The Basque nation of Spain and France remain one of the most mysterious peoples of Europe. Their language, which is famously difficult to learn, is not related to any known language in Europe or anywhere else for that matter. They remain fiercely independent after centuries of living in the north of the Iberian Peninsula and just over the border in France. It is only in recent years that the violent Basque separatist movement, led by the notorious ETA terrorist organization, appears to have been quelled (for now).
Basques are a people who also pride themselves on their maritime skills, mining, metallurgy and the fashioning of weapons. The port of Bilbao, for instance, is the source of the name of 'bilbo': a style of sword favored by the English in medieval times that was exported to the world from the Basque Country. Also notable among Basques is their tradition of fishing and whaling. They supplied salt cod (which in Spanish is 'bacalao' and is a word of Basque origin) to the world. Much of this came from the seas off the Atlantic coast of Canada, leading some to theorize that Basques may have made it to the New World before Christopher Columbus. They were also notable for whaling.
The arduous occupations of sailing, mining, and smithing also led to strenuous forms of sports among the Basques. The best known is 'jai alai," a Basque term that may be one of the only words from that language known to speakers of English. Jai alai, which is Spanish is also known as "fronton," is played regularly in Miami among Cuban and Spanish expatriates. Grasping curved baskets strapped to their forearms, the players of jai alai hurl hard rubber balls at rocket-like speed against the walls of indoor courts as gamblers bet on the outcome. Pity the player who gets hit by a jai alai ball.
Other sports among the Basques include the lifting of gigantic stone spheres or blocks, as well as the mad chopping of wooden trunks with massive, razor-sharp axes. The manly feats of Basques would impress even Scots who are world famous for tossing telephone poles and cannonballs on chains just for fun. But the Basques don't sit still. Modernization has come to the Basque Country as new forms of strenuous competition have come to the fore. In a recent video recorded in Spain, two keen competitors wielding axes are seen chopping through automobiles. This Spanish Basque form of a demolition derby is wild, but all in a day for proud Basques who just can't say no to a challenge.
The Basques gave the world not only navigators such as, Andrés de Urdaneta, Martín de Bertendona, Domingo de Bonechea, Cosme Damián Churruca, Juan Sebastián Elcano (who was the first to circumnavigate the world), Juan de Garay, Antonio Gaztañeta, Francisco de Argañaraz y Murguía, Ignacio María de Álava, Blas de Lezo, Miguel López de Legazpi, José de Mazarredo, and Antonio de Oquendo, they also gave birth to the philosopher Miguel de Unamuno and Íñigo de Loyola. The latter, who became known to the English-speaking world as Ignatius of Loyola, was a daring nobleman who as a young man battled in the wars to free Spain from French control. He managed to survive an injury that would have flattened ordinary men when a cannon ball broke one leg and nearly took off the other. Loyola convalesced in pain for months and was subjected to several rudimentary surgeries to save his injured leg. The experience brought about a conversion in Loyola, who had hitherto then had dedicated his life to "a vainglorious desire for fame," would later found the Company of Jesus -- the Jesuits -- whose members have turned the former Íñigo's martial prowess and Basque verve into service to God and man.