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Boise’s Basque Block

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Basque Shepherds and Arborglyphs

One of the most idiosyncratic aspects of Idaho, and Boise in particular, is its connection to the Basque Country. Because of geographic and climatic similarities to their homeland, thousands of emigrating Basques chose Idaho as their new home. Their influence remains strong throughout the state, but nowhere is it more celebrated celebrated than in Boise’s Basque Block.

Basque-Block-Boise

A wonderfully-realized mural on Capital Boulevard welcomes visitors into the block. For the uninitiated, the painting works as a visual introduction to the Basques and their history in Idaho. Scenes from the homeland mix with representations of Idahoan pastoral life and even a recreation of Picasso’s Guernica, which depicts the tragic destruction of the important Basque city by Nazi-backed fascists.

The block itself centers on the Basque Heritage Museum and House, both of which we took a tour of. The museum is excellent, with exhibits that throw a light on the Basques, their homeland, language, history and present-day situation. Basques are a fascinating people, thought to be among Europe’s oldest cultures, with a language whose roots can’t be traced to any other. Though its history has been fraught with hardship, the Euskal Herria, as they refer to it, has become one of the most prosperous regions in Spain.

The Basque Boarding House is one of the oldest surviving houses in Boise, owned and run by the same Basque family for decades. It’s remained largely unchanged over the ages, and is now filled with artifacts and furniture dating from the early 1900s. We were given a tour by the museum’s director, Patty Smith, who (despite the very English name) is of Basque heritage and knows practically everything about the culture. She also showed us into the block’s pilota hall, where the fast-moving sport is still frequently played.

Outside the museum and boarding house, there’s a lot more to discover. Public art, like the larger-than-life laikas (Basque farm implements) which crown the entrance to the block. Basque poems and songs inscribed into the sidewalk. And restaurants like Bar Gernika, which serves up traditional fare such as chorizo sandwiches and a delicious lamb grinder.

No visit to Boise is complete without a tour of the Basque Block. The fascinating and surprising connection to the Old World is one of the city’s defining characteristics.

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Basque Cultural Center Boise Idaho – Website

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January 10, 2013 at 9:58 am Comments (3)

The Folklife Fair & Sheepdog Trials

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Learn About The Basque

The day before the parade of sheep occupies downtown Ketchum, the nearby town of Hailey enjoys the focus of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival. The Folklife Fair brings the traditional music of faraway lands into the Sun Valley, along with activities and food. And in a nearby field, the Championship Sheepdog Trials are held.

Trailing-Dogs

I had never before considered that sheepdogs might have their own competition, but why not? These animals are as highly trained in their profession as Michael Phelps is in swimming (though they don’t look as good in a Speedo). A competition to crown the very best sheepdog makes sense. We grabbed our binoculars and joined the surprisingly large crowd who had shown up on the sidelines.

At the end of a huge field, a group of five wild sheep is released. The competing dog is dispatched to retrieve them, in a very specific way. First he has to circle and approach the sheep slowly, “introducing” himself. Then, he has to wrangle the sheep through a couple fences and bring them to the other end of the field. His next task is to separate two sheep from the other three, and then get the whole flock into a cage. The dogs are amazing, especially considering that their trainers have to remain in one spot on the field, issuing commands only with a whistle.

The nearby Folklife Fair was just as entertaining. After gorging ourselves on lamb-burgers and lamb-gyros, we grabbed a seat for a series of performances from around the world. Polish Highlanders were followed by amazing Basque Dancers. There was a bagpipe-toting group of Scottish Highlanders and a Peruvian band rocking out to traditional songs. Stands in the fair were selling clothes made of wool, shearing sheep, and providing information about the shepherding life.

We also attended a “foodie fest” in Ketchum called For the Love of Lamb. Walking from restaurant to restaurant, we joined long lines and sampled dishes of lamb that ranged from the exotic to the familiar. The amount of lamb I consumed during our stay in Sun Valley was probably more than I’d eaten in my entire life combined. And it was all delicious. Lamb, veal, duckling… when you consider it, it’s startling how tasteful and tender baby meat is.

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November 21, 2012 at 10:37 pm Comments (5)

Basque Shepherds and Arborglyphs

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Learn About The Basque Culture

Our first morning in Sun Valley was rather appropriately spent in a sunny valley. We hiked through the Colorado Gulch just outside Hailey and into a grove of Aspen trees which feature arborglyphs: a unique form of graffiti left by Basque shepherds during their lonely days spent on the hills.

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The Basques began emigrating in the 1800s, due to financial troubles back home. The rolling landscape of south-central Idaho suited them, reminiscent of the hills in northern Spain, and they settled in nicely here. The men were honest and the women hard-working, and the newcomers were welcomed with open arms by Idahoans. Another wave of Basques arrived in the mid-20th century, fleeing the brutal anti-Basque policies of Francisco Franco. As a result, Idaho lays claim to America’s strongest population of people of Basque descent.

While in the Sun Valley, we had the opportunity to meet a couple of transplanted Basques, including Alberto Uranga, who came to America in 1968. Back in the Basque country, he had been a tuna fisherman, but in Idaho he was put to work tending sheep. Apparently, that’s just what Idaho believed Basques excelled at. Alberto is fluent in Basque, English and Spanish, and eventually left sheep for finance, founding a retirement investment firm in Boise. After finding out that Jürgen and I are based in Spain, he engaged us in conversation, boasting about the resurgent Real Sociedad soccer team, and bitterly recounting the story of his departure, which had been so rushed and chaotic that he didn’t even have a chance to say goodbye to his father.

Tree Art

During the boring hours, days, and even weeks which they spent in the hills tending sheep, Sun Valley’s Basque shepherds left their mark on the land by carving into the Aspen trees. These markings are called arborglyphs and are now considered an important cultural relic. They take the form of names or phrases, in Basque and English, and sometimes drawings. A house, for instance, which reminded the artist of his home. Or the shapely curves of a buxom lady.

We took a gorgeous hike through Colorado Gulch to find some of the arborglyphs. The Aspen trees were in their autumnal glory, with leaves glowing yellow, and we hiked for about a mile into the hills before encountering some of the tree carvings. Nearby, was a modern-day shepherd’s trailer. The shepherd was nowhere to be found, out tending his flock, so we chanced a peek through the windows of his trailer. Very simple, just a bed, some canned food and a few empty soda cans. Nowadays, I suppose shepherds have cellphones to stay entertained and connected, but 50 years ago? I can’t even imagine how lonely it must have been.

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November 15, 2012 at 3:20 am Comments (5)

The Trailing of the Sheep

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It was a beautiful Sunday afternoon. Along with the entire town of Ketchum, we were waiting on Main Street for a parade which was thirty minutes late. Just as I was starting to feel the first pangs of boredom: they were there. Thousands of sheep running, sprinting down the street, bleating and panicked and jumping over each other, trying to escape through the crowd, getting reined in by barking dogs, cheered on by screaming kids, and blessed with holy water by a courageous preacher standing his ground in the middle of the street. And then it was over.

Sheep Blessing

The Trailing of the Sheep Festival has been held in Sun Valley every year since 1997 but its roots are far older than that. This has been sheep land since John Hailey first brought his flock here in the 1860s. Land of the Basques, who were emigrated here in droves to work as herders and never went back home.

The parade of sheep through the center of Ketchum was the culmination of the four-day festival; other events included a Sheep Dog Championship, a Folklife Fair, lamb cooking classes, lamb tastings, sheep photography classes, lectures about sheep, traditional dancing… and did I mention anything about admiring sheep or eating lamb? Because there was a lot of it. We participated in everything, but will focus first on the parade which marked the festival’s end.

Long before the Trailing of the Sheep became an official event and captured Ketchum’s heart, it was something of a nuisance. Festival or not, those sheep still came through town at the end of every summer on the way to their winter feeding grounds. But turning it into a celebration made all the difference in public opinion. Where homeowners once grumbled about trampled flowerbeds and streets smeared with sheep poop, now they cock their heads nostalgically to the side and congratulate each other on their shared heritage.

2012-Trailing-Of-The-Sheep

On their way into town for this year’s parade, the sheep had ended up on the wrong trail, delaying their appearance for about 30 minutes. So the rest of the parade walked very slowly through town — a group of girl scouts, then traditionally-dressed Peruvians, who have replaced the Basques as the region’s imported shepherds du jour. It would have been dull, if not for the parade’s Master of Ceremony, who kept the jokes coming at a rapid-fire pace, some of them hilariously off-color for such a community-oriented event. I mentioned to Jürgen that the MC must have been a stand-up before this gig, and a woman standing behind us confirmed that he was.

Eventually, the sheep found the right path and came storming through Ketchum. It was over almost before it began, but the brief minutes that they were running past us were exhilarating. Sheep are skittish by nature, and running through a relatively narrow corridor of people had them in full-on panic mode. A priest was standing in the center of the Wool Storm, blessing the terrified creatures with holy water.

Our day ended in a field just south of Ketchum, where the weary sheep were finally allowed to rest under the ever-watchful gaze of their Pyrenees guard dogs. They would sleep here before continuing their southward journey on the next day. Different groups began arriving to the field; a Basque Dancing troupe from Boise, Polish Sheep Herders from Chicago, the ranchers and their friends. It was a surreal end to a strange and wonderful festival.

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November 13, 2012 at 6:51 pm Comments (3)

The Western Idaho Fair

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With a history stretching back to 1897, the Western Idaho Fair is one of the state’s biggest annual celebrations. Concerts, competitions, rides, games, crazy food and an overabundance of stinking, dusty farm animals occupy the large fairground for a week on the northern end of Boise. We couldn’t resist checking it out, and showed up on the fair’s final day.

Bending Over

We started at a horse show, which we hoped might involve trick riding or barrel racing. But it was more like the Westminster Dog Show for horses. Riders simply walked their steeds around in a circle while a panel of experts them on… something. Their gait? Musculature? I have no idea and apparently wouldn’t make a good horse judge, seeing as how my favorites finished dependably in last place.

The entertainment factor picked up considerably at the next event: the Mountain Boarding Big Air Show. Three extreme dudes put on a death-defying performance, hurtling down a steep ramp and leaping over a truck. We had missed the fair’s concerts earlier in the week, including Styx and Weird Al Yankovich, but this was a decent consolation prize. And I needed it! Because after realizing that we’d lost the opportunity to see Weird Al live, I was practically inconsolable.

We headed deeper into the fair, past stands selling Idaho Tater-Dogs (hot dogs shoved into potatoes) and wound up at a petting zoo. A wide variety of creatures were on-hand, from baby pigs to the giant Brazilian Zebu. I’m not much of an animal-toucher, but enjoy petting zoos because there’s nothing better than watching a toddler with a cup full of food pellets get too close to the goat cage. Curiosity, bravery, glee, terror, anger and disappointment, all in the span of about five seconds.

A giant exhibition hall in the middle of the fairgrounds held the arts and crafts competitions, with photographs, pumpkins and quilts joining ceramics and floral arrangements. And we made sure to tour the various animal halls, where I saw what must be the world’s largest rabbit, and tried to figure out the qualities that make for a blue-ribbon chicken.

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August 31, 2012 at 6:13 pm Comments (0)