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Bells to men
A man being dressed as a joaldunak for the Ituren carnival
I would say the Basques were like the Welsh, except that Welsh nationalism rarely turns violent and nor do Welsh schoolchildren feel so different from their neighbours that they speak of "going on holiday in Britain".
Basque schoolkids do say that, though (or rather the equivalent). Most of the Basque Country has been officially Spanish for centuries but Michel, a Basque primary school teacher, told me his pupils still come back from break saying: "I've been on holiday in Spain!"
Outsiders perhaps know the Basque Country best through the doings of Eta, the underground separatist group that for several decades has been killing mainly representatives of the Spanish state, in response, it says, to violence done by the state to Basques. What far fewer people are familiar with is what Eta claims to be protecting, which is the ancient and extraordinary thing that is Basque culture.
Gallery: more images of Basque life
Maika, female wood-chopping champion of Navarre
For one thing, the Basque language - Euskara - is almost certainly the oldest in Europe. It seems to have changed little, because spoken by such a contained group, for at least 3,000 years. It may even be a version of the language spoken by the first, Cro-Magnon Europeans, for it is from these indigenous inhabitants of the continent that the Basques - typically squat and broad-shouldered, like those early humans - claim to be directly descended.
The Basques sound like an exclusive group, even fiercely so, and therefore an unlikely one for a stranger - particularly a young, single, English woman - to choose to live among. Yet that is exactly what, 10 years or so ago, Georgina, our host in the Basque Country, did.
Now, complete with a five-year-old, Basque-spouting daughter born of a relationship with a local miller, Georgina has paying guests to stay in a restored farmhouse in these Pyrenean foothills in the far north of Spain. With the help of local friends such as Maika, five-foot-nothing female wood-chopping champion of Navarre, and Koikili, ex-smuggler and now skilled raconteur, she immerses the curious traveller deep in Basque culture in a hands-on way that is leagues removed from your average slick but superficial regional tour.
Gallery: more images of Basque life
A joaldunak at the Ituren carnival
I was in the Basque Country to witness an annual event almost as ancient and mysterious as the Basque language - the glue of Basque culture - itself. Should you wander into the village of Ituren, where I was, or into many of the other settlements in this part of Navarre at carnival time, you could be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled upon a cult of rural transvestites. For the carnival's signature characters, the joaldunaks, are the men of the village dressed up in dainty white petticoats and with pretty multicoloured ribbons falling over their foreheads in a fringe. Completing their costumes are tall, pointy, Ku Klux Klan-like hats, thick sheep's wool jerkins and oversized brass bells ("joaldunak" means simply "bell-wearer" in Basque) tied viciously tightly to their backs.
What this confrontingly weird garb means is, strictly speaking, anyone's guess. The joaldunaks are so old - the ancient Greeks and Romans refer to them - that their origins have been completely forgotten. The gender-bending get-up seems to be about transgression; carnival, after all, is partly about rule-breaking, when all sorts of drunkenness, truth-telling and strange couplings are briefly allowed.
The most convincing explanation, in turn, of that pair of enormous bells dangling from each man, which they parade around the village, ringing them with a curious trotting movement, is that they symbolise, not to put too fine a point on it, testicles. Carnival, let's remember, also ushers in the spring; it is about fertility, and the way the bells are bound so tightly to the men and boys - they used to have to wear them for three days, sleeping on their fronts and eating only chicken broth - suggests a powerful attachment.
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The joaldunaks' bells may symbolise testicles