"ÇA FAIT CHIER!" yells one of the four pelota players who are currently running around the court like madmen. It's a crude but common French expression of frustration that roughly translates as "makes me shit!". You get the general picture. He's annoyed. And so he should be. That's the third ball in a row that he's failed to return.
The four men are halfway through a game of doubles at the trinquet de Saint-André, an indoor Basque pelota court in the French city of Bayonne. Armed with wooden bats, they take turns at striking the hard rubber ball against the front wall, groaning or exulting, depending on the outcome of each point. The court, known as a fronton, is enclosed on all sides, with a sloped roof hanging halfway down the left-hand wall. We, the spectators, sit behind an open gap in the rear wall. If you've ever seen a real tennis court (that old-fashioned sport that Henry VIII used to play), it's almost identical, but without the net.
This is just one of a score of pelota variants played throughout France's Basque Country. Patxi Tambourindeguy is a professional player in another of these variants called cesta punta. As well as competing for France in his national team, he teaches the sport through his company Ona Pilota, and offers people visits round his workshop, which is where he manufactures the chistera baskets and balls that he and his teammates use.
"Basque pelota is still really popular in the French Basque Country, and each village has its own municipal fronton," he says. "I'm sure older people will tell you the sport is less popular than it used to be… and that's true. All the same, I know very few people living in the region who don't play at least one of the many varieties of pelota, either competitively or for fun. You only have to look at the bookings at the trinquets: on most days after 6pm, it's practically impossible to find a spare slot to play."
Tambourindeguy insists pelota is a cornerstone of Basque culture. "It plays an integral part in the history of our people," he says. "It's still fairly popular among young people, even if it's true that it's no longer the number one sport played across the region. It's obvious that Basque pelota has lost a lot of its glory in the French Basque Country due to the rise of other sports such as rugby and surfing. But little by little, the promotion of cesta punta through the media – especially on the Canal Plus sports channels – has created momentum for the sport's future."
In years past pelota matches would draw crowds of hundreds, sometimes thousands. But its popularity has since waned. The Fédération Française de Pelote Basque, based in Bayonne, claims that nowadays there are 310 clubs across all of France, and more than 20,000 licensed players.
This is, of course, small fry compared to football and rugby, but the tourists absolutely love it. It's one of those local traditions that make you feel like you're really getting under the skin of the place.
the revival of basque language in schools and publishing shows a region flexing its cultural muscles
The Basque region straddles the French-Spanish border, at the western edge of the Pyrenees. While the Spanish side enjoys a strong Basque identity, with its own language, parliament and traditions, the French side (part of the French department Pyrénées-Atlantiques) is much less distinct.
Right now there seem to be the stirrings of a cultural revival, however. In the old Roman garrison town of Bayonne, in the surfing mecca of Biarritz, in the family resort of Saint-Jean-de-Luz, and especially throughout the many small towns and villages of French Basque Country's three provinces (Labourd, Basse-Navarre and Soule), Basque traditions are making a comeback. Some of them, like the improvised street singing, the traditional dancing, or the red and white clothing everyone dons for the annual Basque festival, are merely tokenistic. Others, like the revival of the Basque language through schools, broadcasting and publishing, are the signs of an entire region flexing its cultural muscles and doing its utmost not to drown in mainstream French culture.
According to a recent survey by the Basque Language Public Office (the Euskararen Erakunde Publikoa), only a fifth of people in the French Basque Country speak the lingo, and among those only 16% have it as their first language.
Not surprising really when you consider what an odd language it is. Using lots of Ks, Zs and Xs, it sounds more like a Central Asian tongue than something you'd hear on the Atlantic coast. Some scholars have even suggested links to Chechen or Georgian. In fact, it's the only tongue in Western Europe that isn't classified as Indo-European. While theories abound as to its origins, none have been proven. It really is a linguistic anomaly – a totally isolated language.
Linguistic isolation may explain why Basque speakers (on both sides of the France-Spain border) often feel culturally detached from the mainstream French and Spanish cultures surrounding them. They feel politically detached, too. In Spain's Basque region, this was until recently manifested through the armed struggle and terrorist bombings that were perpetrated by the now disarmed ETA (Euskadi Ta Askatasuna). Between 1968 and 2010, ETA terrorists killed some 820 people.
The French side of the border has its terrorists, too, but fortunately they don't resort to taking lives, opting instead to destroy property. Known as Irrintzi, they scaled down their operations in 2007 and have been fairly quiet since then. During their heyday, however, they knew how to light a fuse or two, famously bombing the Bayonne summer house of the French Interior Minister in 2006, and forcing out celebrity chef Alain Ducasse by repeatedly bombing his Biarritz restaurant. They were also quite partial to blowing up the odd political building, or railway line – and even occasionally a tourism office.
Irrintzi's main aims were to bring an end to what they called "ill thought and badly managed tourism" in France's Basque Country, which they believed brought little benefit to the locals in the area and drove the property prices up well beyond their means. Their rallying cry was "Gora Euskal herria askatuta!" (which translates to "The Basque Country is not for sale!").
Separatism on the French side of the border was never much more than a minor political force. Yes, in certain areas of the region, and especially in Bayonne's poorer quarters, you still see separatist graffiti daubed in Basque on the walls of some buildings. But the political will for separation from the French state never expanded beyond just a few hard-core pockets.
Much more popular is the (admittedly rather Disneyfied) idea of Basque culture. The street dancing, for example, that has tourists reaching for their camera phones; or traditional cuisine such as Bayonne ham and chocolate, and piment d'Espelette pepper.
Nowhere is this Disneyfication more obvious than with the annual Fêtes de Bayonne, which take place over five days at the height of summer. Close to a million visitors, all dressed in white clothing with red neckerchiefs and belts, descend upon Bayonne with the mutual aim of partying hard and drinking it dry. Featuring a running of the bulls (like in Pamplona, only on a smaller scale, and with female cows whose horns have been wrapped in rags to prevent goring), it's one of the biggest festivals in Europe. Once the sun goes down, and the alcohol increases its flow, the party gets raucous. (This summer's Fêtes de Bayonne runs from 25 to 29 July.)
close to a million visitors descend upon bayonne with the aim of drinking the town dry
Every year, thousands of members of the French Basque diaspora – regardless of which far corner of the globe they might have been flung to – make it their duty to travel to the Fêtes de Bayonne. Let's be honest, the vast majority of them are plastic Basques. Generations of separation from their ancestors' culture, coupled with an inability to say much more than merely a smattering of words in the language, make their patriotism tokenistic.
A more genuine example of Bayonne's Basque culture can be found on Rue Vieille Boucherie. Here, at number 37, behind a scruffy and nondescript shop window, if you knock loudly enough you might rouse an old wood-worker called Gerard Leoncini. Leoncini's carpentry skills are reserved for one special purpose: the manufacture of traditional walking sticks called makilas. These strong, thin wooden sticks have a screw-on metal base, beneath which is a hidden weapon – a sharp metal spike used to goad animals and, in times past, protect shepherds from wolves. Leoncini charges a small fortune for his makilas, still hand-made to order in the same way they have been for centuries.
One place you'll find plenty of makilas being used for exactly what they're designed for is in the interior of the French Basque Country. Here, amid the rugged hills, the valleys and the slopes of the Pyrénées-Atlantiques, you might spot shepherds tending their flocks, armed with makilas. If you're really lucky you might even hear them conversing in Basque.
Dominating this interior is a mountain called La Rhune. Not far from the village of Sare, it straddles the border between France and Spain, and holds a sacred place in Basque mythology. Until the 1700s, local villages hired a monk to live on the summit, where he guarded the region from evil witches.
Nowadays the summit is just inside French territory. If you're so inclined, you can hike the 905 metres to the top or, in summer, hitch a ride up in Le Petit Train de la Rhune. From the peak, you gaze south into Spain and north into France, and on a clear day you can see Biarritz, Bayonne and Saint-Jean-de-Luz. With the help of binoculars you may even spot surfers dotting the waves. This spectacular view is pretty much all of the Basque Country stretched out before you. If ETA and Irrintzi had succeeded in their armed struggle, none of this would be French or Spanish territory at all. It would be a completely separate nation.