more than twice the syllables in Euskera, the Basque language, considerably more of a mouthful than “stone-lifters” – wear cushioned clothing. Another sport involves rolling, dragging and cajoling a heavy ball of stone from the chest, around the shoulders — yes, around the back of the shoulders — and back round to the front again.
Wood-chopping as spectator sport
They squeeze a lot of value out of stone and wood for the purposes of entertainment, the Basques. Wood-chopping race competitors with scary neck and shoulder muscles each climb onto a short log about a foot thick supported on trestles. They then stand on top of the log with their feet slightly apart, and chop down hard on it from left and right to create an initial V in the wood. They then proceed to chop out the centre of the log, stopping occasionally to exchange blunt axes for sharp, until the log finally splits down the middle – five minutes of constant chopping or more. They then move on to the next log, and so on, and the winner is the one who doesn’t collapse or manages to race through the logs first.
Another variety of race pits pairs of log-sawers operating a two-handed saw, who rizz-razz back and forth through a longer log in pretty gruelling competition against another pair, gradually reducing the length of the log by slicing off wood in circular plates. Perhaps the most spectacular of all the woodies, though, are the men who chop wood while actually up the tree, standing parallel to it on wooden slats wedged in grooves gouged into the trees. Not much of a show for tree-huggers all this, but there you go.
The wood is not just for showing strength, however. It can also make music. Txalaparta is also to be found on the fiestas programme, and I am fairly certain this was originally a means of sending messages from valley to valley in days of yore, like smoke signals. The instrument is basically a large waist-high trestle xylophone, except the “keys” are planks of wood, and these are struck by the musicians to produce a haunting, even kind of eerie ‘tockity-tockity-tockity’ wood sound, which varies in pitch in accordance with the various plank thicknesses, and the manner the wood is struck.
These are the best-known and widely televised events, and they certainly pull the crowds in. There are other more localised strength contests in the Basque hinterland, and in the northern reaches where French is also spoken. In these other events, carts are lifted up and down by the handles used to attach to horses, axes are thrown in a distance contest, or big guys muscle it out against each other along a small endurance test walking course, arms at their sides, holding a kind of heavy metal barbell in each fist as they struggle along. Tough stuff, but great spectator sports if you find yourself in Euskadi.